By Chuck Hagee
Christmas season 1862 was anything but “peace on earth — goodwill toward men” when it came to the American Civil War. Instead, it heralded another horrendous battle between the North and South that solidified the realization that the nation was in for a long, brutal struggle that would soak the earth with blood.
Following the Battle of Antietam, which remains the costliest battle in number of lives lost in a single day in American history, there was a feeling of optimism in the North that the war could be brought to an early end. This evaporated on December 16, 1862 with the final shots at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
As the smoke cleared and both sides disengaged, The Union counted 12,700 killed, wounded, and missing while The Confederacy suffered 5,300 in those categories. And, President Abraham Lincoln concluded that his newly appointed General of The Army of The Potomac had gotten him no closer to peace that the one he had just removed from Command.
The genesis of the Fredericksburg battle occurred on November 7, 1862, when Lincoln replaced General George B. McClellan with General Ambrose E. Burnside. Totally frustrated with McClellan’s overly cautious approach to combat, Lincoln saw Burnside as someone who would be more aggressive in taking the war to the Confederacy and thereby bringing it to an early conclusion.
Shortly after taking command, Burnside proposed a bold move to take the 120,000 troops of The Army of The Potomac from its encampment near Warrenton to Fredericksburg. The plan had a two-fold objective: First, to position an overwhelming Union force between General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces and Richmond, the Capital of The Confederacy; and secondly, establish a secure supply line for the Union forces.
Lincoln not only gave his full support to Burnside’s plan but urged that it be activated quickly. With the support of his Commander In Chief, Burnside did just that, putting his troops on a fast march for Fredericksburg on November 15.
He also initiated a new command structure dividing the Union juggernaut into three “grand divisions.” The first arrived just opposite Fredericksburg on November 17.
This fast pace and change in strategy caught Confederate Commanding General Robert E. Lee off-guard after he had also split his 78,000 man force into two units – one under the command of General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and the other commanded by General James Longstreet. Jackson and his forces were in the Shenandoah Valley and Longstreet was in Culpeper. Neither was anywhere close to Fredericksburg.
However, the weakness of Burnside’s strategy was that he could not establish his Fredericksburg base of operation without first crossing the Rappahannock River. He also had to bring in engineers and pontoon bridge equipment to enable his troops to cross because the regular bridges had been destroyed earlier in the war.
Both the engineers and equipment were delayed through a series of events ranging from Washington bureaucracy to bad weather which caused his troops to arrive before the work was completed placing them in a critical defensive position. Fredericksburg is situated in a geological bowl bordered by the river on the east and hills on the west.
Burnside had counted on a swift, unopposed crossing of the river. That was now impossible. But, Lincoln was counting on the Burnside plan because winter was closing in which would soon bring fighting to a near halt until spring, allowing Lee time to rebuild after the Antietam slaughter. Inaction was not an option.
In the meantime, Lee had made strategic adjustments to his plans and now ordered both Jackson and Longstreet to head for Fredericksburg. Longstreet’s forces arrived November 19 and fortified the hills behind the city with heavy artillery. Jackson arrived a week later and took up a position 20 miles downstream on the Rappahannock.
This dual positioning gave Lee two advantages over Burnside. He oversaw a long stretch of the river that Burnside needed to cross and he held high ground forcing the Union troops to literally fight an uphill battle.
Burnside came up with a bold plan to have his engineers build pontoon bridges in three locations thereby presenting the Confederate forces with multiple defensive actions and splitting their effectiveness. He theorized this would allow him to get his superior forces across the river, route Longstreet and his troops and force them to retreat toward Richmond.
Burnside put his plan in motion on the morning of December 11. As the Union engineers pushed their bridge pontoons into the river, rifle fire rang out from the Fredericksburg side. The Union troops were sitting ducks. After nine attempts by the engineers the effort was halted due to heavy casualties.
Frustrated, Burnside decided to blast Fredericksburg into oblivion by turning the 150 cannons of General Henry Hunt loose. He assumed that this barrage would obliterate Longstreet’s infantry troops thus allowing his engineers to complete their work.
Hunt maintained his bombardment for two hours. When it ended the engineers again went into the river to complete their task. But, again they were greeted with rifle fire. And, again the river claimed their bullet-riddled bodies.
Burnside changed strategy again. This time he ordered a pontoon boat crossing of the 400 foot expanse of water. Once on the Confederate side Union troops encountered a fierce defense by Confederates that resulted in one of the few instances of urban warfare during the Civil War.
This went on until nightfall when the Confederate troops fell back and the fighting subsided allowing the engineers to complete their bridge building, enabling Burnside’s main force to enter the city the next morning – December 12.
Burnside could have then seized the initiative to put his strategy in motion. Instead the Union troops spent the day looting and destroying property allowing Lee time to bring Jackson up from this position downriver.
Now the Confederate troops, composed of both Longstreet’s and Jackson’s forces, were able to take up critical positions without any interference from the Union Army. Longstreet positioned cannons on high ground along five miles of Lee’s front and five divisions of infantry at the base area behind a protecting stone wall.
Jackson “stacked” his infantry to a depth one mile. This put any Union offensive in a cross-fire on an open plain.
Burnside commenced his attack on the morning of December 13. It was led by General George Meade’s Pennsylvania Division and headed straight for Jackson’s stepped defense one mile in front of them. Then all hell broke loose as artillery fire from Confederate Major John Pelham’s guns rained down on the advancing Union forces.
When the bombardment ceased due to Pelham running out of ammunition, Burnside had Meade return to his game plan and again advance on the Confederate entrenchment. However, this time they were up against the battle-hardened and experienced “Stonewall” Jackson who let them advance to within 500 yards of the tree covered hills where 14 Confederate cannons were silently positioned above them.
At just the right moment Jackson unleashed his artillery blasting large holes in Meade’s advance. This was met by a Union cannon bombardment which triggered an hour-long artillery duel.
As the big guns fell silent Meade ordered a bayonet charge against the Confederate troops. However, when they got to what should have been the point of engagement they found only open space — a 600 yard gap in Jackson’s defense line.
The Confederate General, upon learning of this gap, ordered it filled from his reserve troops and subsequently drove the Union forces to the Richmond Stage Road. But, the Confederate counterattack was then stopped by Union artillery.
When Union forces were unable to dislodge Jackson’s defenses, Burnside abandoned his original plan and ordered Major General Edwin Sumner’s Right Grand Division to attack. This meant Union forces had to leave the city and advance over open ground to the base of the hills guarded by Confederate infantry protected by the stone wall and overseen by Confederate cannonade above.
The outcome was predestined. Advance after advance met with withering cannon and rifle fire. In just one hour 3,000 Union soldiers lay on the battlefield. Not one even got close to the stone wall.
Burnside’s fruitless assault continued through December 14 and 15. Then, on the evening of December 15-16, under the cover of darkness, Burnside gave up the assault and withdrew his remaining troops to Stafford Heights as his engineers destroyed the very bridges they had paid so highly to construct.
The Battle of Fredericksburg was over and the hopes for a quick end to the United States Civil War vanished with it. Lee had suffered approximately 5,300 casualties while Burnside’s numbers reached nearly 13,000.
As bloody as it was and as significant a victory it was for the Confederacy, the Battle of Fredericksburg, in the final analysis, had little impact of the outcome of the war except to guarantee its elongation for another three years. The North was more than able to replenish its supply of troops and supplies for the future while the South struggled to do the same.
On December 31, 1862, instead of any New Year celebration President Lincoln met with General Burnside to discuss what went wrong with his grand plan to end the war early. On that same day the Union’s ironclad “Monitor” sank in a storm off the east coast.
A friend of Lincoln’s, who visited him in the White House following the Battle of Fredericksburg, reported the President asking rhetorically, “What has God put me in this place for?” and stating, “If there is a place worse than hell, I am in it.”
The only good thing to come out of December 1862 was that the U.S. House of Representatives on December 10 passed legislation to formally create the State of West Virginia. It came about when the citizens of western Virginia refused to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.