© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Battle of Fredericksburg

Originally aired on December 09, 1994 - In part 15 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson discusses the horrible battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

#15 – Fredericksburg

      Civil War armies usually went into winter quarters with the onset of cold weather. Only occasionally would they campaign when temperatures were uncomfortably low. Such a battle occurred in Virginia. Speak militarily of December in this state, and immediately there comes to mind the word “Fredericksburg”.

General Ambrose Burnside – he of jolly disposition and fantastic mutton-chop whiskers –took command of the main Union army in November, 1862, and made quick plans for a new lunge at Richmond. Burnside shifted his forces eastward from Warrenton to Falmouth, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg.

His plan was to circle around General Robert E. Lee’s right flank and strike for the Confederate capital. Yet Union logistics collapsed; necessary pontoon bridges were weeks late in arriving; and by the time Burnside got them, he also had Lee’s army in front of him on the hills west and south of Fredericksburg.

With the element of secrecy gone, Burnside should have abandoned his original plan and waited for springtime and a new opportunity for offensive action. Instead, Burnside fought his way across the Rappahannock and through the streets of the town. Union soldiers thereupon and uncharacteristically began looting and burning Fredericksburg. The two opposing armies then made final dispositions for a full-scale battle.

Lee had his 74,000 Confederates along seven miles of hills extending well downriver from the town. The elevations of the Southern positions were only forty to fifty feet above the plain. For Lee, however, this was an ideal defensive location – just high enough to offer an impregnable position, but not high enough to scare the Federals and keep them from attacking at all.

General “Stonewall” Jackson took charge of the Confederate line below Fredericksburg. General James Longstreet’s divisions were on the heights directly behind the town.

Saturday, December 13, 1862, began cold and foggy. In mid-morning the mist burned away. There, spread out across the plain of Fredericksburg, were Burnside’s 113,000 soldiers. The first attack was against Jackson’s sector. Momentarily successful, it was soon beaten back with heavy losses.

Burnside then turned his attention to the other part of Lee’s line, which was about as strong a position as the Civil War allowed. Southern infantry were packed into a sunken road behind a stone wall at the base of the hill. On the hilltop, massed Confederate artillery had full command of the half-mile expanse of open ground over which the Federal attackers had to come.

When Lee expressed preliminary concern to Longstreet that the sheer weight of numbers might cause his position to collapse, the lieutenant snarled: “General, if you put every man on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me…I will kill them all before they reach my line.”

Longstreet’s boast was tragically sound. Seven times the Union army attacked; seven times the blue columns were torn to pieces by artillery fire and musketry. Burnside’s senseless attacks sent wave after wave of Union soldiers charging gallantly into death and failure. A New York infantryman later said: “We might as well have tried to take Hell.” Of the thousands of Union soldiers in that battle, not one ever got within 100 yards of the sunken road.

Darkness that day was a blessing, for it ended the battle. Acres of dead and dying soldiers lay on the freezing ground. Union casualties were 12,600 men. Confederate losses were fewer than 5,000. And nothing had been achieved except to shroud in grief the Christmas season for 17,000 American families.

After the battle, a Cincinnati journalist wired his newspaper: “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.” General Lee put it more eloquently. At the height of the one-sided contest, the Southern commander observed: “It is well that war is so terrible; else we should grow too fond of it.”

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.