Within the Civil War era exists a certain preconceived image of how wars were fought and how soldiers behaved. There’s this idea of valiant heroism. Who else would have been brave enough to charge across an open field into a storm of bullets? It was a different time, but the mindset of the soldier – in my opinion – hasn’t changed much. We still hear stories of bravery overseas, but within a vastly different context.
Reading about the battle at Fredericksburg has me face-palming and totally awestruck (in a good way) at the acts of men from both armies. Their boldness made me reflect on how we view the individual stories of the soldiers as opposed to the whole picture.
In the fall of 1862, the single bloodiest day in the Civil War came to a close. The wounded and dead were attended to on the battlefield at Sharpsburg, Maryland. Lee’s bold push into Yankee country with troops that weren’t quite ready for the expedition was repulsed by George McClellan, newly appointed (again) to the Army of the Potomac.
Absolutely no one in Washington wanted Little Mac back in the driver’s seat of the Union army. However, President Lincoln wasn’t thinking of the massive egos when he put the man in command of his troops. Lincoln needed a victory, and though McClellan couldn’t give him Richmond back in the summer of that year, he could give the men a huge morale boost which could make their chances for a victory a little less slim. Why did he want this victory? To make a proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation to be exact. A Union victory would help to give his executive order a firm toehold to help cripple the Confederacy. Whether such a move was valid and accomplished what it set out to do is a conversation for another blog. Either way, the victory under McClellan at Sharpsburg made the proclamation easier to digest, and the public audience who were all for emancipation applauded Lincoln for the act.
What did this mean for McClellan? His purpose had been served. And after neglecting to pursue Lee across the Potomac and delaying any further advance into Virginia by November, Lincoln dropped the hammer on the Little Napoleon. Having already told the man who trained up the army from raw volunteers that McClellan’s biggest fault was an excess of caution, Lincoln issued the order to relieve him from command. Who would be taking his place was a man who had already turned down the job twice since the previous year.
Ambrose Burnside, along with the rest of the Army of the Potomac, had been a huge supporter of McClellan. In West Point, they were often called “Mac” and “Burn”, fostering a close friendship that unraveled within the last six months. When Lincoln tried to give the command to Burnside, he emphatically advocated for McClellan instead. This wounded the pride of the latter and wounded the station of the former to some degree, which was visible in where Burnside was situated at the bridge that crossed Antietam Creek.
Fast forward a few months, Burnside is still hesitant to take the command, but says that “he knew he was not fit for so big a command, but he would do his best”. He also might have taken it because he knew that if he didn’t, Joseph Hooker would. Knowing that his old friend had been canned for inaction, he immediately proposed his idea to feint a move toward Culpepper or Gordonsville, then move rapidly toward Fredericksburg instead and move on to take Richmond before Lee had time to know what the Union army was doing. Both General Henry Halleck and Lincoln were skeptic of the plan proposed to them on November 12th, but they accepted it. It was flawed, but it was something. The main objective to it was that it put the capitol of the Confederacy (about 50 miles from Fredericksburg) as the prize, as opposed to the white flag of surrender from Lee himself – which was preferred. This sort of mentality wouldn’t be truly adopted and put into practice until “Unconditional Surrender” Grant was brought in from the western theater in 1864.
Lee, all the while, was watching these developments. He wasn’t fooled completely, and when Burnside made his move toward Fredericksburg, so did the Confederacy. By now, Lee’s army is divided into two corps between James Longstreet and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, both styling themselves as lieutenant generals. Jackson even has a new uniform, tossing aside the old butternut homespun and rumpled cadet cap in exchange for the gift from cavalry commander Jeb Stuart. His soldiers might have teased him for the new “chicken guts” embroidery on his sleeves, but Jackson was eager to get it dirty in a new scrap against the Yankees.
Part of Burnside’s coming downfall might be traced back to mid-November when he proposed this plan of attack through Fredericksburg. The main obstacle in his path was the Rappahannock River, which was about 400 feet wide at the time and completely unfordable. He needed pontoon bridges brought from Berlin, Maryland, but that order took its dear ol’ time in getting fulfilled. They didn’t arrive until the 25th of November.
By this time, Longstreet’s forces had already massed upon the southern heights that overlooked Fredericksburg, which comprised the Confederate left flank. Upon what was called Taylor’s Hill, Marye’s Hill, and Telegraph Hill (the highest point), 35,000 men and artillery units were established in their intended lines of battle. Jackson was ordered up shortly after and took the right flank to the southeast of the town around the area known as Hamilton’s Crossing with 35,000 of his corps. Including cavalry, Lee’s 78,000 effectives were ready with 275 guns trained upon the sloping expanse ahead of them. It wasn’t Lee’s intention at all to prevent Burnside’s impending crossing, nor did he want to shell the town. All artillery fire would be concentrated directly in front of them and though Fredericksburg held a special place in his heart (he spent many days in the town courting his future wife), it would become a casualty of the battle.
Burnside’s three corps were poised at the ready on the opposite side of the river. Edwin Sumner made up the Union right flank, “Fighting Joe” Hooker sat in the middle, and William Franklin headed off Jackson on the left flank. These 121,000 soldiers would be given an intended six bridges to cross the Rappahannock. Three in the town and three that would convey Franklin toward Hamilton’s Crossing on the other side of Deep Run Creek. In the meantime, they – along with a powerful backing of artillery – were situated on Stafford Heights to the north of Fredericksburg. Geographically speaking, this was the best place to be. It was higher than even Telegraph Hill on the south side of the river where the Confederates had taken up.
Opinions about the coming battle were mixed. Lee was ready and crossing his fingers that Burnside would actually make an all-out attack on Longstreet’s corps. Their position, though not perfect given the lay of the land, was far better than the Union could have expected. Along Marye’s Heights was a sunken road that overlooked a stretch of land about 600-700 yards that the Yankees would have to cross before storming the chest-high stone wall where four lines of infantry had fortified their position. They actually dug deeper into the sunken road to make it a perfect shooting gallery. The excess dirt was tossed over the town-side of the wall to create breastworks. Lee had confidence in this place, and knew that if any attack was made, Jackson was also there to support Longstreet if it was absolutely needed. Then, they could reenact the victory at Second Manassas by implementing a savage counterattack down the heights and slam the Union forces against the river.
Burnside, the aggressor in this grand scheme, wasn’t even that confident about it. The delay with the pontoons disheartened him, knowing that it gave the Confederates more time to mass their army on the other side of the river. “I deem it my duty,” he told his superiors, “to say that I cannot make the promise of probable success with the faith that I did when I supposed that all the parts of the plan would be carried out.” Either way, he gave the order down the lines to have his men given sixty rounds of ammunition and three days of cooked rations in preparation for the coming battle.
The Union plan was for Sumner and Hooker to cross into the town, Franklin to do the same but downstream, and work together simultaneously. Franklin would assault Jackson and crumble northward the Confederate right flank while the center and left were busily occupied with Sumner and Hooker. To further throw off the Rebs, Burnside ordered a detachment of engineers to a little place way down river called Skinker’s Neck to create a distraction. They were to chop wood and burn fires in the night, as if the army were planning to cross there instead of intown, which was what Lee was hoping for from the start. He had been waiting for it for weeks already.
On the morning of December 11th, the sound of two artillery discharges alerted the Confederates that the enemy had begun their crossing. Soldiers fled to their lines along Marye’s Heights while a brigade of Mississippi infantry, 1600 strong, led under Brigadier General William Barksdale poured into Fredericksburg itself. By now, the 5,000 citizens of the town had been mostly evacuated. This long delay on Burnside’s part gave them plenty of time to gather their valuables and head for the hills (literally) or take refuge in their cellars. Whether they expected to be shelled later, who knows.
As Union engineers worked to get the pontoons in place long before dawn came, sharpshooters and riflemen used sound to pick their targets. When the Union efforts reached about halfway across the river, Barksdale gave his men the green light to fire. Men working on the pontoons were picked off by the enemy hiding behind brick homes and from obliging rooftops of the town they were trying to invade. The Union soldiers would retreat to the banks when the fire became too heavy for them and creep back onto the pontoons to resume their work, knowing any little sound would alert the Rebs to their location.
It goes without saying that this delayed the Federal crossing and pissed off Burnside. The cannons on Stafford Heights were put to good use. A bombardment of artillery was lobbed into the town to drive out the Mississippians. Over the course of an hour, over 5,000 shots were fired, about seventy or so per minute. Houses were wrecked, cobblestone streets were torn up, and fires broke out that did little to keep the Mississippians from harassing the pontoniers. They were adamant in their work to make the Rappahannock crossing as difficult and as costly as possible. Barksdale sent word to the infuriated Lee, “Tell General Lee that if he wants a bridge of dead Yankees, I can furnish him with one.”
By noon, the bridges were still not fully in place. The suggestion was made that a few regiments cross the river the old fashioned way (in a boat) to contest with the riflemen, since the artillery didn’t have much of an effect. The idea was approved. Two regiments of Massachusetts men and one from Michigan were sent over to begin what is deemed the first instance of urban combat fighting within a war. All of these “M” states went at each other in alleyways, in the streets, trampling through the untouched gardens and smoldering rubble of the town. Snipers picked off who they could from the rooftops while the rest were resorted to duking it out hand-to-hand. Lee gave Barksdale permission to withdraw from this seething chaos, but he declined. His troops did too. It wasn’t until well past sundown when the determined general finally gave his ardent veterans the order to take cover on the heights south of the town. After fifteen hours of fighting the opposition, the town was left to the Yankees.
With all the pontoons now in place after the nuisance was extracted, Burnside moved his troops across the Rappahannock on the morning of December 12th. Once more, Burnside waited. Instead of taking advantage of his new position and assaulting Lee upon the heights, he took his time to assemble his army on the west bank. This gave Jackson’s men, who were still mildly scattered, to draw his forces up closer to the town, right where Franklin would be landing his troops. Thus began a raid of sorts. Yankees went into the empty homes and trashed it for their own purposes. Food and wine were stolen, furniture dismantled or commandeered for their camps, mirrors smashed, portraits slashed, and general havoc ensued. The men did wonder, however, why the Rebs would let them have the town without too big a fuss. One soldier made the astute remark, “They want us to get in. Getting out won’t be quite so smart and easy. You’ll see.”
Two generals on opposite sides were eager to fight by the time the fog rolled in the next morning, December 13th. Union General Franklin told Burnside that they needed to concentrate their main efforts on the Confederate flank, seeing the deeply entrenched position of Longstreet’s men on the heights. He wanted more than half of the army to pound at Jackson’s section of the line, seeing that it was only defended by a railroad embankment. That many troops would certainly demolish the Confederate flank enough to give them the victory. Burnside didn’t take his advice and instead ordered them to keep his whole command (only one corps) in position for a rapid movement southward from the city down the old Richmond Stage Road to seize, if possible, the heights of Hamilton’s Crossing, and keep any lines of retreat open. The biggest difference in the plans was the amount of force implemented.
General Jackson, likewise, asked for permission to attack. He reasoned that if his men surged down the plain ahead of him before the fog lifted, they would be hidden from the guns on Stafford Heights and could send the bluecoats running back across the river. Lee preferred to let Burnside tire himself out on the coming charges and repulses up the heights, again repeating Second Manassas which had worked so well before. Only then, would they charge in the previously mentioned counterstrike.
At about 10am, the Federal guns opened up from Stafford Heights. Confederates answered back with their own guns on the far left flank upon a tall ridge about half an hour later. Fog that once blanketed the battlefield suddenly lifted, revealing Franklin’s coming three-division advance. From left to right, Jackson’s men could clearly count the regiments of Gibbon, Meade, and Doubleday make their way up along with eleven batteries of artillery for support.
What did the Rebs do in response to this first assault? A twenty-four-year-old chief of artillery by the name of John Pelham charged out with only two guns to take on the corps. His guns slammed mercilessly endwise into the blue battle lines, so much that the Yankees thought a full battery was pushing them back. Four Union batteries were called up to give Pelham their undivided attention. One gun, a rifled Blakely, was taken out, along with so many cannoneers that Pelham himself was helping to load and fire the remaining 12-pound brass Napoleon. Jeb Stuart, his commanding officer, gave him the word to fall back, but Pelham refused until he was out of ammunition. The spunky chief of artillery came back to an uproar of cheers for his bravery in the face of the enemy assault. For two hours, he kept up this fire and managed to debilitate Doubleday’s division from making any move upon the field that day.
This might have bought the Confederate’s some time, but Franklin was still coming with his three divisions. When they reached the 800 yard mark, Jackson’s guns finally open-fired to inflict heavy casualties on this side of the battlefield.
Up on Marye’s Heights, even heavier losses were about to be inflicted. At about 11:30am, part of the 2nd Corps under Major General Couch was ordered up to begin the first charge to the Confederate fortified position. Couch sends in “Blinky” French (the man who tried to storm the Sunken Lane at Antietam a few months back) to lead. Besides the obvious challenges of trying to storm up an open stretch of ground to a fortified breastwork, the soldiers would have to cross a drain-off creek that bisected the field. This creek was about six feet deep and it would have been easier if the three bridges that allowed them to cross hadn’t been broken down to a few measly planks. The regiments and companies who would take on General Thomas Cobb and his Georgians waiting at the top, would have to run up single file. They would get some reprieve from a slight dip in the field where the famous Washington Battery couldn’t see them, but the fire they sustained while crossing the creek was nothing compared to what they would face in the last 400 yards. This position was so well enforced that one officer said to Longstreet “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
One brigade at a time had to make the long, deadly charge up the hill to Marye’s Heights. When French’s men failed to reach their objective, General Winfield Scott Hancock made the same attempt. Brigade after brigade made their valiant rush up to Marye’s Heights, but countless fell far before they could claim any substantial ground. A witness to the charges said, “everybody, from the smallest drummer boy on up, seemed to be shouting to the full extent of his capacity.” If there ever was a “Yankee Yell”, it could have been heard on the heights above Fredericksburg.
The Confederates had a good system down. Four lines deep, the front row would fire and then move back to allow the next line, who was ready and loaded, to fire while they reloaded. This staggering, constant volleying was devastating to the marching lines of blue up the field. Longstreet, ever mindful of his men, gave Cobb permission to retire further up the hill where they wouldn’t run the risk of being outflanked. Cobb responded, “Well, if they wait for me to fall back, they will wait a long time.” And they didn’t fall back. Not even when Couch sent in brigadier general Howard to do what French and Hancock hadn’t. Seeing this new wave repulsed back, Old Pete (Longstreet) experienced an upsurge of confidence and said to his commander, “General, if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac in that field to approach me over that same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line.”
The same couldn’t be said for Jackson’s line on the right. Not yet. Franklin with his three divisions of Gibbon, Meade, and Doubleday were initiating their plan to roll up the Confederate right. Gibbon would reach as far as the railroad embankment that Jackson occupied, but was wounded and his division fell back. Meade had better luck and managed to storm not only the railroad ridge, but crossed a thick stretch of bog about 500 yards in width to come sailing toward a gap in the Confederate line. It had been left undefended from the start because they thought the bog served as a defense in itself. They were wrong. The Union fractured this exposed portion of the line, but couldn’t obtain the objective to crumble the flank like Franklin wanted, as Rebs quickly flooded in to plug the hole. Meade’s men were pounded on all sides and forced back beyond the safety of their own artillery. The one division with the fewest troops somehow did what none other could do on the battlefield that day, and suffered dearly for it. More than a third of them were gone.
Back on the Union right at Marye’s Heights, brigadier general Wilcox and Sturgis flooded up to add their support to the assault, but it was to no avail against the 5,000 defending rebels. This complete slaughter of Union troops caused Lee to utter some of the most famous words in military history. “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”
A lull in battle came around 3:30pm, but Burnside didn’t order his men out. In fact, he wanted them to press harder because it was beginning to look like that battery that had been blowing holes in their brigades all afternoon was pulling back. The Union general wanted Sumner and Hooker to throw in more troops and get some batteries into position to hopefully catch the Rebs off guard. What they didn’t know was that the battery was just moving out to be replaced by a fresh battalion with full caissons.
In the midst of these new attacks, Thomas Cobb was shot down by a sharpshooter firing from an upper story window in the town. This, however, couldn’t put a damper on the Georgians who continued to contest with the charging Federals. Griffin’s brigade crossed the river to join the useless effort. Orders were passed along for the Union troops to veer northward. But, just like Meade’s men, this bout encountered marshy ground and had to resume a more direct course to the stone wall as all the brigades had done before. By now, the Confederates were having a fun time of this “game” and egged on the Yankee troops. The closest that the enemy ever came to the wall was perhaps fifty yards before their lines were broken again.
Humphreys was sent in next and were given orders to resist the urge to fire until they had taken the line, as this would waste more time and cause delays. The army had enough delays by now. They made it to about forty yards within the wall, even with the wounded in the field grabbing at their legs to keep them from charging on ahead.
By the time the sun was setting, Burnside was desperate for some good news along his front and ordered Franklin to make another attempt. The subordinate refused, saying that his left flank was in danger of being turned and he needed reinforcements – the ones he wanted from the beginning. Either way, he couldn’t even make an assault because the time of the year was working against them. It was already dark before 5pm. This frustrated Jackson too, who wanted very much to take the offensive, despite the risks.
By 6pm, the carnage came to a stop and only the occasional gun was heard. Beyond belief, Burnside was convinced that if they made one more push, they could take the Confederate line on the following day. No one else agreed. Sumner, who was usually all-for battle glory, along with Hooker who was reputed for loving a good battle as much as the next general, all insisted that Burnside withdraw. Nonplussed by these outcries, he had half a mind to take his old troops and charge the field himself. If he did, he would have seen the absolute devastation.
Convinced that Burnside, too, would make another go at it, Lee told his troops to strengthen their fortifications for the following day. By now, they had seen the effectiveness of earthworks and didn’t jibe the old general with nicknames like “King of Spades”. But, nothing happened on December 14th except for some long-ranged firing from Stafford Heights. All through the day, the wounded remained on that sloping field. Sheets of blue stretched out from the stone wall, a single chorus of groans and cries for help drifting across the expanse before the Confederates.
On the afternoon of the 15th, Burnside sent up a white flag of truce and a request to retrieve the casualties from the field. It was granted, and the surviving Federals came back to gawk at the slaughter. Equally distressing was the mass of looting that had taken place. Confederates who had no coat or shoes to fight the winter cold had hopped the wall to take what they wanted from dead soldiers who wouldn’t need such provisions anymore. Contorted, naked bodies were bloated and darkening as decay began to set in.
That night, a storm swept in and made the Rappahannock swell. The Union army, or what was left of it, retreated across the pontoon bridges over the Rappahannock, its commander finally convinced that he would get no closer to Richmond.
Burnside caught a lot of flak for this defeat. Newspapers and government officials lauded it as a disaster. The piecemeal attack at Marye’s Heights drew special criticism, saying that the brigades were “handed in on toasting forks”. Of course, Burnside was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac and the torch passed on to Joseph Hooker, the man whom he didn’t want to take it in the first place. Troops finally hunkered down in their winter camps and just two weeks after this horrific battle, were celebrating a holiday that proclaimed peace on earth and good will to men.
One Ohio journal said, “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.”
And that brings me to my assessment that the entire battle of Fredericksburg is an example of the kind of heroism and bravery that was capable for both sides. Everything from Barksdale’s Mississippi sharpshooters holding the town until the last possible moment, to Meade’s advance through the boggy ground to break the Confederate line, to Pelham’s daring artillery barrage when he was outnumbered by the Union guns, and by the 7,500 men who fell before Marye’s Heights with the single hope of “just one more push”. Though my studies into the Civil War are just beginning, and I still have a lot to learn of these many great battles, Fredericksburg may continue to ring in my mind for a good long time to come. As it did for the veterans who walked off the field that day. Soldiers on both sides would go on to shout “Fredericksburg!” as a war cry in future battles across Virginia.
Much of the battlefield has been lost to development, but the National Park Service has managed to preserve a portion of Marye’s Heights and what became known as the Slaughter Pen on Jackson’s line. Today, you can visit the park 7 days a week between 9am and 5pm. The visitor center is staffed by knowledgeable battlefield historians who can explain the battle and its devastating outcome for the Union army. It’s also the site of a national military cemetery that you can tour. The original brick wall at Marye’s Heights was dismantled after the battle, but has been recreated for the visiting public to give an idea of how secure the Confederate line was on this side of the battlefield.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Volume 2, Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York City: First Vintage Books, A Random House Publisher, 1963. Print. (pg 20-45)
Geer, Walter. Campaigns of the Civil War. Old Saybrook, CT. Konecky & Koencky, 1926. Print. (pg 173-190)
“Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg” by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White