Why was the 1862 battle of Fredericksburg important?

The battle of Fredericksburg was one of the most significant and devastating battles of the American Civil War. It took place from December 11 to 15, 1862, in and around the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. It involved nearly 200,000 combatants, the largest concentration of troops in any Civil War battle. It also featured the first opposed river crossing and the first urban combat in American military history. The battle resulted in a crushing Confederate victory and a staggering Union loss of more than 12,000 casualties.


The background of the battle

The battle of Fredericksburg was part of the Union’s attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond and end the war. After the bloody stalemate at Antietam in September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln replaced General George B. McClellan with General Ambrose E. Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside devised a plan to move his army quickly from Warrenton, Virginia, to the lower Rappahannock River, where he would cross and flank General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. However, Burnside’s plan was delayed by bureaucratic problems and poor communication. By the time he reached Fredericksburg on November 17, Lee had already moved his army to block his path.


The river crossing and the street fighting

Burnside decided to cross the river at Fredericksburg, where he hoped to surprise Lee and break through his defenses. He ordered pontoon bridges to be built across the river, but they arrived late and were met with fierce resistance from Confederate sharpshooters on the other side. It took two days, from December 11 to 12, for the Union engineers to complete the bridges under heavy fire. Some Union troops crossed the river in boats and engaged in close-quarters combat with the Confederates in the streets of Fredericksburg. The city was subjected to intense shelling and burning by both sides.



The assaults on Marye’s Heights and Prospect Hill

On December 13, Burnside launched his main attack against Lee’s army, which was entrenched on a series of heights behind the city. He divided his army into three grand divisions: the Left Grand Division under General William B. Franklin, the Center Grand Division under General Joseph Hooker, and the Right Grand Division under General Edwin V. Sumner. Franklin’s division was ordered to attack Lee’s right flank on Prospect Hill, where General Stonewall Jackson’s corps was positioned. Hooker’s and Sumner’s divisions were ordered to assault Lee’s left flank on Marye’s Heights, where General James Longstreet’s corps was stationed.

The attacks were poorly coordinated and executed. Franklin’s division managed to break through Jackson’s first line of defense, but was repulsed by a counterattack led by General A.P. Hill. Hooker’s and Sumner’s divisions faced a deadly fire from Longstreet’s men, who were protected by a stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights. Wave after wave of Union soldiers charged across an open field toward the wall, only to be cut down by musket and artillery fire. The assaults lasted for hours, but failed to dislodge the Confederates from their positions.



The aftermath of the battle


On December 14, both armies remained in their positions, while thousands of wounded and dead lay on the frozen ground between them. Some Union soldiers tried to help their comrades or retrieve their bodies, but were shot at by the Confederates. On December 15, Burnside ordered a withdrawal across the river, ending his disastrous campaign. The battle of Fredericksburg was a humiliating defeat for the Union and a morale boost for the Confederacy. It also marked one of the lowest points in Lincoln’s presidency and increased the anti-war sentiment in the North.

The battle of Fredericksburg had several consequences for both sides. It demonstrated Lee’s tactical genius and his ability to use terrain to his advantage. It also exposed Burnside’s lack of leadership and his inability to adapt to changing circumstances. It showed that frontal assaults against entrenched positions were futile and costly. It also revealed that urban warfare was brutal and destructive for both civilians and soldiers.

The battle of Fredericksburg was one of the most important battles of the Civil War because it influenced the course of the war and shaped public opinion in both regions. It also left a lasting impression on those who witnessed or participated in it. As one Confederate soldier wrote: “It is well that war is so terrible – we should grow too fond of it.”