This Week in History

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'.