The Battle of Fredericksburg – Unlike Any Other Battle

Most battles in the Civil War ring through the ages along with the bullets whizzing by in cornfields, wheat fields, open terrain, and forests; but not all battles hold true to those conditions. Occasionally, house to house fighting took place.Civilians would be witnesses to and parts of the battlefield in World War II. However, in the American Civil War, it rarely occurred. At Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December of 1862, the city became the battlefield.

The City in 1862

The City in 1862

Events in 1862 had changed the war. Early in the summer, Robert E. Lee used his forces at will to destroy any offensive the Union launched against the Confederacy in Virginia. Union General George McClellan hesitated, hemmed, and hawed while Lee outmaneuvered, outflanked, and out-generaled him at every turn. Lee’s growing confidence lead to an invasion into Maryland in September of 1862. The result was not a success for Lee. At Sharpsburg, Maryland, the Confederate army retreated back into Virgina after the Battle of Antietam. US President Lincoln was furious with McClellan for not pursuing and relieved him of his command of the Army of the Potomac. On November 7, 1862, Ambrose E. Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac and began a quick reversal of strategy. Burnside, unlike McClellan, was going on the offensive quickly.

The City of Fredericksburg is situated on the western side of the Rappahannock River southwest of Washington on the road to Richmond, then the Confederate capital. For two summers, the Union had tried to march its way to Richmond in the Napoleonic style of warfare where if you capture the enemy capital, the war is won. For the Union leadership, capturing points along the road to Richmond was essential to that belief.

On November 15, 1862, Lincoln approved Burnside’s plan to take Fredericksburg on the contingency he do it quickly. Two days later, Burnside was staring across the Rappahannock at the city built like an amphitheater into the hillside. Time was of the essence. Eight days later, Burnside still sat with his 110,000+ man army waiting to cross the Rappahannock. Clearly, crossing the river had not been thought out. This delay gave Lee the time he needed to get to Fredericksburg and fortify positions in and about the town. With 72,000 men, Lee had fewer numbers but the battlefield would be to his advantage.


Lee took up positions beginning on the 19th. A clump of hills west of the town provided perfect cover from artillery shells. Stonewall Jackson arrived a week later and was positioned south of the town – some extending 20 miles from the town. Lee was initially not certain of where the Union would cross; thus, the reason for spreading out his forces. The original bridges for the town had long been destroyed. When the Union began building pontoon bridges on December 11, Lee again adjusted his forces to match Burnside. Burnside would build three sets of bridges in plain sight. Two would lead directly across the city, the other, one mile south. In doing so, Burnside hoped Jackson would not be involved and thereby halving the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Pontoon Bridges Built by the Union

The Pontoon Bridges Built by the Union

The morning of the 11th saw the Union advance across the river under the fire of Mississippian commanded by William Barksdale. Upon the advance, for tow hours Burnside let loose 150 artillery guns near Stafford Heights. By mid afternoon, the Union began advancing into Fredericksburg. There, in the creeping of the setting sun, Barksdale and his men used the city, and the darkening December day, to their advantage.

The morning of December 12 broke with fog and the Union began streaming into the city. Unfortunately for Burnside, there was no objective that day. His men with nothing better to do began doing what bored soldiers do, pillaging and plundering. One chaplain wrote:

I saw men break down the doors to rooms of fine houses, enter, shatter the looking glasses with the blow of the ax, [and] knock the vases and lamps off the mantelpiece with a careless swing … A cavalry man sat down at a fine rosewood Piano … drove his saber through the polished keys, then knocked off the top [and] tore out the strings …

Come the next day on the 13th, more coordinated action took place. Burnside called for assaults to the south of town against Stonewall Jackson and to the north at Marye’s Heights. Lee, and James Longstreet had fortified these positions with men and artillery.  With 4,500 men, General Meade led Union troops in the attack on Marye’s Heights. The Confederates used the natural features of Telegraph Road (the road to Richmond) to wreak havoc upon Meade’s small force.

Cobb's position along teh sunken road near Fredericksburg

Cobb’s position along the sunken road near Fredericksburg. He would suffer a mortal wound early in the battle.

Georgia General TRR Cobb said he could whip 10,000 troops from his position. Over the course of the battle, it was closer to 40,000.

Rather than attacking in large forces, the Union attacked piecemeal – one division at a time. The Confederates repelled every attack. The 13th did not go well for the Union.

A soldier writes south of town:

4 1/2 P.M.—The battle has raged fiercely today. The rebels occupy an advantageous position. Our troops are on an open plain, while they occupy a ridge in our front, and are sheltered by dense wood but about 1 1/2 P.M. one part of the line made a forward movement, our division, as usual, taking the advance. This was a fearful movement. We left the field over which we advanced, thickly strewn with our dead and wounded. We drove the rebels from their position in the rail-road cut at the edge of the wood. On entering the woods our line was thrown into confusion by a misunderstanding of orders, but our men pushed on boldly and reached the summit of the hill. During the confusion I received a shot through both legs, completely disabling me. Our men were soon after attacked by the enemy in heavy force, and being weakened by the great slaughter in our ranks while advancing, and wholly without support they were driven back over me in disorder. All that we gained at so fearful a cost is lost. I am still lying where I fell. The rebels have advanced a line over me, so that I am a prisoner. I am now exposed to the fire of our artillery which is fearfully destructive. Death has been doing fearful work today.

Jacob Heffelfinger,
7th Pennsylvania Reserve

A Confederate soldier offers a different view of the battle


I promised to write you immediately after the fight. All day yesterday we lay in position. Today I have been in the hottest fight I have ever heard of. From ten o’clock this morning till an hour or two since shot and shell, and Minie balls, having been perfectly hailing around me. All the other fights crowded into one would hardly make anything to be compared to today’s fight. Our battery has lost three men killed and sixteen wounded, eighteen or twenty horse, one limber and one caisson blown up, and one gun disabled . . . . A piece of shell went through my coat sleeve; it stung a little. A Minie ball went through the ramrod, and it or a splinter struck me on the head. I was by the gun looking at the Yankees when a great piece of shell, big as my two fists, came along and knocked a spoke out of the wheel, and it or a piece of the spoke, or something else, hit me square in the breast. I did not know whether I was mortally wounded or not, but after a while I opened my shirt, and found that the skin was not bruised. I saw a piece of shell go a “kiting” by my leg, missing it an inch or two. That is only a few of the narrow escapes that I made today. The trees around our guns were literally torn to pieces and the ground plowed up. I have been several times covered with dirt, and had it knocked in my eyes and mouth . . . .We were posted on a chain of hills. Just in the edge of the woods before us was a wide level plain extending to the river, some three or five miles wide. I could see fully half the whole Yankee army, reserves and all. It was a grand sight seeing them come in position this morning; but it seemed that that host would eat us up any how. I felt uneasy until I saw Gen. Lee, and right behind him the “Old Stonewall,” riding up and down our lines, looking at the foe as cooly and calmly as if they were only going to have a general muster. The Yankee batteries came into position beautifully, and commenced shelling the woods we were in. It was hard to take it, but we had strict orders not to fire. Their infantry advanced in beautiful order. When one thousand yards distant we poured a perfect storm of shell into them from fifty or one hundred guns, but on they came. Our infantry was too much for them they had to leave. Oh! it did me good to see the rascals run; but here comes a fresh line. Far as the eye can reach the line extends. They have the fate of their predecessors, but another new line advances. I had been uneasy, perhaps scared before, but now had death or defeat been offered me I would have taken the former. Some of our bravest were down . . . . Pegram’s men (a Virginia battery stationed by our side on the right) had left their guns. Capt. Pegram wrapped his battle flag around him, walking up and down among his deserted guns. It was a time to test a man’s courage. Our cannon flamed and roared, and the roar of musketry was terrific. The foe halts, wavers and flies. We double charging our gun, pour the canister among them. As they get out of range of that we send them an occasional shell to help them on. “Cease firing!” What means that yell to the right. No one answers, nor do we need an answer, for our gallant boys are seen pouring from the woods, double quicking on the charge. On they go, (Gregg’s brigade leading) nearly up to the Yankee batteries. How my heart did beat then. My hat couldn’t stay on my head. I would have hollered if I had been killed for it the next minute, simply because I couldn’t help it.

Affectionately yours,

December 14th saw both armies attending to the wounded but more so for the Union. Burnside was willing to go back out on the 15th but his Generals talked him out of it. On December 15th, the Union headed east back over the Rappanhannock and to winter quarters. For Lee, it was a morale booster for his men after Antietam. However, Lee knew in his mind that for every battle, that was more men he did could not replace, more bullets he did not have, and more guns he lost. The war, now after two summers of fighting, would be heading towards its third summer. And like the summer heat, the Union would invade again that next spring.

For Burnside, it would be the end of his charge of the Army of the Potomac. In his report to Halleck on the battle, there is a somber tone as if he knows, like McClellan before him, he will be fired by Lincoln.

Report of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside,
U. S. Army, commanding Army of the Potomac,
Battle of Fredericksburg

December 17, 1862.

Maj. Gen. H. W. HALLECK,
General-in-Chief , Washington, D. C

    I have the honor to offer the following reasons for moving the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock sooner than was anticipated by the President, Secretary, or yourself, and for crossing at a point different from the one indicated to you at our last meeting at the President’s:
During my preparations for crossing at the place I had at first selected, I discovered that the enemy had thrown a large portion of his force down the river and elsewhere, thus weakening his defenses in front; and also thought I discovered that he did not anticipate the crossing of our whole force at Fredericksburg; and I hoped, by rapidly throwing the whole command over at that place, to separate, by a vigorous attack, the forces of the enemy on the river below from the forces behind and on the crests in tile rear of the town, in which case we should fight him with great advantages in our favor. To do this we had to gain a height on the extreme right of the crest, which height commanded a new road, lately built by the enemy for purposes of more rapid communication along his lines; which point gained, his positions along the crest would have been scarcely tenable, and he could have been driven from them easily by an attack on his front, in connection with a movement in rear of the crest.

A telegram from Burnside to Lincoln telling of the losses

A telegram from Burnside to Lincoln telling of the losses. Click to enlarge.

How near we came to accomplishing our object future reports will show. But for the fog and unexpected and unavoidable delay in building the bridges, which gave the enemy twenty-four hours more to concentrate his forces in his strong positions, we would almost certainly have succeeded; in which case the battle would have been, in my opinion, far more decisive than if we had crossed at the places first selected. As it was, we came very near success. Failing in accomplishing the main object, we remained in order of battle two days–long enough to decide that the enemy would not come out of his strongholds and fight us with his infantry. After which we recrossed to this side of the river unmolested, and without the loss of men or property.
As the day broke, our long lines of troops were seen marching to their different positions as if going on parade; not the least demoralization or disorganization existed.
To the brave officers and soldiers who accomplished the feat of this recrossing in the face of the enemy I owe everything. For the failure in the attack I am responsible, as the extreme gallantry, courage, and endurance shown by them was never excelled, and would have carried the points, had it been possible.
To the families and friends of the dead I can only offer my heartfelt sympathy, but for the wounded I can offer my earnest prayers for their comfort and final recovery.
The fact that I decided to move from Warrenton onto this line rather against the opinion of the President, Secretary, and yourself, and that you have left the whole management in my hands, without giving me orders, makes me the more responsible.
I will visit you very soon and give you more definite information, and finally will send you my detailed report, in which a special acknowledgment will be made of the services of the different grand divisions, corps, and my general and personal staff departments of the Army of the Potomac, to whom I am much indebted for their hearty support and co-operation.
I will add here that the movement was made earlier than you expected, and after the President, Secretary, and yourself requested me not to be in haste, for the reason that we were supplied much sooner by the different staff departments than was anticipated when I last saw you.
Our killed amounted to 1,152; our wounded, about 9,000; our prisoners, about 700, which have been paroled and exchanged for about the same number taken by us. The wounded were all removed to this side of the river before the evacuation, and are being well cared for, and the dead were all buried under a flag of truce. The surgeon reports a much larger proportion than usual of slight wounds, 1,630 only being treated in hospitals. I am glad to represent the army at the present time in good condition.

Thanking the Government for that entire support and confidence which I have always received from them,

I remain, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Major-General, Commanding Army of the Potomac.

Burnside would be reassigned out west where he acquitted himself at the Battle of Knoxville. Robert E. Lee, he would next be seen at Chancellorsville, another costly Confederate victory.

This weekend sees the NPS breaking out all the bells and whistles for the 150th anniversary of the battle. Check out their Facebook page – it is just fantastic!

The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock.
Francis Augustin O’Reilly (2006)

Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!
George C. Rable (2001)

The US Army War College Guide to the Battles of Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg.
Luvaas & Nelson (Editors) (1989)



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