The Battle of Fredericksburg: A Costly Union Defeat

In December 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac faced off against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia along the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia in one of the most decisive and devastating defeats of the American Civil War. Outfoxed by Lee and struggling with ineffectual leadership from General Ambrose E. Burnside, the Union forces launched repeated frontal assaults against an entrenched Confederate position, leading to appalling casualties. The battle demonstrated both the prowess of Lee and his generals James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson, as well as the foolishness of Burnside and theUnion high command in demanding these bloody and futile attacks. Fredericksburg underscored a pattern of Northern strategic and tactical failures that prolonged the war.

Burnside had replaced the disgraced General George B. McClellan in early November 1862 with pressure mounting for aggressive action. Though he initially demurred about accepting command, ambition got the better of him. “The President has more than once offered me the command, which I wanted him to bestow on some one else,” he confessed, but finally agreed to accept itafter sensing the political winds in Washington. Fatefully, he soon put together plans for an offensive against Lee’s position below the Rappahannock, boasting with misplaced swagger, “I think now we have got the rebel on the run & that we shall be able to take advantage of his present confusion.” But he was entirely mistaken about Rebel disorder or panic.

Lee’s forces arrived at Fredericksburg shortly before the Federals, digging in on good ground behind a stone wall on Marye’s Heights just west of town. Lee said of Burnside, “We will give him Fredericksburg, but not a route.” It was a prophetic statement. When Burnside’s men first reached the outskirts of Fredericksburg in mid November, the town was virtually undefended. But squandered time and the bungling of pontoon bridge construction allowed Lee to fortify the heights. Napoleon once said God fights on the side with the best artillery, and now Lee had cannon aimed with devastating accuracy on the exposed ranks of Union soldiers.

Despite Lee’s formidable position, Burnside convinced himself that one quick, decisive victory could still redeem his reputation and the Union cause. Never pausing to consider alternative plans that might outflank or deceive Lee, he stubbornly sent wave after wave of blue-clad soldiers against the steep slopes and stone wall, where Confederates mowed them down with cannon and rifle fire. Absorbed in a fantasy world of his own making, Burnside refused to recognize impending disaster even as the bodies piled up.

On December 13, 1862, Union divisions under Generals William French and Winfield Hancock launched the first suicidal charge only to be ripped to shreds by concentrated artillery and musketry. General Nathan Kimball said his division “marched out to their death.” Despite appalling losses, Burnside ordered more attacks the next day. Columns of soldiers moved across the plain, veterans noting it had the feeling of executions. When told that further attacks would amount to “the murder of brave men,” the morally obtunded Burnside declared he “was sent here to fight. To fight I will.” Regiments like the Irish 69th advanced with terrible courage, officers saluting comrade units as they marched into the maw of death knowing few would return. “Good-bye, Sammy!” shouted Major Thomas Galway just before a bullet killed him. Hundreds died in mere minutes, regimental colors falling like autumn leaves. Captain Nathaniel Irish saw 120 of his men “mown down like grass.” Done more damage to his army than to his enemy, Burnside nevertheless planned new attacks on December 15 before his disgusted lieutenants threatened open revolt.

In the course of this futile bloodletting, clever Stonewall Jackson unleashed his own surprise attack on December 13 against General George Meade’s exposed right flank, nearly puncturing Union lines before darkness and staunch resistance along Hanover Street saved them. This action showed Robert E. Lee’s tactical brilliance in striking aggressively even from the defensive, tactics he would brilliantly employ at Chancellorsville months later.

When the smoke cleared and the ghastly slaughter ended on December 15, nearly 13,000 Union men lay dead or wounded on the field, losses more than double those of the Confederates. Lamenting this “sad havoc of battle,” General LeeIDER Hoover observed, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” In a revealing letter to his wife Mary, Lee confessed, “I have been up to the scene of death & destruction once too often.” This was haunting language for a general often wrongly caricatured as seeing war as a grand game. If further proof of his profound respect for his enemy, he ordered Northern stretcher-bearers carrying off wounded Union soldiers not be disturbed by small arms fire or artillery.

Even Lee’s great victory had not lifted Confederate morale as might have been imagined. Both sides began to sense a long, grueling war of attrition lay ahead. This was reflected when Lee confessed to Jefferson Davis his regret after Fredericksburg that they had not produced a landmark triumph bringing decisive results in either crushing enemy armies or spurring diplomatic recognition from Britain and France.

Meanwhile in the North, the Union reeled from this disaster which combined with news of other failed offensives at places like Stones River caused despairing newspapers to declare, “One would think we were fighting to conciliate rather than subjugate.” Lincoln himself said, “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.” Desertion spiked in Union ranks amid cries of “Let the war fail!” and “Abe won’t do!” But Fredericksburg produced an equal determination to remove bungling figures like Burnside from command. When Lincoln shortly removed the disgraced general, attributing this defeat to “the bad conduct of a few officers…who were almost on the eve of controlling their armies,” the butcher’s bill for their martial arrogance was again counted up in villages across the North. Fredericksburg had demonstrated the steep price exacted by mediocre commanders and suicidal courage alike.