The Battle of Fredericksburg, fought in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, from December 11 to December 15, 1862, between General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War. The Union Army suffered terrible casualties in futile frontal assaults on December 13 against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights behind the city, bringing to an early end their campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Burnside, in response to prodding from Lincoln and General-in-Chief Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, planned a late fall offensive; he communicated his plan to Halleck on November 9. The plan relied on quick movement and deceit. 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 Robert E. Lee would sit still, unclear as to Burnside's intentions, while the Union Army made a rapid movement against Richmond, south along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad from Fredericksburg. 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 Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, whose corps was at that time in the Shenandoah Valley south of Winchester. He also believed that the Orange and Alexandria Railroad would be an inadequate supply line. While Burnside began assembling a supply base at Falmouth, near Fredericksburg, the Lincoln administration entertained a lengthy debate about the wisdom of his plan. Lincoln eventually approved but cautioned him to move with great speed, certainly doubting that Lee would cooperate as Burnside anticipated.
By November 21, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's Corps had arrived near Fredericksburg, and Jackson's (which had been downstream along the Rappahannock to prevent crossings there) was following rapidly. Lee at first anticipated that he would fight Burnside northwest of Fredericksburg and that it might be necessary to drop back behind the North Anna River. But when he saw how slowly Burnside was moving, he directed all of his army toward Fredericksburg. The first pontoon bridges 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 he was facing only half of Lee's army, not yet dug in, and if he acted quickly, he might be able to attack Longstreet and defeat him before Jackson arrived. Once again he squandered his opportunity. The bridges arrived at the end of the month, and by this time Jackson was present and Longstreet was preparing strong defenses.
Burnside originally planned to cross his army east of Fredericksburg, 10 miles (16 km) downstream at Skinker's Neck, but Early's division arrived there and blocked him. 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 other 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.
Lee had great faith in his army, even though he was fairly uncertain of the plans of the opposing commander as late as two days before the Union Army attempted a crossing. He deployed approximately 20,000 men under Longstreet on his left flank, which was anchored on the ridge known as Marye's Heights, just to the west of the city, behind a stone wall at the crest of the ridge. Fearing a crossing downstream, south of the city, he deployed the rest of his men to the south under Jackson. The area was interspersed with hills, another excellent defensive position.
Union engineers began to assemble six pontoon bridges on the morning of December 11, two just north of the town center, a third on the southern end of town, and three close to the south, near the confluence of the Rappahannock and Deep Run. They came under punishing sniper fire, primarily from the Mississippi brigade of Brig. Gen. William Barksdale. Eventually his subordinates convinced Burnside to send landing parties over in the boats that evening to secure a small beachhead and rout the snipers. The Confederate army chose not to resist the landings vigorously because of the covering Union artillery, but some of the first urban combat of the war occurred as buildings were cleared by infantry and by artillery fire from across the river. Union gunners sent more than 5,000 shells against the town and the ridges to the west. After the bridges were in place, Burnside's men looted the city with a fury that enraged Lee, who compared their depredations with those of the ancient Vandals. The destruction also angered Lee's men, many of whom were native Virginians. Over the course of December 11 to December 12, Burnside's men deployed outside the city and prepared to attack Lee's army.
The battle opened south of the city at 8:30 a.m. on December 13, when Franklin sent two divisions from the Left Grand Division into a previously unseen gap in Jackson's defenses on the right. By 10 a.m., a thick fog began to lift, and the initially sluggish movements picked up speed. Meade's division formed the main attack, supported by the divisions of Doubleday and Gibbon. The attack was stalled by the Virginia Horse Artillery under Major John Pelham, and an artillery duel between Pelham's two cannons (a 12-pound brass Napoleon and a rifled Blakely) and the Union artillery batteries lasted for about an hour. General Lee observed the action and commented about Pelham, age 24, "It is glorious to see such courage in one so young." As Meade finally made traction, he ran into Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg's brigade, scattering it. Gregg was shot and mortally wounded; he died two days later.
To Meade's right, Gibbon's attack against the brigades of Brig. Gens. William Dorsey Pender and Edward L. Thomas made good progress, but Meade's and Gibbon's men became separated; by 1:30 p.m., a heavy Confederate counterattack pushed them back. Because of the foggy conditions, Federal artillery could not provide much assistance. The Union men were driven back and chased by the Confederate infantry, raising concerns that they might be trapped at the river. Eventually the divisions of Brig. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles and Brig. Gen. David B. Birney were brought up to strengthen the Federal line, and Stonewall Jackson's counterattack ground to a halt. The focus of action moved north to Marye's Heights.
The initial assaults west of Fredericksburg began at 11 a.m. as French's division moved along the Plank Road, facing a steep-banked drainage ditch and a wide, open plain of , dominated by Confederate infantry and artillery behind a sunken road and stone wall. Earlier, Longstreet had been assured by artillerist Edward Porter Alexander, "A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it." The Union men attacking had to file in columns over two small bridges across the drainage ditch, making them a massed target. Attempts to shift the attack farther to the right failed because of swampy ground. As in the south, Union artillery was prevented by fog from effectively silencing the Confederate guns.
Burnside had anticipated this attack on the right would be merely supportive of his main effort on the left, but Franklin had stalled and resisted entreaties to continue, so Burnside shifted his emphasis. After French's division was repulsed with heavy losses, Burnside sent in the divisions of Hancock and Howard, which met a similar fate. By this time, Pickett's division and one of Hood's brigades had marched north to reinforce Marye's Heights. Griffin's division renewed the attack at 3:30 p.m., followed by Humphrey's division at 4 p.m. At dusk, Getty's division assaulted from the east and was also repulsed.
Six Union divisions had been sent in, generally one brigade at a time, for a total of sixteen individual charges, all of which failed, costing them from 6,000 to 8,000 casualties. Watching the carnage from the center of his line, a position now known as Lee's Hill, General Lee was quoted as saying, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." The action on the heights also included the charge of the Irish Brigade, which lost 50% of its strength in the battle but advanced further up the heights than any other Union Brigade. Confederate losses at Marye's Heights totaled around 1,200. The falling of 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.
The armies remained in position throughout the day on December 14, when Burnside briefly considered leading his old IX Corps in one final attack on Marye's Heights, but he reconsidered. That afternoon, Burnside asked Lee for a truce to attend to his wounded, which Lee graciously granted. The next day the Federal 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 December 13, 1862. After obtaining permission from his commander, Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, Kirkland gathered canteens and in broad daylight, without the benefit of a cease fire or a flag of truce (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 and marker on the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park where he carried out his actions.
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." General 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 President 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.
In March 2006, the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) announced the beginning of a $12 million national campaign to preserve the historic Slaughter Pen Farm, a key part of the Fredericksburg battlefield. The farm, known locally as the Pierson Tract, was the scene of bloody struggle on December 13, 1862. Over this ground Federal troops under Maj. Gen. George Meade and Brig. Gen. John Gibbon launched their assault against Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's Confederates holding the southern portion of the Army of Northern Virginia's line at Fredericksburg. Despite suffering enormous casualties the Federal troops under Meade were able to temporarily penetrate the Confederate line and for a time represented the North's best chance of winning the Battle of Fredericksburg. The fighting on this southern portion of the battlefield, later named the Slaughter Pen, produced 5,000 casualties and five Medal of Honor winners.
The Slaughter Pen Farm was considered to be the largest remaining unprotected part of the Fredericksburg battlefield. It is also the only place on the battlefield where a visitor can still follow the Union assault of December 13 from beginning to end. Nearly all the other land associated with Union attacks at Fredericksburg—either on the southern end of the battlefield or in front of Marye's Heights—has been degraded by development. The $12 million acquisition of the Slaughter Pen Farm at the Fredericksburg battlefield has been called the most ambitious nonprofit battlefield acquisition in American history.
In October 2006 the Department of the Interior awarded a $2 million grant based on the significance of the Slaughter Pen Farm. The money was provided through a U.S. Congressional appropriation from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund supports non-federal efforts to acquire and preserve meaningful American Civil War battlefield lands. The program is administered by the American Battlefield Protection Program, an arm of the National Park Service. In addition, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT) committed $1 million toward the Slaughter Pen Farm fundraising campaign.
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