Battle of Fredericksburg Anniversary Special:
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“Battle of Fredericksburg”
The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought 1862 December 11–15, in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, between Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Ambrose Burnside. The Union army’s futile frontal attacks on December 13 against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights behind the city is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the U.S. Civil War, with Union casualties more than twice as heavy as those suffered by the Confederates. A visitor to the battlefield described the battle to President Abraham Lincoln as a “butchery.”
Burnside’s plan was to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg in mid-November and race to the Confederate capital of Richmond before Lee’s army could stop him. Bureaucratic delays prevented Burnside from receiving the necessary pontoon bridges in time, and Lee moved his army to block the crossings. When the Union army was finally able to build its bridges and cross under fire, urban combat resulted in the city on December 11–12. Union troops prepared to assault Confederate defensive positions south of the city and on a strongly fortified ridge just west of the city known as Marye’s Heights.
On December 13, the “grand division” of William Franklin was able to pierce the first defensive line of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson to the south, but was finally repulsed. Burnside ordered the grand divisions of Edwin Sumner and Joseph Hooker to make multiple frontal assaults against James Longstreet’s position on Marye’s Heights, all of which were repulsed with heavy losses. On December 15, Burnside withdrew his army, ending another failed Union campaign in the Eastern Theater.
1. Background and Burnside’s plan
In 1862 November, Lincoln needed to demonstrate the success of the Union war effort before the Northern public lost confidence in his administration. Confederate armies had been on the move earlier in the fall, invading Kentucky and Maryland, and although each had been turned back, those armies remained intact and capable of further action. Lincoln urged General Ulysses S. Grant to advance against the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He replaced General Don Carlos Buell with William Rosecrans, hoping for a more aggressive posture against the Confederates in Tennessee, and on November 5, seeing that his replacement of Buell had not stimulated General George McClellan into action, he issued orders to replace McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. McClellan had stopped Lee at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, but had not been able to destroy Lee’s army, nor did he pursue Lee back into Virginia aggressively enough for Lincoln.
McClellan’s replacement was Ambrose Burnside, the commander of the IX Corps. Burnside had established a reputation as an independent commander, with successful operations earlier that year in coastal North Carolina and, unlike McClellan, had no apparent political ambitions. However, he felt himself unqualified for army-level command and objected when offered the position. He accepted only when it was made clear to him that McClellan would be replaced in any event and that an alternative choice for command was Joseph Hooker, whom Burnside disliked and distrusted. Burnside assumed command on November 7.
In response to prodding from Lincoln and general-in-chief Henry Halleck, Burnside planned a late fall offensive; he communicated his plan to Halleck on November 9. The plan relied on quick movement and deception. 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 Lee would sit still, unclear as to Burnside’s intentions, while the Union Army made a rapid movement against Richmond, south from Fredericksburg along the railroad. 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 Stonewall Jackson, whose corps was at that time in the Shenandoah Valley. While Burnside began assembling a supply base at Falmouth, near Fredericksburg, the Lincoln administration entertained a lengthy debate about the wisdom of his plan, which differed from the president’s preference of a direct confrontation with Lee’s army instead of the movement focused on the city of Richmond. Lincoln reluctantly approved the plan on November 14, but cautioned his general to move with great speed, certainly doubting that Lee would cooperate as Burnside anticipated.
2. Opposing forces
Burnside organized his Army of the Potomac into three so-called “grand divisions,” organizations that included infantry corps, cavalry, and artillery, comprising 120,000 men in total. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had nearly 85,000 men. The two armies at Fredericksburg represented the largest number of armed men that ever confronted each other for combat during the U.S. Civil War.
3. 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 did not arrive on time. Burnside first requisitioned the pontoon bridging (along with many other provisions) on November 7 when he detailed his plan to Halleck. The plan was sent to the attention of General George Washington Cullum, the chief of staff in Washington (received on November 9). Plans called for both riverine and overland movement of the pontoon trains to Falmouth. On November 14, the 50th New York Engineers reported the pontoons were ready to move, except for a lack of the 270 horses needed to move them. Unknown to Burnside, most of the bridging was still on the upper Potomac.
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, concerned that the increasing autumn rains would make the fording points unusable and that Sumner might be cut off and destroyed, ordered Sumner to wait in Falmouth.
Lee at first anticipated that Burnside would beat him across the Rappahannock and that to protect Richmond, he would assume the next defensible position to the south, the North Anna River. But when he saw how slowly Burnside was moving (and Confederate President Jefferson Davis expressed reservations about planning for a battle so close to Richmond), he directed all of his army toward Fredericksburg. By November 23, all of Longstreet’s corps had arrived and Lee placed them on the ridge known as Marye’s Heights to the west of town. He sent for Stonewall Jackson on November 26, but his Second Corps commander had anticipated the need and began forced-marching his troops from Winchester on November 22, covering as many as 20 miles a day. Stonewall Jackson arrived at Lee’s headquarters on November 29 and his divisions were deployed to prevent Burnside crossing downstream from Fredericksburg, with one division moved to Port Royal, 18 miles down river, and another division 12 miles down river at Skinker’s Neck.
The boats and equipment for a single pontoon bridge 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 by then he was facing only half of Lee’s army, not yet dug in, and if he acted quickly, he might have been able to attack Longstreet and defeat him before Stonewall Jackson arrived. Once again he squandered his opportunity. The full complement of bridges arrived at the end of the month, but by this time Stonewall Jackson was present and Longstreet was preparing strong defenses.
Burnside originally planned to cross his army east of Fredericksburg at Skinker’s Neck, but an advance movement by Union gunboats there was fired upon and drew Confederate divisions into that area, a movement spotted by Union balloon observers. Now assuming that Lee had anticipated his plan, Burnside guessed that the Confederates had weakened their left and center to concentrate against him on their right. 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 eastern, Union-controlled 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.
Crossing the Rappahannock, December 11–12
Union engineers began to assemble six pontoon bridges before dawn on December 11, two just north of the town center, a third on the southern end of town, and three farther south, near the confluence of the Rappahannock and Deep Run. The engineers constructing the bridge directly across from the city came under punishing fire from Confederate sharpshooters, primarily from the Mississippi brigade of William Barksdale, in command of the town defenses. Union artillery attempted to dislodge the sharpshooters, but their positions in the cellars of houses rendered the fire from the 150 artillery guns mostly ineffective. Eventually Burnside’s artillery commander, Henry Hunt, convinced him to send infantry landing parties over in the pontoon boats to secure a small bridgehead and rout the sharpshooters. Norman Hall volunteered his brigade for this assignment. Burnside suddenly turned reluctant, lamenting to Hall in front of his men that “the effort meant death to most of those who should undertake the voyage.” When his men responded to Hall’s request with three cheers, Burnside relented. At 3 p.m., the Union artillery began a preparatory bombardment and 135 infantrymen from the 7th Michigan and the 19th Massachusetts crowded into the small boats, and the 20th Massachusetts followed soon after. They crossed successfully and spread out in a skirmish line to clear the sharpshooters. Although some of the Confederates surrendered, fighting proceeded street by street through the town as the engineers completed the bridges. Sumner’s grand division began crossing at 4:30 p.m., but the bulk of his men did not cross until December 12. Hooker’s grand division crossed on December 13, using both the northern and southern bridges.
The clearing of the city buildings by Sumner’s infantry and by artillery fire from across the river began the first major urban combat of the war. Union gunners sent more than 5,000 shells against the town and the ridges to the west. By nightfall, four brigades of Union troops occupied the town, which they looted with a fury that had not been seen in the war up to that point. This behavior enraged Lee, who compared their depredations with those of the ancient Vandals. The destruction also angered the Confederate troops, many of whom were native Virginians. Many on the Union side were also shocked by the destruction inflicted on Fredericksburg. Civilian casualties were unusually sparse in the midst of such widespread violence; George Rable estimates no more than four civilian deaths.
River crossings south of the city by Franklin’s grand division were much less eventful. Both bridges were completed by 11 a.m. on December 11, while five batteries of Union artillery suppressed most sniper fire against the engineers. Franklin was ordered at 4 p.m. to cross his entire command, but only a single brigade was sent out before dark. Crossings resumed at dawn and were completed by 1 p.m. on December 12. Early on December 13, Stonewall Jackson recalled his two divisions from down river positions to join his main defensive lines south of the city.
Burnside’s verbal instructions on December 12 outlined a main attack by Franklin, supported by Hooker, on the southern flank, while Sumner made a secondary attack on the northern. His actual orders on December 13 were vague and confusing to his subordinates. At 5 p.m. on December 12, he made a cursory inspection of the southern flank, where Franklin and his subordinates pressed him to give definite orders for a morning attack by the grand division, so they would have adequate time to position their forces overnight. However, Burnside demurred and the order did not reach Franklin until 7:15 or 7:45 a.m. When it arrived, it was not as Franklin expected. Rather than ordering an attack by the entire grand division of almost 60,000 men, Franklin was to keep his men in position, but was to send “a division at least” to seize the high ground around Hamilton’s Crossing, Sumner was to send one division through the city and up Telegraph Road, and both flanks were to be prepared to commit their entire commands. Burnside was apparently expecting these weak attacks to intimidate Lee, causing him to withdraw. Franklin, who had originally advocated a vigorous assault, chose to interpret Burnside’s order very conservatively. General James Hardie, who delivered the order, did not ensure that Burnside’s intentions were understood by Franklin, and map inaccuracies about the road network made those intentions unclear. Furthermore, Burnside’s choice of the verb “to seize” was less forceful in 19th century military terminology than an order “to carry” the heights.
South of the city, December 13
December 13 began cold and overcast. A dense fog blanketed the ground and made it impossible for the armies to see each other. Franklin ordered his I Corps commander, John Reynolds, to select a division for the attack. Reynolds chose his smallest division, about 4,500 men commanded by George Meade, and assigned John Gibbon’s division to support Meade’s attack. His reserve division, under Abner Doubleday, was to face south and protect the left flank between the Richmond Road and the river. Meade’s division began moving out at 8:30 a.m., with Gibbon following behind. At around 10:30, the fog started lifting. They moved parallel to the river initially, turning right to face the Richmond Road, where they began to be struck by enfilading fire from the Virginia Horse Artillery under John Pelham. Pelham started with two cannons—a 12-pounder Napoleon smoothbore and a rifled Blakely—but continued with only one after the latter was disabled by counter-battery fire. General “Jeb” Stuart sent word to Pelham that he should feel free to withdraw from his dangerous position at any time, to which Pelham responded, “Tell the General I can hold my ground.” The Iron Brigade was sent out to deal with the Confederate horse artillery. After about an hour, Pelham’s ammunition began to run low and he withdrew. Lee observed the action and commented about Pelham, age 24, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.” Stonewall Jackson’s main artillery batteries had remained silent in the fog during this exchange, but the Union troops soon began to receive direct fire from Prospect Hill, and Meade’s attack was stalled about 600 yards from his initial objective for almost two hours by these artillery attacks.
The Union artillery fire was lifted as Meade’s men moved forward around 1 p.m. Stonewall Jackson’s force of about 35,000 remained concealed on the wooded ridge to Meade’s front; his formidable defensive line, however, had an unforeseen flaw. A triangular patch of the woods that extended beyond the railroad was swampy and covered with thick underbrush, and the Confederates had left a 600-yard gap there between the brigades of James Lane and James Archer. Maxcy Gregg’s brigade stood about a quarter mile behind the gap. Meade’s 1st Brigade entered the gap, climbed the railroad embankment, and turned right into the underbrush, striking Lane’s brigade in the flank. Following immediately behind, Meade’s 3rd Brigade turned left and hit Archer’s flank. Meade’s 2nd Brigade came up in support and intermixed with the leading brigades. As the gap widened with pressure on the flanks, thousands of Meade’s men reached the top of the ridge and ran into Gregg’s brigade. Many of these Confederates had stacked arms while taking cover from Union artillery and were not expecting to be attacked at that moment, so were killed or captured unarmed. Gregg at first mistook the Union soldiers for fleeing Confederate troops and ordered his men not to fire on them. While he rode prominently in front of his lines, the partially deaf Gregg could not hear the approaching Union soldiers or their bullets flying around him. He was shot through the spinal cord, dying two days later.
Confederate reserves moved into the fray from behind Gregg’s original position. Inspired by their attack, regiments from Lane’s and Archer’s brigades rallied and formed a new defensive line in the gap. Now Meade’s men were receiving fire from three sides and could not withstand the pressure. Feger Jackson attempted to flank a Confederate battery, but after his horse was shot and he began to lead on foot, he was shot in the head by a volley and his brigade fell back, leaderless.
To Meade’s right, Gibbon’s division prepared to move forward at 1 p.m. General Nelson Taylor proposed to Gibbon that they supplement Meade’s assault with a bayonet charge against Lane’s position. However, Gibbon stated that this would violate his orders, so Taylor’s brigade did not move forward until 1:30 p.m. The attack did not have the benefit of a gap to exploit, nor did the Union soldiers have any wooded cover for their advance, so progress was slow under heavy fire from Lane’s brigade and Confederate artillery. Immediately following Taylor was the brigade of Peter Lyle, and the advance of the two brigades ground to a halt before they reached the railroad. Committing his reserve at 1:45 p.m., Gibbon sent forward his brigade under Adrian Root, which moved through the survivors of the first two brigades, but they were soon brought to a halt as well. Eventually some of the Union soldiers reached the crest of the ridge and had some success during hand-to-hand fighting—men on both sides had depleted their ammunition and resorted to bayonets and rifle butts, and even empty rifles with bayonets thrown like javelins—but they were forced to withdraw back across the railroad embankment along with Meade’s men to their left. Gibbon’s attack, despite heavy casualties, had failed to support Meade’s temporary breakthrough.
“My God, General Reynolds, did they think my division could whip Lee’s whole army?”
–George Meade to John Reynolds, 1862 December 13
After the battle, Meade complained that some of Gibbon’s officers had not charged quickly enough. But his primary frustration was with David Birney, whose division of the III Corps had been designated to support the attack as well. Birney claimed that his men had been subjected to damaging artillery fire as they formed up, that he had not understood the importance of Meade’s attack, and that Reynolds had not ordered his division forward. When Meade galloped to the rear to confront Birney with a string of fierce profanities that, in the words of one staff lieutenant, “almost makes the stones creep,” he was finally able to order Birney forward under his own responsibility. By this time, however, it was too late to accomplish any further offensive action.
Confederate General Jubal Early’s division began a counterattack, led initially by Edmund Atkinson’s Georgia brigade, which inspired Confederate soldiers to charge forward out of the railroad ditches, driving Meade’s men from the woods in a disorderly retreat, followed closely by Gibbon’s men. Early’s orders to his brigades were to pursue as far as the railroad, but in the chaos many kept up the pressure over the open fields as far as the old Richmond Road. Union artillery crews proceeded to unleash a blast of close-range canister shot, firing as fast as they could load their guns. The Confederates were also struck by the leading brigade of Birney’s belated advance. Birney followed up with two more brigades, which broke the Confederate advance that had threatened to drive the Union into the river. Any further Confederate advance was deterred by the arrival of the III Corps division of Daniel Sickles on the right. Burnside, who by this time was focused on his attacks on Marye’s Heights, was dismayed that his left flank attack had not achieved the success he assumed earlier in the day. He ordered Franklin to “advance his right and front,” but despite repeated entreaties, Franklin refused, claiming that all of his forces had been engaged. This was not true, however, as the entire VI Corps as well as Abner Doubleday’s division of the I Corps had been mostly idle, suffering only a few casualties from artillery fire while they waited in reserve.
The Confederates withdrew back to the safety of the hills south of town. Stonewall Jackson considered mounting a resumed counterattack, but the Union artillery and impending darkness changed his mind. A fortuitous Union breakthrough had been wasted because Franklin did not reinforce Meade’s success with some of the 20,000 men standing in reserve. Neither Franklin nor Reynolds took any personal involvement in the battle, and were unavailable to their subordinates at the critical point. Franklin’s losses were about 5,000 casualties in comparison to Stonewall Jackson’s 3,400, demonstrating the ferocity of the fighting; the part of the battlefield where this fighting took place would later come to be known as the Slaughter Pen. Skirmishing and artillery duels continued until dark, but no additional major attacks took place, while the center of the battle moved north to Marye’s Heights.
“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”
–Robert E. Lee, watching the carnage of the Confederate counterattack from the center of his line, a position now known as Lee’s Hill, 1862 December 13
Marye’s Heights, December 13
On the northern end of the battlefield, William French’s division of the II Corps prepared to move forward, subjected to Confederate artillery fire that was descending on the fog-covered city of Fredericksburg. Burnside’s orders to Sumner, commander of the Right Grand Division, was to send “a division or more” to seize the high ground to the west of the city, assuming that the assault on the southern end of the Confederate line would be the decisive action of the battle. The avenue of approach was difficult—mostly open fields, but interrupted by scattered houses, fences, and gardens that would restrict the movement of battle lines. A canal stood about 200 yards west of the town, crossed by three narrow bridges, which would require the Union troops to funnel themselves into columns before proceeding. About 600 yards to the west of Fredericksburg was the low ridge of Marye’s Heights, rising 40–50 feet above the plain. Near the crest of the ridge, a narrow lane in a slight cut—the Telegraph Road, known after the battle as the Sunken Road—was protected by a 4-foot stone wall, enhanced in places with log breastworks and abatis, making it a perfect infantry defensive position. Confederate General Lafayette McLaws initially had about 2,000 men on the front line of Marye’s Heights, and there were an additional 7,000 men in reserve on the crest and behind the ridge. Massed artillery provided almost uninterrupted coverage of the plain below. Longstreet had been assured by his artillery commander, Edward Porter Alexander: “General, we cover that ground now so well that we will comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
The fog lifted from the town around 10 a.m., and Sumner gave his order to advance an hour later. Nathan Kimball’s brigade began to move around noon. The Union soldiers advanced slowly through heavy artillery fire, crossed the canal in columns over the narrow bridges, and formed in line, with fixed bayonets, behind the protection of a shallow bluff. In perfect line of battle, they advanced up the muddy slope until they were cut down at about 125 yards from the stone wall by repeated rifle volleys. Some soldiers were able to get as close as 40 yards, but having suffered severe casualties from both the artillery and infantry fire, the survivors clung to the ground. Kimball was severely wounded during the assault, and his brigade suffered 25% casualties. The brigades of John Andrews and Oliver Palmer followed, with casualty rates of almost 50%.
Sumner’s original order called for the division of Winfield Hancock to support French’s division, and Hancock sent forward Samuel Zook’s brigade behind Palmer’s brigade. Those soldiers met a similar fate. Next was Hancock’s Irish Brigade under Thomas Meagher. By coincidence, Meagher’s brigade attacked the area defended by fellow Irishmen of Robert McMillan’s 24th Georgia Infantry. One Confederate who spotted the green regimental flags approaching cried out, “Oh God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher’s fellows.” But McMillan exhorted his troops: “Give it to them now, boys! Now’s the time! Give it to them!” Hancock’s final brigade was led by John Caldwell. Leading his two regiments on the left, Colonel Nelson Miles suggested to Caldwell that the practice of marching in formation, firing, and stopping to reload, made the Union soldiers easy targets, and that a concerted bayonet charge might be effective in carrying the works. Caldwell denied permission for a charge. Miles was struck by a bullet in the throat as he led his men to within 40 yards of the wall, where they were pinned down as their predecessors had been. Caldwell himself was soon struck by two bullets and put out of action.
The commander of the II Corps, Darius Couch, was dismayed at the carnage wrought upon his two divisions in the hour of fighting and, like Colonel Miles, realized that the Union tactics were not working. He first considered a massive bayonet charge to overwhelm the defenders, but as he surveyed the front, he quickly realized that French’s and Hancock’s divisions were in no shape to move forward again. He next planned for his final division, commanded by Oliver Howard, to swing to the right and attempt to envelop the Confederate left, but upon receiving urgent requests for help from French and Hancock, he sent Howard’s men over and around the fallen troops instead. The other corps in Sumner’s grand division was the IX Corps, and he sent in one of its divisions under Samuel Sturgis. After two hours of desperate fighting, four Union divisions had failed in the mission Burnside had originally assigned to one. Casualties were heavy: II Corps losses for the afternoon were 4,114; Sturgis’s division: 1,011.
While the Union Army paused, Longstreet reinforced his line so that there were four ranks of infantrymen behind the stone wall. Lee expressed concerns to Longstreet about the massing Union troops breaking his line, but Longstreet assured his commander: “General, if you put every man on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line.”
By midafternoon, Burnside had failed on both flanks to make progress against the Confederates. Rather than reconsidering his approach in the face of heavy casualties, he stubbornly decided to continue on the same path. He sent orders to Franklin to renew the assault on the left (which, as described earlier, Franklin ignored) and ordered Hooker to cross the Rappahannock into Fredericksburg with his grand division and continue the attack on Marye’s Heights. Hooker performed a personal reconnaissance (something that neither Burnside nor Sumner had done, both remaining east of the river during the failed assaults) and returned to Burnside’s headquarters to advise against the attack.
Daniel Butterfield, commanding Hooker’s V Corps, while waiting for Hooker to return from his conference with Burnside, sent his division under Charles Griffin to relieve Sturgis’s men. By this time, Confederate General George Pickett’s division and another Confederate brigade had marched north to reinforce Marye’s Heights. Griffin smashed his three brigades against the Confederate position, one by one. Also concerned about Sturgis, Couch sent the six guns of Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, to within 150 yards of the Confederate line. They were hit hard by Confederate sharpshooter and artillery fire and provided no effective relief to Sturgis.
A soldier in Hancock’s division reported movement in the Confederate line that led some to believe that the enemy might be retreating. Despite the unlikeliness of this supposition, the V Corps division of Andrew Humphreys was ordered to attack and capitalize on the situation. Humphreys led his first brigade on horseback, with his men moving over and around fallen troops with fixed bayonets and unloaded rifles; some of the fallen men clutched at the passing pant legs, urging their comrades not to go forward, causing the brigade to become disorganized in their advance. The charge reached to within 50 yards of the Confederate line before being cut down by concentrated rifle fire. George Sykes was ordered to move forward with his V Corps regular army division to support Humphreys’s retreat, but his men were caught in a crossfire and pinned down.
By 4 p.m., Hooker had returned from his meeting with Burnside, having failed to convince the commanding general to abandon the attacks. While Humphreys was still attacking, Hooker reluctantly ordered the IX Corps division of George Getty to attack as well, but this time to the leftmost portion of Marye’s Heights. Two brigades moved along an unfinished railroad line just north of Hazel Run, approaching close to the Confederate line without detection in the gathering twilight, but they were eventually detected, fired on, and repulsed.
Seven Union divisions had been sent in, generally one brigade at a time, for a total of fourteen individual charges, all of which failed, costing them from 6,000 to 8,000 casualties. Confederate losses at Marye’s Heights totaled around 1,200. The falling darkness and the pleas of Burnside’s subordinates were enough to put an end to the attacks. Longstreet later wrote: “The charges had been desperate and bloody, but utterly hopeless.” 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. That night, Burnside attempted to blame his subordinates for the disastrous attacks, but they argued that it was entirely his fault and no one else’s.
Lull and withdrawal, December 14–15
During a dinner meeting the evening of December 13, Burnside dramatically announced that he would personally lead his old IX Corps in one final attack on Marye’s Heights, but his generals talked him out of it the following morning. The armies remained in position throughout the day on December 14. That afternoon, Burnside asked Lee for a truce to attend to his wounded, which the latter graciously granted. The next day the Union forces retreated across the river, and the campaign came to an end.
Testament to the extent of the carnage and suffering during the battle was the story of Richard Rowland Kirkland, a Confederate Army sergeant with Company G, 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Stationed at the stone wall by the sunken road below Marye’s Heights, Kirkland had a close up view to the suffering and like so many others was appalled at the cries for help of the Union wounded throughout the cold winter night of 1862 December 13. After obtaining permission from his commander, Joseph Kershaw, Kirkland gathered canteens and in broad daylight, without the benefit of a cease fire or a flag of truce (which had been refused by Kershaw), provided water to numerous Union wounded lying on the field of battle. Union soldiers held their fire as it was obvious what Kirkland’s intent was. Kirkland was nicknamed the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” for these actions, and is memorialized with a statue by Felix de Weldon on the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park where he carried out his actions. However, details of this story (first recorded in 1880) conflict with multiple after-action reports and may have been embellished and personalized for effect.
On the night of December 14, the Aurora Borealis made an appearance unusual for that latitude, presumably caused by a large solar flare. One witness recorded: “The whole sky was a ruddy glow as if from an enormous conflagration, but marked by the darting rays peculiar to the Northern light.” The event was noted in the diaries and letters of many soldiers at Fredericksburg, such as John W. Thompson, Jr., who wrote: “there were Florida troops who, undismayed in fire, stampeded the night after Fredericksburg, when the Aurora Borealis snapped and crackled over that field of the frozen dead hard by the Rappahannock …”
The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties. The Confederate army suffered 5,377, most of them in the early fighting on Stonewall Jackson’s front. Two Union generals and two Confederate generals were mortally wounded. The casualties sustained by each army showed clearly how disastrous the Union army’s tactics were. Although the fighting on the southern flank produced roughly equal casualties, the northern flank was completely lopsided, with about eight Union casualties for each Confederate. Burnside’s men had suffered considerably more in the attack originally meant as a diversion than in his main effort.
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.” 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 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.” Burnside was relieved of command a month later, following an unsuccessful attempt to purge some of his subordinates from the Army and the humiliating failure of his “Mud March” in January.
6. In popular media
American author Louisa May Alcott fictionalized her experience nursing soldiers injured in the Battle of Fredericksburg in her 1863 book Hospital Sketches.
The Battle of Fredericksburg was depicted in the 2003 film Gods and Generals, based on the novel of the same name, a prequel of The Killer Angels from which the earlier film Gettysburg was adapted. Both the novel and film focus primarily on the disastrous charges on Marye’s Heights.