Battle of Fredericksburg, the principal battle of
the Fredericksburg Campaign, was fought December
11–15, 1862, in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, between General Robert
's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia
of the Potomac
, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside
. It is remembered as one of the
most one-sided battles of the American Civil War
. The Union Army
suffered terrible casualties in futile frontal assaults on December
13 against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights behind
the city, bringing to an early end their campaign against the
Confederate capital of
Background and Burnside's plan
The battle was the result of an effort by the Union Army to regain
the initiative in its struggle against Lee's smaller but more
aggressive army. Burnside was appointed commander of the Army of
the Potomac in November, replacing Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan
. Although McClellan had
stopped Lee at the Battle of Antietam in September, President Abraham Lincoln believed he lacked
decisiveness, did not pursue and destroy Lee's army in Maryland, and wasted
excessive time reorganizing and re-equipping his army following
Burnside, in response to prodding from Lincoln and General-in-Chief
Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck
, planned a late fall offensive; he
communicated his plan to Halleck on November 9. The plan relied on
quick movement and deceit. He would concentrate his army in a visible
fashion near Warrenton, feigning a movement on Culpeper Court House,
Orange Court House, or Gordonsville. Then he would rapidly
shift his army southeast and cross the Rappahannock
River to Fredericksburg, hoping that Robert E.
would sit still, unclear as to Burnside's intentions, while the
Union Army made a rapid movement against Richmond, south along the
Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad
Burnside selected this plan because he was concerned that if he
were to move directly south from Warrenton, he would be exposed to
a flanking attack
from Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall"
Jackson, whose corps was at that time in the Shenandoah
Valley south of Winchester.
He also believed that
the Orange and Alexandria
would be an inadequate supply line. While Burnside began
assembling a supply base at Falmouth, near Fredericksburg, the Lincoln administration
entertained a lengthy debate about the wisdom of his plan.
Lincoln eventually approved but cautioned him to move with great
speed, certainly doubting that Lee would cooperate as Burnside
Burnside organized his Army of the Potomac into three so-called
, comprising 120,000 men, of whom 114,000
would be engaged in the coming battle:
- The Right Grand Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Edwin V. "Bull"
Sumner, consisted of the II
Corps of Maj. Gen. Darius N.
Couch (divisions of Brig. Gens. Winfield S. Hancock, Oliver O. Howard, and William H. French) and the IX Corps of Brig. Gen. Orlando B. Willcox (divisions of Brig. Gens.
William W. Burns, Samuel
D. Sturgis, and George W. Getty). A cavalry division under Brig. Gen.
Alfred Pleasonton was
- The Center Grand Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, consisted of the III Corps of Brig. Gen. George Stoneman (divisions of Brig. Gens.
David B. Birney, Daniel
E. Sickles, and Amiel W. Whipple) and the V Corps of Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield (divisions of Brig.
Gens. Charles Griffin, George Sykes, and Andrew A. Humphreys). A cavalry brigade under
Brig. Gen. William W. Averell was attached.
- The Left Grand Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, consisted of the I Corps of Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds (divisions of Brig. Gens.
Abner Doubleday and John Gibbon and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade) and the VI Corps of Maj. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith (divisions of Brig. Gens.
William T. H. Brooks, Albion P. Howe,
and John Newton). A cavalry
brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. George D. Bayard was attached.
- The XI Corps of Maj. Gen.
Franz Sigel was held in reserve in the
area of Fairfax Court House. The XII Corps, under Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, was
stationed at Harpers
Ferry for the duration of the campaign.
Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had nearly 85,000 men,
with 72,500 engaged:
Movement to battle
Union army pontoon boats mobilized for
The Union Army began marching on November 15, and the first
elements arrived in Falmouth on November 17. Burnside's plan
quickly went awry—he had ordered pontoon bridges to be sent to the
front and assembled for his quick crossing of the Rappahannock, but
because of administrative bungling, the bridges had not preceded
the army. As Maj. Gen. Edwin
arrived, he strongly urged an immediate crossing of the
river to scatter the token Confederate force of 500 men in the town
and occupying the commanding heights to the west. Burnside began to
panic, worried that the increasing autumn rains would make the
fording points unusable and that Sumner might be cut off and
destroyed. He squandered his initiative and ordered Sumner to wait
By November 21, Lt. Gen. James
's Corps had arrived near Fredericksburg, and
Jackson's (which had been downstream along the Rappahannock to
prevent crossings there) was following rapidly. Lee at first
anticipated that he would fight Burnside northwest of
Fredericksburg and that it might be necessary to drop back behind
the North Anna River
. But when he
saw how slowly Burnside was moving, he directed all of his army
toward Fredericksburg. The first pontoon bridges arrived at
Falmouth on November 25, much too late to enable the Army of the
Potomac to cross the river without opposition. Burnside still had
an opportunity, however, because he was facing only half of Lee's
army, not yet dug in, and if he acted quickly, he might be able to
attack Longstreet and defeat him before Jackson arrived. Once again
he squandered his opportunity. The bridges arrived at the end of
the month, and by this time Jackson was present and Longstreet was
preparing strong defenses.
Burnside originally planned to cross his army east of
Fredericksburg, 10 miles (16 km) downstream at Skinker's Neck, but
Early's division arrived there and blocked him. So he decided to
cross directly at Fredericksburg. On December 9, he wrote to
Halleck, "I think now the enemy will be more surprised by a
crossing immediately in our front than any other part of the river.
... I'm convinced that a large force of the enemy is now
concentrated at Port Royal, its left resting on Fredericksburg,
which we hope to turn." In addition to his numerical advantage in
troop strength, Burnside also had the advantage of knowing his army
could not be attacked effectively. On the other side of the
Rappahannock, 220 artillery pieces had been located on the ridge
known as Stafford Heights to prevent Lee's army from mounting any
The stone wall at Marye's Heights in
Lee had great faith in his army, even though he was fairly
uncertain of the plans of the opposing commander as late as two
days before the Union Army attempted a crossing. He deployed
approximately 20,000 men under Longstreet on his left flank, which
was anchored on the ridge known as Marye's Heights, just to the
west of the city, behind a stone wall at the crest of the ridge.
Fearing a crossing downstream, south of the city, he deployed the
rest of his men to the south under Jackson. The area was
interspersed with hills, another excellent defensive
Union engineers began to assemble six pontoon bridges on the
morning of December 11, two just north of the town center, a third
on the southern end of town, and three close to the south, near the
confluence of the Rappahannock and Deep Run. They came under
punishing fire from Confederate sharpshooters
, primarily from the Mississippi
brigade of Brig.
Gen. William Barksdale
. Eventually his
subordinates convinced Burnside to send landing parties over in the
boats that evening to secure a small beachhead
and rout the sharpshooters. The
Confederate army chose not to resist the landings vigorously
because of the covering Union artillery, but some of the first
of the war occurred as
buildings were cleared by infantry and by artillery fire from
across the river. Union gunners sent more than 5,000 shells against
the town and the ridges to the west. After the bridges were in
place, Burnside's men looted the city with a fury that enraged Lee,
who compared their depredations with those of the ancient Vandals
. The destruction also angered Lee's men,
many of whom were native Virginians. Over the course of December 11
to December 12, Burnside's men deployed outside the city and
prepared to attack Lee's army.
Overview of the battle, December 13,
Sumner's assault, 1:00 p.m., December
Hooker's assault, 3:30 p.m., December
The battle opened south of the city at 8:30 a.m. on December 13,
when Maj. Gen. William Franklin
sent two divisions from the Left Grand Division into a previously
unseen gap in Jackson's defenses on the right. By 10 a.m., a thick
fog began to lift, and the initially sluggish movements picked up
division formed the main
attack, supported by the divisions of Doubleday
. The attack was stalled by the Virginia
Horse Artillery under Major John
, and an artillery duel between Pelham and the Union
artillery batteries lasted for about an hour. Pelham started with
only two cannons—a 12-pounder
smoothbore and a rifled Blakely—but continued with
only one after the latter was disabled by counter-battery fire.
General Lee observed the action and commented about Pelham, age 24,
"It is glorious to see such courage in one so young." As Meade
finally made traction, he ran into Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg
's brigade, scattering it. Gregg was
shot and mortally wounded; he died two days later.
To Meade's right, Gibbon's attack against the brigades of Brig.
Gens. William Dorsey Pender
and Edward L. Thomas
made good progress, but Meade's and
Gibbon's men became separated; by 1:30 p.m., a heavy Confederate
counterattack pushed them back. Because of the foggy conditions,
Federal artillery could not provide much assistance. The Union men
were driven back and chased by the Confederate infantry, raising
concerns that they might be trapped at the river. Eventually the
divisions of Brig. Gen. Daniel E.
and Brig. Gen. David B. Birney
were brought up to strengthen the
Federal line, and Stonewall Jackson's counterattack ground to a
halt. The focus of action moved north to Marye's Heights.
The initial assaults west of Fredericksburg began at 11 a.m. as
division moved along the
Plank Road, facing a steep-banked drainage ditch and a wide, open
plain of , dominated by Confederate infantry and artillery behind a
sunken road and stone wall. Earlier, Longstreet had been assured by
artillerist Edward Porter
, "A chicken could not live on that field when we open
on it." The Union men attacking had to file in columns over two
small bridges across the drainage ditch, making them a massed
target. Attempts to shift the attack farther to the right failed
because of swampy ground. As in the south, Union artillery was
prevented by fog from effectively silencing the Confederate
Burnside had anticipated this attack on the right would be merely
supportive of his main effort on the left, but Franklin had stalled
and resisted entreaties to continue, so Burnside shifted his
emphasis. After French's division was repulsed with heavy losses,
Burnside sent in the divisions of Hancock
, which met a similar fate. By this
division and one of
brigades had marched north to
reinforce Marye's Heights. Griffin's
division renewed the attack at 3:30 p.m., followed by Humphrey's
division at 4 p.m. At dusk,
division assaulted from the
east and was also repulsed.
Six Union divisions had been sent in, generally one brigade at a
time, for a total of sixteen individual charges, all of which
failed, costing them from 6,000 to 8,000 casualties. Watching the
carnage from the center of his line, a position now known as Lee's
Hill, General Lee was quoted as saying, "It is well that war is so
terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." The action on the
heights also included the charge of the Irish Brigade
, which lost 545 of its
1,300 men in the attack but advanced further up the heights than
any other Union brigade. Confederate losses at Marye's Heights
totaled around 1,200. The falling of darkness and the pleas of
Burnside's subordinates were enough to put an end to the attacks.
Longstreet later wrote, "The charges had been desperate and bloody,
but utterly hopeless." Thousands of Union soldiers spent the cold
December night on the fields leading to the Heights, unable to move
or assist the wounded because of Confederate fire.
The armies remained in position throughout the day on December 14,
when Burnside briefly considered leading his old IX Corps
in one final attack on
Marye's Heights, but he reconsidered. That afternoon, Burnside
asked Lee for a truce to attend to his wounded, which Lee
graciously granted. The next day the Federal forces retreated
across the river, and the campaign came to an end.
Burnside's headquarters at Phillips'
House during the Battle of Fredericksburg.
It was here that his staff generals dissuaded him from
carrying on any more assaults.
The casualties sustained by each army showed clearly how disastrous
the Union army's tactics were, and Burnside was relieved of command
a month later, following the humiliating failure of his "Mud March
." The Union army
suffered 12,653 casualties (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, 1,769
captured/missing). Two Union generals were mortally wounded: Brig.
Gens. George D. Bayard
and Conrad F. Jackson
. The Confederate army lost 5,377
(608 killed, 4,116 wounded, 653 captured/missing), most of them in
the early fighting on Jackson's front. Confederate Brig. Generals
and T. R. R. Cobb
were both mortally
Testament to the extent of the carnage and suffering during the
battle was the story of Richard
, a Confederate Army sergeant with Company G,
2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Stationed at the stone wall
by the sunken road below Marye's Heights, Kirkland had a close up
view to the suffering and like so many others was appalled at the
cries for help of the Union wounded throughout the cold winter
night of December 13, 1862. After obtaining permission from his
commander, Brig. Gen. Joseph B.
, Kirkland gathered
canteens and in broad daylight, without the benefit of a cease fire
or a flag of truce (refused by Kershaw), provided water to numerous
Union wounded lying on the field of battle. Union soldiers held
their fire as it was obvious what Kirkland's intent was.
was nicknamed the "Angel of
Marye's Heights" for these actions, and is memorialized with a
statue by Felix de Weldon on the
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National
Military Park where he carried out his actions.
The South erupted in jubilation over their great victory. The
described it as a "stunning defeat to
the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred
soil." General Lee, normally reserved, was
described by the Charleston Mercury as "jubilant, almost off-balance,
and seemingly desirous of embracing everyone who calls on
The newspaper also exclaimed that, "General Lee knows
his business and the army has yet known no such word as
Reactions were opposite in the North, and both the Army and
President Lincoln came under strong attacks from politicians and
the press. The Cincinnati Commercial wrote, "It can hardly be in
human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest
less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day."
Senator Zachariah Chandler
, wrote that,
"The President is a weak man, too weak for the occasion, and those
fool or traitor generals are wasting time and yet more precious
blood in indecisive battles and delays." Pennsylvania Governor
Andrew Curtin visited the White House after a trip to the battlefield.
He told the
president, "It was not a battle, it was a butchery." Curtin
reported that the president was "heart-broken at the recital, and
soon reached a state of nervous excitement bordering on insanity."
Lincoln himself wrote, "If there is a worse place than hell, I am
CWPT President Jim Lighthizer at
Slaughter Pen Farm
In March 2006, the Civil
War Preservation Trust
(CWPT) announced the beginning of a $12
million national campaign to preserve the historic Slaughter Pen
Farm, a key part of the Fredericksburg battlefield. The farm, known
locally as the Pierson Tract, was the scene of bloody struggle on
December 13, 1862. Over this ground Federal troops under Maj. Gen.
and Brig. Gen. John Gibbon
launched their assault against Lt.
Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's
Confederates holding the southern portion of the Army of Northern Virginia's
at Fredericksburg. Despite suffering enormous casualties the
Federal troops under Meade were able to temporarily penetrate the
Confederate line and for a time represented the North's best chance
of winning the Battle of Fredericksburg. The fighting on this
southern portion of the battlefield, later named the Slaughter Pen,
produced 5,000 casualties and five Medal
The Slaughter Pen Farm was considered to be the largest remaining
unprotected part of the Fredericksburg battlefield. It is also the
only place on the battlefield where a visitor can still follow the
Union assault of December 13 from beginning to end. Nearly all the
other land associated with Union attacks at Fredericksburg—either
on the southern end of the battlefield or in front of Marye's
Heights—has been degraded by development. The $12 million
acquisition of the Slaughter Pen Farm at the Fredericksburg
battlefield has been called the most ambitious nonprofit
battlefield acquisition in American history.
October 2006 the Department of the Interior awarded a $2 million grant based on the
significance of the Slaughter Pen Farm.
The money was
provided through a U.S. Congressional appropriation from the Land
and Water Conservation Fund. The fund supports non-federal efforts
to acquire and preserve meaningful American Civil War battlefield
lands. The program is administered by the American Battlefield
Protection Program, an arm of the National Park Service
. In addition,
the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT) committed $1 million
toward the Slaughter Pen Farm fundraising campaign.
In popular media
The Battle of Fredericksburg was depicted in the 2003 film Gods and Generals
on the novel of the same name
Both the novel and film focused primarily on the disastrous charges
on Marye's Heights, with the movie highlighting the charges of
brigades, and the 20th Maine Infantry
- Eicher, p. 396-97
- Eicher, p. 397
- O'Reilly, p. 148.
- Historians differ in reporting Union casualties in the Marye's
Heights sector. Esposito, in notes for map 73, cites "over 6,000."
Goolrick, p. 87, cites 7,000. Gallagher, p. 23, "nearly 8,000." All
other references list total battle casualties.
- Goolrick, pp. 83, 87. Irish Brigade casualties are also listed
in O.R., Series 1, Vol. XXI, Part 1, p. 129.
- Goolrick, p. 87.
- Eicher, p. 405.
- Eicher, p. 405. Foote, p. 44, claims that this number was later
acknowledged to be 4,201, based on over 1,000 men who had been
considered wounded or missing returning from Christmas holidays
with their families immediately after the battle. Goolrick, p. 779,
agrees with this figure.
- O'Reilly, p. 439.
- Goolrick, p. 92.
- Goolrick, pp. 92-93.
- Civil War Preservation Trust Announces Campaign to
Save Slaughter Pen Farm
- Catton, Bruce, Terrible Swift
Sword: The Centennial History of the Civil War, Volume 2,
Doubleday, 1963, ISBN 0-385-02614-5.
- Eicher, David J., The
Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon
& Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars,
Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
- Evans, Clement A., ed.,
Confederate Military History: A Library of Confederate States
History, Atlanta: Confederate Publishing Company, 1899,
Volume 3, Chapter XX.
- Gallagher, Gary W., Ed., The Fredericksburg Campaign:
Decision on the Rappahannock, University of North Carolina
Press, 1995, ISBN 0-8078-2193-4.
- Goolrick, William K., and the Editors of Time-Life Books,
Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville,
Time-Life Books, 1985, ISBN 0-8094-4748-7.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A
Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, 1958,
- O'Reilly, Francis Augustín, The Fredericksburg Campaign:
Winter War on the Rappahannock, Louisiana State University
Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8071-3154-7.
- Tucker, Spencer C., "First Battle of Fredericksburg",
Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social,
and Military History, Heidler, David S., and Heidler, Jeanne
T., eds., W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, ISBN
- U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation
of the Official Records
of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing
Office, 1880–1901, Series 1, Vol. XXI, Part 1.
- National Park Service battle description