Following the bloody Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), Confederate General Robert E. Lee retreated into Virginia, ending his first invasion of the North. The commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George McClellan, chose not to pursue Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia, prompting President Abraham Lincoln to issue an executive order on November 5, 1862, replacing McClellan with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.
Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck urged Burnside to launch an invasion of Virginia quickly. Burnside submitted a plan to Halleck on November 9 that called for the Army of the Potomac to cross the Rappahannock River at the town of Fredericksburg and seize control of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, which he would use for a rapid invasion of the Confederate capital at Richmond. Halleck and Lincoln approved the plan. By November 19, 1862, Burnside had readied his the 115,000-man Army of the Potomac to cross the Rappahannock at Stafford Heights across from Fredericksburg.
Burnside’s plans began unraveling when transportation problems forced him to wait until November 25 for pontoons his engineers needed to build temporary bridges spanning the river. Lee used the delay to move his army from Culpeper, Virginia, and fortify the area in and around Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Burnside could not find alternative river crossings. Pressured by Lincoln and Halleck, Burnside felt compelled to continue the operation and assault Lee’s 78,000 well-entrenched soldiers despite the setbacks.
December 11, 1862
Concealed by early morning fog on December 11, Union engineers began constructing three pontoon bridges across the river—two directly opposite Fredericksburg and one a mile downstream. As the Yankees hastened to complete their task, the fog lifted, exposing them to the watchful eyes of Confederates on the other side. Sharpshooters from Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Mississippian brigade who occupied the town soon sent the engineers scurrying for cover.
Burnside countered by ordering his chief of artillery, Brigadier General Henry Hunt, to shower Fredericksburg with a massive bombardment beginning at 12:30 pm. Despite a barrage of over 8,000 shells that ravaged the city’s homes and commercial establishments, Barksdale’s sharpshooters re-emerged after the bombardment ended to continue their deadly assault on Burnside’s engineers as they attempted to resume their construction.
As completing the bridges became impracticable, Hunt suggested sending infantry task forces across the river by boat to establish beachheads from which to begin operations and silence the Rebel sharpshooters. At 3:30 that afternoon, men from the 7th Michigan, 89th New York, and 19th Massachusetts clambered aboard small boats and crossed the Rappahannock under heavy fire and executed the first large-scale opposed river crossing in American history.
After establishing their bridgeheads, the Union infantrymen moved into town where they engaged in close-quarter urban combat with Barksdale’s brigade for nearly four hours. Gradually, the Yankees cleared the buildings and drove the Rebels out of town, enabling Burnside’s engineers to complete the bridges by 5 p.m.
December 12, 1862
With the bridges completed, thousands of Federal soldiers poured into Fredericksburg and began plundering the town. As the drunken Yankees looted and burned civilian homes and businesses, enraged Confederates continued fortifying their defenses on the heights above the town.
December 13, 1862
Action at Prospect Hill and the Slaughter Field
After re-establishing control of his army, on December 13, Burnside began his assault on Lee’s army. The initial point of attack would be against Lee’s right flank on the southern end of the battlefield at Prospect Hill. Burnside selected Major General William B. Franklin’s Grand Division to lead the offensive. Their orders were to advance across a farm field, later known as the “Slaughter Pen,” and drive Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 2nd Corps from the woods on the other side.
Franklin had about 65,000 men at his disposal, but because of poorly worded orders from Burnside that morning, Franklin believed that he was to use only a small portion of his forces during the initial strike. Franklin selected two small divisions, totaling about 8,000 soldiers, from Major General John F. Reynolds’ 1st Corps, to lead the onslaught against Jackson’s 37,000 Confederate defenders. Reynolds’ 3rd Division, commanded by Major General George Meade (future leader of the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg) would spearhead the attack. Reynolds’ 2nd Division, commanded by Brigadier General John Gibbon (former leader of the famous Iron Brigade) would support Meade’s men on their right. As the Federals prepared to advance across the field, a single cannon on their left flank, manned by Major John Pelham of the Stewart Force Artillery, pinned them down for over an hour. It was not until Pelham ran out of ammunition that Union artillerists could move forward at 11:20 a.m. and shell Jackson’s defenses for roughly forty minutes.
Assuming that the Union barrage had softened the Confederate lines, Meade and Gibbon finally moved forward around noon. As they advanced, the Yankees soon became disorganized as they crossed a water-filled ditch fence. Adding to their plight, the Federals soon discovered that their artillerists had done little damage to the Rebel batteries in front of them. As the Bluecoats approached the Confederate lines, Jackson ordered his men to hold their fire until they came within about 800 yards. Upon entering this killing zone, Confederate artillerists unleashed a blistering fusillade that forced their victims to save themselves by lying prone in the cold December mud. Meade and Gibbon countered by signaling for their artillerists to resume firing on the Rebel batteries. For roughly the next half-hour, the gunners on both sides engaged in an artillery duel as the pinned-down Union soldiers watched.
Around 1 p.m., Meade ordered his men to rise and advance once again. Within the hour, they maneuvered their way through an undefended swampy area. Two Union regiments broke through the Confederate line and crossed the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad tracks running through the area, surprising General Maxcy Gregg’s Brigade who were resting in reserve with their arms stacked. During the subsequent melee, a Union bullet mortally wounded Gregg.
Despite the breakthrough, Meade’s success quickly unraveled when Rebel soldiers killed or wounded three of his brigade commanders. Ignoring Jackson’s earlier instructions to not commit his troops, Major General Jubal Early sent three brigades into the gap and repulsed the Union breakthrough.
Meanwhile, when Gibbon saw Meade’s Division surge forward, he urged his command to follow suit and try to sustain Meade’s progress. Jackson countered by ordering forward two brigades commanded by Brigadier General Edward L. Thomas and Brigadier General James H. Lane. As the Yankees approached the railroad tracks separating the two forces, the Rebels unleashed a volley that stalled their advance. Although Gibbon may not have known it, he was facing all three of his brothers who were members of Lane’s North Carolina Brigade. By the time Gibbon’s men reached the Rebel lines following three valiant charges, both sides ran low on ammunition and resorted to fixing bayonets or using their rifles as clubs.
Meade’s attempts to bring forth reinforcements went unanswered. As over 50,000 Union soldiers stood by in reserve, Confederate counterattacks repulsed the Union attacks. By 3 p.m., the Rebels had regained control of the southern portion of the eight-mile-long battle lines at Fredericksburg, and the Federals had squandered their best opportunity to win the conflict.
Casualties on and around Prospect Hill and the Slaughter Field totaled roughly 9,000. The Union lost 5,000 soldiers (killed, wounded, and missing/captured) while the Confederacy lost 4,000 soldiers.
Marye’s Heights—the Valley of Death
As Major General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division began its assault against Major General Thomas J. Jackson’s 2nd Corps on the right flank of the Confederate lines eight miles to the south, soldiers from Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division steeled themselves for a diversionary attack against General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps on the heights of the river valley directly above Fredericksburg. At roughly 11 a.m. on December 13, the 1st Brigade of Brigadier General William French’s 3rd Division, commanded by Brigadier General Nathan Kimball, marched out of Fredericksburg toward Marye’s (pronounced Marie’s) Heights.
Facing them were about 6,000 Rebel troops aligned along a sunken road behind a four-foot-high stone wall at the base of the ridge. Behind, and above the infantry were nine batteries from the elite Washington Artillery of New Orleans on top of Marye’s Heights. Loaded with canister and grapeshot, the Confederate’s big guns trained on the open field between the stone wall and the town.
Confounding the Union advance was a millrace that traversed the length of the field. Fifteen feet wide and three to five feet deep, the man-made ditch stalled the Federals as they tried to wade across the icy water or pass over the three footbridges that crossed the waterway. As the Yankees scrambled up the slippery slope on the opposite side, Confederate artillerists and infantrymen mowed them down with a deadly hail of canister, grapeshot, and musket fire. As Lieutenant-Colonel Edward P. Alexander, one of Longstreet’s artillery commanders, had boasted before the battle, “a chicken could not live on that field when we open up on it.” The carnage was so great that Union soldiers later referred to the site as the Valley of Death.
Despite devastating losses against impossible circumstances, Burnside committed nearly all the right-wing of his army in three failed assaults against Marye’s Heights by mid-day. The Federals who survived the assaults found themselves pinned down in a swale on the battlefield, unable to move forward or backward without risking death.
By 2:30 in the afternoon, Burnside learned that Franklin’s attack against Jackson at Prospect Hill had failed. At that point, the Union leader began to fear that Lee would launch a counterattack at Marye’s Heights, and drive the rest of the right-wing of the Army of the Potomac back through the town to the river where it might face annihilation. The best solution Burnside could conger up to save the right-wing of his army was to commit his reserves from across the river to even more suicidal assaults against the impregnable Rebel defenses behind the stone wall. He reasoned that he could then withdraw what remained of his forces under cover of darkness.
Four times during the afternoon and evening, Burnside ordered more Union troops into the Confederate meat grinder. What began that morning as a diversionary assault to prevent Lee from re-deploying troops to the site of the main Union assault at Prospect Hill had morphed into a desperate attempt to trade lives for the time. The results were devastating. The Army of the Potomac lost 8,000 men at Marye’s Heights (killed, wounded, and missing/captured), yet not one Union soldier got within fifty yards of the stone wall. By comparison, the Confederacy suffered fewer than 1,000 casualties.
Among the Federal units that suffered horribly during the futile assaults was the famous Irish Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher (pronounced “mar”). Fighting without their battle-worn flag, which was in New York being restored, the Irishmen wore sprigs of boxwood on their hats to identify each other.
On the other side of the stone wall stood Colonel Robert McMillan’s Georgia Brigade of Irishmen. As Meagher’s men marched in good order toward their doom, chanting the old Irish cheer “Faugh-a-Ballagh” (“Clear the Way”), their fellow countrymen cut them down with a blistering sheet of hot lead. Of the roughly 1,315 Irish Federals who started up the hill, 545 were killed or wounded. The 69th New York lost all sixteen of its officers. Despite their staggering losses, Meagher’s men advanced farther than any other Union unit that day. Brigade historian Henry Clay Heisler later declared that Burnside’s reckless blunder “was not a battle—it was a wholesale slaughter of human beings.”
December 14–15, 1862
Despite overwhelming losses the day before, Burnside proposed resuming the attack on December 14 during a council of war with his general officers. Following occasional artillery exchanges between the two armies, Burnside gave in to the objections of his subordinates and pulled the Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock River. On December 15, the Army of Northern Virginia reoccupied the ravaged town of Fredericksburg.
The Battle of Fredericksburg was the largest conflict of the Civil War. Nearly 200,000 combatants took part in the fighting, producing roughly 18,000 casualties. The Union lost roughly 12,653 soldiers (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, and 1,769 missing). The Confederacy suffered 5,377 casualties (608 killed, 4,116 wounded, and 653 missing).
Despite the enormity of the battle and the magnitude of the losses, the Confederate tactical victory had little strategic impact on the war. The Confederate victory was so absolute that upon viewing the carnage, Lee reportedly remarked to Longstreet that “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
In the battle’s aftermath, President Lincoln came under extreme criticism in the North, even among Republican allies. Still, the fallout did not dissuade him from issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
Following another failed offensive against Lee’s army in late January 1863, derisively known as Burnside’s Mud March, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 20 on January 25, announcing that “The President of the United States has directed . . . That Major General A. E. Burnside, at his own request, be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac.” The order further stated, “That Major General J. Hooker be assigned to the command of the Army of the Potomac.”
In the South, jubilation reigned. Lee and his army became even more convinced of their invincibility. That mindset would serve them well when they collided with the brash Hooker in April at Chancellorsville, but may very well have led to their undoing at the Battle of Gettysburg in July.