This Week in History

The Battle of Leuthen (4 December)

By the autumn of 1757 Frederick the Great was beset by enemies on all sides. The French had invaded allied territory, an Austrian army 110,000-strong had marched into Silesia and even the Russians had moved against him. Then within a month Frederick transformed his fortunes. At Rossbach on 5 November he smashed the Franco-Imperial army in barely one-and-a-half hours. Force-marching to Silesia he won perhaps his greatest victory exactly a month later, crushing the Austrian army at Leuthen.

Further reading
Campaign 113: Rossbach and Leuthen 1757 examines these two battles and Essential Histories 6: The Seven Years' War reviews the grand strategies of the combatants and examines the differing styles of warfare used in the many campaigns.

The Parchwitz address - Frederick prepares for battle.
An extract from Campaign 116:

When his officers paraded before their King on that Saturday evening they would have been struck by the theatre of it all. Before them stood Frederick with a weariness about him that was exaggerated in his weak voice. These effects were further amplified by his unkempt appearance and shabby uniform. When Frederick spoke it was in German - unusual as he normally spoke French - to ensure his words were clearly understood. There are two versions of the address. That given here was recorded by Prince Ferdinand, and is reputedly the more accurate:

The enemy hold the same entrenched camp of Breslau which my troops defended so honourably. I am marching to attack this position. I have no need to explain my conduct or why I am determined on this measure. I fully recognise the dangers attached to this enterprise, but in my present situation I must conquer or die. If we go under, all is lost. Bear in mind, gentlemen, that we shall be fighting for our glory, the preservation of our homes, and for our wives and children. Those who think as I do can rest assured that, if they are killed, I will look after their families. If anybody prefers to take his leave, he can have it now, but he will cease to have any claim on my benevolence.

With that, the officers returned to their regiments and passed the word down the chain of command, old warriors shook each other by the hand and promised to stand by one another loyally. The younger soldiers swore not to shrink from their task but go straight at the enemy regardless of the opposition.
The Prussians set off from Parchwitz at 4.00 o'clock on the morning of Sunday 4 December in four columns with an advance guard. Frederick rode with the cavalry of the advance guard, the Puttkamer and Zieten Hussars. It was as the advance guard neared the town of Neumarkt, that some peasants in their Sunday best gave Frederick the unbelievable news that the town still contained the enemy's field bakery and his stocks of bread and flour. There were also approximately 1,000 Croats still in the area and engineers were on the heights beyond the town marking out the site for a camp. Frederick immediately sent a regiment of hussars to circle around Neumarkt and on to the Paffendorfer-Berg heights beyond. The other regiment was ordered to capture the field bakery and clear the Croats out of the town.
Having dismounted and acquired some axes from nearby farmhouses, the hussars broke down the gates and set about the startled Croats with their sabres and carbines. The Croats fled in a hurry and finding their escape route across the heights in Prussian hands, scattered in all directions, suffering 120 killed and 569 taken prisoner. When Frederick arrived on the Paffendorfer-Berg heights he was shown where the pegs had been planted to mark out a camp. This lent credence to reports Frederick had received indicating that the Austrians were abandoning their entrenched position outside Breslau.
Frederick returned to Neumarkt and set up his headquarters in a house on a corner of the town square. That evening Frederick learnt that the Austrians had indeed abandoned their trenches, crossed the River Lohe and the Schweidnitzer-Wasser and were encamped in open ground on the near side. Their right wing was resting on the village of Nippern, their left in the area of Gohlau and the centre lay behind the villages of Frobelwitz and Leuthen. Frederick realised that if he attacked early the next day, he would catch the Austrians before they had time to prepare any defences.

The Battle of Fredericksburg (11-13 December)

The Army of the Potomac, under Ambrose Burnside, completely and bloodily failed to dislodge Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia from their strong position along the ridge to the west of the town and the Rappahannock River. A Federal soldier wrote after the event (his poor spelling probably made worse by justified anger), 'The grates Slaughter or the Most Masterly pease of Boothchery that has hapend during the Ware and not a thing accomppehsed.'

Further reading

Essential Histories 4:The American Civil War (1) The war in the East 1861-May 1863 places this defining battle of the first full year of the war in the context of the campaigning in the eastern theatre from First Manassas to Chancellorsville, another terrible setback for the Union.

Campaign 63: Fredericksburg 1862 is a full-length account of the battle.


The Battle of Fredericksburg

An extract from Essential Histories 4

Burnside reached the eastern bank of the Rappahannock river opposite Fredericksburg on 19 November 1862, but he could not cross into the city because necessary pontoon bridges had not arrived. Several days passed, affording Lee time to hurry Longstreet's soldiers to high ground west and south of Fredericksburg. Jackson's corps followed in early December, extending Lee's position along the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg.
Jackson's presence foreclosed the option of a Union crossing downstream, so Burnside settled on several points near the city. On 11 December, engineers oversaw construction of pontoons at two points opposite the city and one about a mile (1.6km) downstream. Confederates resisted the two upper crossings, firing on the bridge builders from the shelter of houses and other structures. Union artillery bombarded the city, driving civilians into the countryside and destroying a number of buildings. A Confederate artillerist described the memorable scene.

 The city, except its steeples, was still veiled in the mist which had settled in the valleys. Above it and in it incessantly showed the round white clouds of bursting shells, and out of its midst there soon rose three or four columns of dense black smoke from houses set on fire by the explosions. The atmosphere was so perfectly calm and still that the smoke rose vertically in great pillars for several hundred feet before spreading outward in black sheets ... the dark blue masses of over 1000,000 infantry in compact columns, and numberless parks of white topped wagons and ambulances massed in orderly ranks, all awaited the completion of the bridges. The earth shook with the thunder of the guns, and, high above all, a thousand feet in the air hung two immense balloons. The scene gave impressive ideas of the disciplined power of a great army, and of the vast resources of the nation which had sent it forth.

One of Longstreet's soldiers in the sunken road described the battle which finally began when the Union army had crossed the river. 'We waited until they got within about 200 yards of us,' he observed, 'and rose to our feet and poured volley after volley into their ranks which told a most deadening effect ... another column and another and still another came to their support. But our well aimed shots were more than they could stand so about night they were compelled to give up the field covered with their dead.'
Burnside took full responsibility for the debacle and received fearful criticism from soldiers and civilians alike. Many in the North also assailed Lincoln as a failed war leader. The seemingly pointless, unimaginative nature of the attacks at Fredericksburg triggered especially bitter reactions. When first informed of what had happened on 13 December, Lincoln told a friend, 'If there is a worse place than Hell, then I am in it'.