Union General Burnside’s disastrously unsuccessful attack on the Virginia city of Fredericksburg, launched between 11th and 15th December 1862
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Name of the battle: Fredericksburg
Date of the Battle of Fredericksburg: 11th to 15th December 1862
Generals at the Battle of Fredericksburg: Major General Burnside commanded the Federal forces. General Robert E. Lee commanded the Confederate forces.
Numbers involved in the Battle of Fredericksburg: 120,000 Federal troops and 330 guns. 75,000 Confederate troops and 200 guns.
Arms and equipment at the Battle of Fredericksburg: Both sides suffered from significant difficulties in conducting land warfare in the 1860s. Small arms, with the Minié style of rifled musket, had become significantly more lethal than had been the case with the old short ranged, grossly inaccurate, smooth bore muskets that had been the standard infantry weapon for nearly 2 centuries. Rifled guns firing shell projectiles increased the range and effectiveness of artillery. More sophisticated systems of transport and organisation of supply, made possible by railroads and advances in industrial production, allowed for much larger armies. Tactics had advanced little from the era of the Napoleonic Wars of the beginning of the 19th Century in Europe.
Probably only the Prussian army with its long standing General Staff had conducted sufficient study of the impact of changes in warfare to enable it to train its staff officers and generals to control the substantially greater and more sophisticated armies of the period. The French and British had first shown their failure to grasp problems of warfare in the second half of the 19th Century during the Crimean War. The French confirmed their failure to show any greater grasp in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the British in the South African War of 1900. In each of these wars reliance was placed on successful colonial commanders who had no idea how to handle the large armies involved in a major war.
Uniforms: In Europe the French military establishment of Emperor Napoleon III was in the ascendancy following the Crimean War and the wars in Northern Italy fought by the French against the Austrians. Both Federal and Confederate armies adopted the French style ‘kepi’ and several regiments on each side adopted the uniforms of the French North African ‘Zouaves’. The Federal regiments wore dark blue. The Confederates in theory wore a light grey uniform. In practice the Confederate government was unable to maintain a proper supply of uniform clothing for its troops who wore whatever they could get their hands on. In many instances the readiest supply of uniforms lay in captured Federal supplies, leading to confusion on several battlefields, when Confederate troops were mistake for Federals.
Small arms: The Crimean War between the British and the French and the Russians from 1854 to 1856, saw the conversion of the British and French infantry from the old smoothbore musket, which had been in service for 150 years, to the Minié rifled musket, with its substantially increased range and accuracy. The Federal government equipped its infantry with Minié style rifled muskets bought from Europe but increasingly manufactured in Federal armouries. Lacking a manufacturing base and cut off from European import by the Federal blockade, the Confederate government was forced to equip its soldiers with stocks of weapons seized from Federal armouries located in southern states. These were largely the old smooth bore muskets, of short range and notoriously inaccurate. Many Confederate troops, without even these weapons, were forced to use whatever firearms they were able to bring on enlistment. As General Lee’s army in Virginia captured Federal stocks established after the outbreak of war more modern firearms were seized and used to equip his infantry.
Artillery: As with small arms, the Federal access to European markets and its own manufacturing base gave the Federal army an immense advantage in the production of cannon. Broadly the Federal artillery was equipped with rifled guns firing shells, while the Confederate artillery was equipped with the old style smooth bore cannon, of lesser range and accuracy; firing ball, grape shot and case shot.
Orders of battle at the Battle of Fredericksburg:
The Federal ‘Army of the Potomac’:
Commander: Major General Ambrose E. Burnside
Right Grand Division: Major General Edwin V. Sumner
II Corps commanded by Major General Darius N. Couch
Brigadier General Winfield S. Hancock’s division
Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard’s division
Brigadier General William H. French’s division
IX Corps commanded by Brigadier General Orlando B. Wilcox
Brigadier General William W. Burns’ division
Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis’ division
Brigadier General George W. Getty’s division
Cavalry Division of Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton
Centre Grand Division: Major General Joseph Hooker
III Corps commanded by Brigadier General George Stoneman
Brigadier General David B. Birney’s division
Brigadier General Daniel E. Sickles’ division
Brigadier General Amiel W. Whipple’s division
V Corps commanded by Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield
Brigadier General Charles Griffin’s division
Brigadier General George Sykes’ division
Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphrey’s division
Cavalry Brigade of Brigadier General William W. Averell
Left Grand Division: Major General William B. Franklin
I Corps commanded by Major General John F. Reynolds
Brigadier General Abner Doubleday’s division
Brigadier General John Gibbon’s division
Major General George G. Meade’s division
VI Corps commanded by Major General William F. Smith
Brigadier General William T.H. Brooks’ division
Brigadier General Albion P. Howe’s division
Brigadier General John Newton’s division
Cavalry Brigade of Brigadier General George D. Bayard
The Confederate ‘Army of North Virginia’ commanded by General Robert E. Lee
First Corps commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet
Major General Lafayette McLaws’ division
Major General Richard H. Anderson’s division
Major General George E. Pickett’s division
Major General John Bell Hood’s division
Brigadier General Robert Ransom Jr’s division
Second Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson
Major General D.H. Hill’s division
Major General A.P. Hill’s division
Brigadier General Jubal A. Early’s division
Brigadier General William B. Taliafero’s division
Reserve artillery commanded by Brigadier General William N. Pendleton
Cavalry Division commanded by Major General J.E.B. Stuart
Background to the Battle of Fredericksburg: The Virginian town of Fredericksburg lies on the Southern bank of the Rappahannock River which generally flows west to east across the state, but at this point flows north to south before turning east again and flowing to the Atlantic. General Lee’s ‘Army of North Virginia’ occupied positions along the heights behind Fredericksburg, defending the Southern bank of the Rappahannock River.
General Burnside’s Federal ‘Army of the Potomac’ advanced to the North bank of the river intending to cross the river and attack the Confederate Army, before advancing towards the city of Richmond, which doubled as the Confederate capital and state capital of Virginia.
Account of the Battle of Fredericksburg: Following the missed opportunities at the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln relieved Major General George B. McClellan of his command of the Federal Army of the Potomac, replacing him with Major General Ambrose Burnside, one of the corps commanders. General Burnside was under pressure from President Abraham Lincoln in Washington to act against General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the main Confederate
army in the East, without further delay. The Army of the Potomac advanced to the Rappahannock river, the advance guard arriving on 17th November 1862, but was held up for a month awaiting the arrival from Washington of the cumbersome pontoon bridges needed to cross the river. During that time General Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was reinforced by Major General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s Corps enabling General Lee to occupy an extended line behind Fredericksburg.
General Burnside divided his army into 3 ‘Grand Divisions’ commanded by Major Generals Sumner, Franklin and Hooker for the attack across the river. General Hooker would remain in reserve while General Sumner crossed the Rappahannock opposite Fredericksburg, took the town and then attacked the Confederate forces of General Longstreet positioned on Marye’s Heights behind the town. General Franklin’s Grand Division would cross the Rappahannock downstream from Fredericksburg and attack the Confederate forces of General Jackson positioned on the rising ground overlooking the river plain.
No bridges remained intact over the Rappahannock at this point. The pre-war crossing points comprised a ferry and a railway bridge that had been destroyed.
General Lee’s army was formed in two corps; General Longstreet’s corps occupied the heights behind Fredericksburg, comprising Marye’s Heights to the East (named for the Marye House) and Prospect Hill to the West. General Jackson’s corps held the raised ground to be attacked by General Franklin’s Grand Division to the East of the town. Roads linked the two positions. Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry division extended the Confederate line to the river on the extreme right flank of General Jackson’s Corps.
With the arrival of the pontoons General Burnside was enabled to launch his attack.
As the activity on the Northern bank of the Rappahannock had given notice of a Federal attack, Brigadier General Barkside’s Confederate brigade of Mississippi and Florida regiments moved through Fredericksburg to the river bank to oppose the crossing.
To begin the assault Federal engineers had to establish five pontoon bridges at the points of attack; three for General Sumner’s Grand Division and two further downstream for General Franklin’s Grand Division. During the early hours of 11th December 1862, the Federal engineers of 50th New York Engineer Regiment moved down to the Rappahannock with their bridging equipment. Pontoon bridges were established by mooring a row of pontoon boats across the river in a line and laying a wooden roadway across the top. Each pontoon boat was conveyed on a wagon drawn by horses or mules to the riverbank, launched into the water and then manoeuvred into position by hand. This operation could not easily be conducted under fire, particularly from riflemen situated near the riverbank.
As dawn broke on 11th December 1862, the Federal bridging engineers came under a heavy fire from the Confederate infantry on the Fredericksburg riverside. The engineers were driven to take cover while the Federal artillery positioned on the Stafford Heights on the North bank opened a heavy barrage on the houses where Barkside’s men were positioned. The barrage continued until the early afternoon of 11th December 1862 when a Federal regiment, 7th Michigan, crossed the river in boats and attacked the Confederates at the river side. Other Federal regiments followed; 19th and 20th Massachusetts and 89th New York, fighting through the town. As night fell on 11th December 1862 the Confederates withdrew from Fredericksburg leaving the Federal army in control of the town.
Burnside spent the 12th December 1862 moving the two Grand Divisions with the attacking role across the Rappahannock, so that Major General Sumner’s Grand Division occupied the town of Fredericksburg and Major General Franklin’s Grand Division faced General Jackson’s Corps to the South-East of the town. For the next day General Burnside ordered each commander to attack with a single division leading. This decision has been criticised as a failure by Burnside to make use of his overwhelming numbers of troops and guns.
The Federal attack on the Confederate positions of General Longstreet on Marye’s Heights and General Jackson to the South East of Fredericksburg was launched on the morning of 13th December 1862. The day was foggy, which limited the support that could be given to the attacking troops by the substantial Federal artillery positioned on the Stafford Heights to the North of the Rappahannock.
Major General Meade’s Pennsylvanians formed the division chosen to attack General Jackson’s Corps.
Supported by General Gibbon’s division, Meade made considerable progress despite heavy Confederate artillery fire, dispersing the brigade of Brigadier General Maxse Gregg and driving back the brigades on its flanks. A heavy counterattack pushed Meade and Gibbon back in spite of support from a reserve division and the Federal attack there halted. General Franklin had failed to dislodge General Jackson.
On the Federal right flank, behind Fredericksburg, Brigadier General French’s division led the attack against General Longstreet’s positions on Marye’s Heights.
The Federal troops found that an area of swamp land to their right, which led down to the bend in the Rappahannock that circled round Fredericksburg, limited the area in which they could deploy as they advanced. They were restricted to the proximity of the road that led west out of
Fredericksburg and along which they advanced out of the town. At the foot of Marye’s Heights the road turned left and ran off to the centre of the Confederate position. Along the side of the road, at the foot of Marye’s Heights, stood a stone wall in the path of the Federal attack. This wall was manned by the Georgian brigade of Brigadier General Thomas R.R. Cobb, later to be assisted by a South Carolina regiment.
French’s Federals launched their attack against this wall. They were bombarded by the Confederate artillery situated on the heights and shot down by Cobb’s men from behind the wall. French’s division was decimated by this fire before they could reach the wall. The attack fell away and the surviving Federal infantry took what cover they could in the field by the side of the road. During the day six further Federal divisions were launched in turn to attack the Confederate positions behind the wall. The Federals suffered heavy casualties but could not reach the wall. Federal dead and wounded lay in the field short of the wall with the survivors of the divisions that had been committed to the attack: French’s division was followed by Hancock’s, then four more divisions from Hooker’s Grand Division reserve. The slaughter of the Federal infantry before the wall at the foot of Marye’s Heights is one of the notorious episodes of the War.
General Longstreet’s Corps did not come off unscathed. Federal artillery from the Stafford Heights on the North of the Rappahannock and in Fredericksburg bombarded the positions on Marye’s Heights, although substantially hampered by the foggy conditions. The Confederate brigade commander at the wall, General Cobb, was fatally injured in the battle.
General Burnside ordered General Sumner to commit further divisions to the attack on the left of the assaulting divisions but nightfall overtook events.
General Burnside resolved to lead the renewed attack on Marye’s Heights himself the next morning, 14th December 1862, at the head of the 3rd Corps. Burnside declared that he would take Marye’s Heights or die in the attempt. His subordinate commanders headed by General Sumner dissuaded him from this course.
The Federal troops pinned down in the fields before the terrible wall were required to remain there until 15th December 1862 when Burnside abandoned hope of mounting any further assault successfully or remaining in Fredericksburg and withdrew his army across the Rappahannock.
Casualties at the Battle of Fredericksburg: Federal casualties were 1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded and 1,769 missing or captured: a total of 12,635 men.
The Confederates suffered 608 dead, 4,116 wounded and 653 missing or prisoners: a total of 5,377.
Aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg: The battle was trumpeted across the Confederacy as a major victory. The battle plunged President Lincoln into a state of despair. Major General Burnside remained in post for a short period before being relieved of his command of the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln. A Congressional enquiry was held into the battle at which Burnside was heavily criticised.
Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of Fredericksburg:
- The Richmond Examiner newspaper in its report of described the battle as a “stunning defeat to the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil.”
- When questioned before the battle on the ability of the Confederate artillery to repel a Federal attack on Marye’s Heights, Colonel Porter Alexander of Longstreet’s artillery is reputed to have said “General….A chicken could not live on that field when we open up.”
- The day after the main assault on the wall, on 14th December 1863, a Confederate soldier, Sergeant Richard Kirkland of 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, climbed the stone wall and gave water to the wounded Federal soldiers lying in the field earning for himself the nickname of the ‘Angel of Marye’s Heights’. A statue at the site commemorates his actions.
- At the height of the slaughter at the base of Marye’s Heights General Lee is reputed to have said “It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
- 5 Medals of Honour were awarded to Federal soldiers of General Reynold’s 1st Corps in the attack on General Jackson’s wing of the Confederate position to the East of Fredericksburg.
The previous battle in the British Battle sequence is the Battle of Antietam