After Antietam both armies returned to face each other in Virginia, General Robert E. Lee situated near Culpeper and General McClellan at Warrenton. But McClellan’s slowness, his failure to accomplish more at Antietam, and perhaps his rather arrogant habit of offering gratuitous political advice to his superiors, coupled with the intense anti-McClellan views of the joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, convinced Lincoln that he could retain him in command no longer. On November 7 Lincoln replaced him with General Burnside, who had won distinction in operations that gained control of ports on the North Carolina coast and who had led the IX Corps at Antietam. Burnside, acutely aware of his own limitations, accepted the post with reluctance.
Burnside decided to march rapidly to Fredericksburg and then to advance along the railroad line to Richmond before Lee could intercept him. Such a move by the army, now 120,000 strong, would cut Lee off from his main base. Burnside’s advance elements reached the north bank of the Rappahannock on November 17, well ahead of Lee. But a series of minor failures delayed the completion of pontoon bridges, and Lee moved his army to high ground on the west side of the river before the Federal forces could cross. Lee’s situation resembled McClellan’s position at Malvern Hill that had proved the folly of frontal assaults against combined artillery and infantry strong points. But Burnside thought the sheer weight of numbers could smash through the Confederates. continued below map
To achieve greater ease of tactical control, Burnside had created three headquarters higher than corps—the Right, Center, and Left Grand Divisions under Maj. Generals Edwin V. Sumner, Joseph Hooker, and William B. Franklin, respectively—with two corps plus cavalry assigned to each grand division. Burnside originally planned to make the main thrust by the Center and Left Grand Divisions against General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson’s positions on a long, low-wooded ridge southeast of the town. The Right Grand Division would cross three pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg and attack Marye’s Heights, a steep eminence about one mile from the river where CSA General Longstreet’s men were posted. On the morning of December 15, he weakened the attack on the left, feeling that under cover of 147 heavy siege and field guns on the heights on the Union side of the river much could be achieved by a better-balanced attack along the whole line.
Burnside’s engineers had begun laying the bridges as early as December 11. But harassment from Confederate sharpshooters complicated the operation, and it was not until the next day that all the assault units were over the river. After an artillery duel on the morning of the thirteenth, the fog lifted to reveal dense Union columns moving forward to the attack. Part of the Left Grand Division, finding a weakness in Jackson’s line, drove in to seize the ridge; but as Burnside had weakened this part of the assault, the Federals were not able to hold against Confederate counterattacks. On the right, the troops had to cross a mile of open ground to reach Marye’s Heights, traverse a drainage canal, and face a fusillade of fire from the infamous sunken road and stone wall behind which Longstreet had placed four ranks of riflemen. In a series of assaults the Union soldiers pushed to the stone wall but no farther. As a demonstration of valor, the Union attacks all along the line were exemplary; as a demonstration of tactical skill, they were tragic. Lee, personally observing the failed attacks on the Confederate right wing, commented: "It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it."
The Union Army of the Potomac lost 12,000 men at Fredericksburg, while the CSA Army of Northern Virginia suffered only 5,300 casualties. Burnside planned to renew the attack on the following day. Jackson, whose enthusiasm in battle sometimes approached the point of frenzy, suggested that the Confederates strip off their clothes for better identification and strike the Army of the Potomac in a night attack. But Lee knew of Burnside’s plans from a captured order and vetoed the scheme. When the Federal corps commanders talked Burnside out of renewing the attack, both armies settled into winter quarters facing each other across the Rappahannock. Fredericksburg, a disastrous defeat, was otherwise noteworthy for the U.S. Army in that the telegraph first saw extensive battlefield use, linking headquarters with forward batteries during the action—a forerunner of twentieth century battlefield communications.
Fredericksburg December 11-15, 1862
A stunning defeat for the Union. Confederate Robert E. Lee suffered roughly 5,000 casualties but inflicted nearly 13,000--on his opponent, General Ambrose Burnside.
Voices of the Civil War
The courage of the troops who fought at Fredericksburg through their actual accounts. You can sence how the south felt it would win the war after this northern defeat from the soilders letters
From Manassas to Appomattox: General James Longstreet
According to some, he was partially to blame for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg; according to others, if Lee had followed Longstreet's advice, they would have won that battle. He has been called stubborn and vain; and he has been lauded as one of the greatest tacticians of the Civil War
Ambrose Burnside, the Union general, was a major player on the Civil War stage from the first clash at Bull Run until the final summer of the war. He led a corps or army during most of this time and played important roles in various theaters of the war.