Battle of Fredericksburg

From New World Encyclopedia

Battle of Fredericksburg
Part of the American Civil War
Battle of Fredericksburg 1862 Dec 13.jpg
Battle of Fredericksburg by Kurz and Allison.
Date December 11 – December 15, 1862
Location Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburg, Virginia
Result Confederate victory
United States of America Confederate States of America
Ambrose E. Burnside Robert E. Lee
Army of the Potomac ~114,000 engaged Army of Northern Virginia ~72,500 engaged
12,653 (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, 1,769 captured/missing) 5,377 (608 killed, 4,116 wounded, 653 captured/missing)

The Battle of Fredericksburg, fought in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862, between General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War. The Union Army suffered terrible casualties in futile frontal assaults against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights behind the city, bringing to an early end their campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The Battle of Fredericksburg was a horrific blow for the Union Army. Union casualties were more than double those of the Confederacy. The defeat caused profound depression throughout the North.

Background and Burnside's plan

The battle was the result of an effort by the Union Army to regain the initiative in its struggle against Lee's smaller but more aggressive army. Burnside was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac in November, replacing Major General George B. McClellan. When Burnside took over the command, he grouped the corps in "grand divisions" and appointed Brigadier General Edwin Sumner to command the right grand division and Brigadier General William Franklin the Left Grand Division.

Burnside, in response to prodding from Lincoln and General-in-Chief Major General Henry W. Halleck, planned a late fall offensive; he communicated his plan to Halleck on November 9. The plan relied on quick movement and deceit. He would concentrate his army in a visible fashion near Warrenton, feigning a movement on Culpeper Court House, Orange Court House, or Gordonsville. Then he would rapidly shift his army southeast and cross the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg, hoping that Robert E. Lee would sit still, unclear as to Burnside's intentions, while the Union Army made a rapid movement against Richmond, south along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad from Fredericksburg. Burnside selected this plan because he was concerned that if he were to move directly south from Warrenton, he would be exposed to a flanking attack from Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, whose corps were at that time in the Shenandoah Valley south of Winchester. He also believed that the Orange and Alexandria Railroad would be an inadequate supply line. While Burnside began assembling a supply base at Falmouth, near Fredericksburg, the Lincoln administration entertained a lengthy debate about the wisdom of his plan. Lincoln eventually approved but cautioned him to move with great speed, certainly doubting that Lee would cooperate as Burnside anticipated.

Movement to battle

The Union Army began marching on November 15, and the first elements arrived in Falmouth on November 17. Burnside's plan quickly went awry—he had ordered pontoon bridges to be sent to the front and assembled for his quick crossing of the Rappahannock, but because of administrative bungling, the bridges had not preceded the army. As Sumner arrived, he strongly urged an immediate crossing of the river to scatter the token Confederate force of 500 men in the town and occupying the commanding heights to the west. Burnside began to panic, worried that the increasing autumn rains would make the fording points unusable and that Sumner might be cut off and destroyed. He squandered his initiative and ordered Sumner to wait in Falmouth.

By November 21, Longstreet's Corps had arrived near Fredericksburg, and Jackson's was following rapidly. Lee at first anticipated that he would fight Burnside northwest of Fredericksburg and that it might be necessary to drop back behind the North Anna River. But when he saw how slowly Burnside was moving, he directed all of his army toward Fredericksburg. The first pontoon bridges arrived at Falmouth on November 25, much too late to enable the Army of the Potomac to cross the river without opposition. Burnside still had an opportunity, however, because he was facing only half of Lee's army, not yet dug in, and if he acted quickly, he might be able to attack Confederate General James Longstreet and defeat him before Jackson arrived. Once again he squandered his opportunity. The bridges arrived at the end of the month, and by this time Jackson was present and Longstreet was preparing strong defenses.

Burnside originally planned to cross his army east of Fredericksburg, 10 miles (16 km) downstream, but Confederate General Jubal Early's division arrived there and blocked him. So he decided to cross directly at Fredericksburg. On December 9, he wrote to Halleck, "I think now the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than any other part of the river. ... I'm convinced that a large force of the enemy is now concentrated at Port Royal, its left resting on Fredericksburg, which we hope to turn." In addition to his numerical advantage in troop strength, Burnside also had the advantage of knowing his army could not be attacked effectively. On the other side of the Rappahannock, 220 artillery pieces had been located on the ridge known as Stafford Heights to prevent Lee's army from mounting any major counterattacks.

Lee had great faith in his army, even though he was fairly uncertain of the plans of the opposing commander as late as two days before the Union Army attempted a crossing. He deployed approximately 20,000 men under Longstreet on his left flank, which was anchored on the ridge known as Marye's Heights, just to the west of the city, behind a stone wall at the crest of the ridge. Fearing a crossing downstream, south of the city, he deployed the rest of his men to the south under Jackson. The area was interspersed with hills, another excellent defensive position.

Union engineers began to assemble six pontoon bridges on the morning of December 11, two just north of the town center, a third on the southern end of town, and three close to the south, near the confluence of the Rappahannock and Deep Run. They came under punishing sniper fire, primarily from the Mississippi brigade of Confederate General William Barksdale. Eventually his subordinates convinced Burnside to send landing parties over in the boats that evening to secure a small beachhead and roust the snipers. The Confederate army chose not to resist the landings vigorously because of the covering Union artillery, but some of the first urban combat of the war occurred as buildings were cleared by infantry and by artillery fire from across the river. Union gunners sent more than 5,000 shells against the town and the ridges to the west. After the bridges were in place, Burnside's men looted the city with a fury that enraged Lee, who compared their depredations with those of the ancient Vandals. The destruction also angered Lee's men, many of whom were native Virginians. Over the course of December 11 to December 12, Burnside's men deployed outside the city and prepared to attack Lee's army.


Overview of the battle, December 13, 1862
Sumner's assault, 1:00 p.m., December 13, 1862
Hooker's assault, 3:30 p.m., December 13, 1862

The battle opened south of the city at 8:30 a.m. on December 13, when Franklin sent two divisions from the Left Grand Division into a previously unseen gap in Jackson's defenses on the right. By 10:00 a.m., a thick fog began to lift, and the initially sluggish movements picked up speed. Brigadier General Meade's division formed the main attack, supported by the divisions of Generals Doubleday and Gibbon. The attack was stalled by the Virginia Horse Artillery under Major John Pelham, and an artillery duel between Pelham's two cannons (a 12-pound brass Napoleon and a rifled Blakely) and the Union artillery batteries lasted for about an hour. General Lee observed the action and commented about Pelham, "It is glorious to see such courage in one so young." As Meade finally made traction, he ran into Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg's brigade, scattering it. Gregg was shot and mortally wounded; he died two days later.

To Meade's right, Gibbon's attack against the brigades of Brigadier Generals William Dorsey Pender and Edward L. Thomas made good progress, but Meade's and Gibbon's men became separated; by 1:30 p.m., a heavy Confederate counterattack pushed them back. Because of the foggy conditions, Federal artillery could not provide much assistance. The Union men were driven back and chased by the Confederate infantry, raising concerns that they might be trapped at the river. Eventually the divisions of Sickles and Birney were brought up to strengthen the Federal line, and Stonewall Jackson's counterattack ground to a halt. The focus of action moved north to Marye's Heights.

The initial assaults west of Fredericksburg began at 11:00 a.m. as French's division moved along the Plank Road, facing a steep-banked drainage ditch and a wide, open plain of 400 yards, dominated by Confederate infantry and artillery behind a sunken road and stone wall. Earlier, Longstreet had been assured by artillerist Edward Porter Alexander, "A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it." The Union men attacking had to file in columns over two small bridges across the drainage ditch, making them a massed target. Attempts to shift the attack farther to the right failed because of swampy ground. As in the south, Union artillery was prevented by fog from effectively silencing the Confederate guns.

Burnside had anticipated this attack on the right would be merely supportive of his main effort on the left, but Franklin had stalled and resisted entreaties to continue, so Burnside shifted his emphasis. After another division was repulsed with heavy losses, Burnside sent in the divisions of Hancock and Brigadier General Oliver Howard, which met a similar fate.

Six Union divisions had been sent in, generally one brigade at a time, for a total of 16 individual charges, all of which failed, costing them from 6,000 to 8,000 casualties. Watching the carnage from the center of his line, a position now known as Lee's Hill, General Lee was quoted as saying, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." The action on the heights also included the charge of the Irish Brigade, which lost 50 percent of its strength in the battle but advanced further up the heights than any other Union Brigade. Confederate losses at Marye's Heights totaled around 1,200. Thousands of Union soldiers spent the cold December night on the fields leading to the Heights, unable to move or assist the wounded because of Confederate fire.

The armies remained in position throughout the day on December 14, when Burnside briefly considered leading his old IX Corps in one final attack on Marye's Heights, but he reconsidered. That afternoon, Burnside asked Lee for a truce to attend to his wounded, which Lee graciously granted. The next day the Federal forces retreated across the river, and the campaign came to an end.


The casualties sustained by each army showed clearly how disastrous the Union army's tactics were, and Burnside was relieved of command a month later (following the humiliating failure of his "Mud March"). The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, 1,769 captured/missing). Two Union generals were mortally wounded: George D. Bayard and Conrad F. Jackson. The Confederate army lost 5,377 (608 killed, 4,116 wounded, 653 captured/missing), most of them in the early fighting on Jackson's front. Confederate General T. R. R. Cobb was killed.

The South erupted in jubilation over their great victory. The Richmond Examiner described it as a "stunning defeat to the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil." General Lee, normally reserved, was described by the Charleston Mercury as "jubilant, almost off-balance, and seemingly desirous of embracing everyone who calls on him." The newspaper also exclaimed that, "General Lee knows his business and the army has yet known no such word as fail."

Reactions were opposite in the North, and both the Army and President Lincoln came under strong attacks from politicians and the press. The Cincinnati Commercial wrote, "It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day." Senator Zachariah Chandler, a Radical Republican, wrote that, "The President is a weak man, too weak for the occasion, and those fool or traitor generals are wasting time and yet more precious blood in indecisive battles and delays." Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited the White House after a trip to the battlefield. He told the president, "It was not a battle, it was a butchery." Curtin reported that the president was "heart-broken at the recital, and soon reached a state of nervous excitement bordering on insanity." Lincoln himself wrote, "If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it."

Portions of the Fredericksburg battlefield are now preserved as part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Catton, Bruce. Terrible Swift Sword: The Centennial History of the Civil War, Volume 2. Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1963. ISBN 0385026145.
  • Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 9780684849447.
  • Gallagher, Gary W. (ed.). The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. ISBN 9780807821930.
  • Goolrick, William K., and the Editors of Time-Life Books. Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1985. ISBN 9780809447480.
  • Tucker, Spencer C. "First Battle of Fredericksburg" in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History. edited by David S. Heidler, and Jeanne T. Heidler. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 9780393047585.


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