The Battle of Fredericksburg and Its Many Interpretations

Sixth Maine Infantry on parade after the Battle of FredericksburgSixth Maine Infantry on parade after the Battle of Fredericksburg. (Photo: NYPL Digital Collections)

The one hundred and fifty-third anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought from December 11-15, 1862, offers an important reminder not only of the Civil War’s enormous costs but that the war’s major accomplishments – preservation of the Union and the emancipation of the slaves – were by no means inevitable. After defeating Confederates at the battles of Antietam, Perryville, and Corinth, Union forces in the fall of 1862 had renewed their offensives against Richmond, Chattanooga, and Vicksburg. Yet each of these efforts proved disappointing and costly. In the northern states, despair and disaffection grew. For the Lincoln administration, the political situation was discouraging, as Republicans suffered serious losses in the fall 1862 elections.

What amounted to a seeming stalemate in the eastern theater of the war led President Abraham Lincoln to replace General George B. McClellan with General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862. Yet the Army of the Potomac remained filled with McClellan loyalists, and General Joseph Hooker was openly angling for the top spot. Burnside clearly understood that his predecessor had been removed because he was not aggressive enough, and he could feel the political pressure to strike a blow against Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Union general proposed moving toward Fredericksburg, Virginia, preliminary to an offensive against Richmond. Burnside marched his army an astonishing forty miles in two days, leaving Lee guessing about Union intentions. But then the offensive bogged down as bureaucratic bungling delayed the arrival of the pontoons required for bridging the Rappahannock River. The delay enabled Lee to concentrate his forces and establish strong defensive positions.

In the early morning of December 11, Burnside’s engineers finally began laying pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock. Union artillery bombarded the Confederates and a Union brigade crossed the river and engaged the enemy. Eventually, they drove out the Confederate defenders – though not without a good deal of street fighting, a rare event during the American Civil War. For the next several days, Union soldiers thoroughly sacked Fredericksburg.

On December 13, Burnside ordered General William B. Franklin to attack the Confederate right. It didn’t go well. Carelessly drafted orders, confusion about the road network, and Franklin’s own lack of initiative led first to delay and then to a weak assault carried out largely by a single division. Meanwhile, thinking that Franklin had achieved much greater success than he had, Burnside ordered attacks against the Confederate left to drive the Rebels off Mayre’s Heights in the rear of Fredericksburg. Well-placed Confederate artillery fire and what some participants described as a “sheet of flame” from troops stationed behind a stone wall threw back all of these assaults. Further assaults continued for the rest of the day and Confederate soldiers repulsed them all, inflicting heavy losses on the Union troops. By nightfall, seventeen different Union brigades had attacked the Confederate left. Hundreds of men remained trapped on the field amidst screams of their wounded and dying comrades.

Several generals had to talk Burnside out of leading his beloved Ninth Corps in a desperate attack the following day, but by December 16, he had withdrawn the Army of the Potomac from Fredericksburg. For his part, Lee had patiently waited, expecting another Union attack. He was furious that the Yankees had slipped away and frustrated by what he and Stonewall Jackson would later consider an incomplete, if not empty, victory.

Although the battle had cost the Confederates over 5000 casualties, the Federals had lost nearly 13,000 men. The burial truces, the mass graves, the makeshift field hospitals, and surgery performed by candlelight would mean that the sights, sounds, and smells of the battle would remain etched into the minds of soldiers on both sides for years to come. Long lists of the dead and wounded (often incomplete and inaccurate) soon filled newspaper columns.

News of battle arrived quickly and often inaccurately by telegraph. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune wildly claimed that Burnside had “outgeneraled” Lee in withdrawing his army from Fredericksburg; a Christmas-day editorial added that aside from the casualties little had been lost at Fredericksburg. It remained for the Tribune’s bitter rival, The New York Herald, to state the obvious, although not without some relish: “At this Christmas time, when good fairies fill the air, we can hardly wonder at the sudden miracle which has shown us the Fredericksburg affair in its true light, and given us occasion for national joy instead of national sorrow.” Restive Republican senators moved to get rid of Secretary of State of William H. Seward, whom they saw as the evil genius preventing the government from prosecuting the war successfully, though Lincoln managed to handle the ensuing cabinet crisis deftly. The Times of London foresaw the impending fall of the American republic. A sharp spike in gold prices (that era’s equivalent of the Dow Jones Industrial Average) reflected the gloom from Fredericksburg. There was considerable speculation – including from abolitionists Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass – that Lincoln might even delay issuing the final Emancipation Proclamation.

Newly emboldened, “Copperhead” Peace Democrats bandied about words such as “slaughter” and “butchery.” Soldiers in the Army of the Potomac and people in the North generally lost faith in the cause, looked for people to blame for the devastating loss at Fredericksburg, and cheered on the rumors of foreign mediation that once again began to circulate. Blame for the disaster fell on Burnside, or on General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, or on Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, or on Lincoln; there were even calls to bring back McClellan. Burnside took full responsibility for the failure at Fredericksburg, though Lincoln issued a bizarre letter suggesting that the failure was mostly “an accident” and congratulating the army that the casualties had been “comparatively so small.” Morale in the Army of the Potomac hit new lows and a wave of desertions followed.

Yet, in the end, that much-beleaguered fighting force proved remarkably resilient. One lieutenant admitted that some of the men might have been “cursing the stars and stripes” right after the battle, but “these same soldiers will fight like bull dogs when it comes to scratch.” Indeed, the grumbling veterans could be “relied upon more.” The quickest way to end the war, this soldier believed, was to give the Rebs a good whipping and silence the “croakers” at home. For Confederates, meanwhile, a relatively easy victory produced a dangerous overconfidence. In many ways, Fredericksburg was a misleading low point in Federal fortunes and an equally deceptive high point for the Confederates.

Whatever the resulting despair, confusion, and wishful thinking, few contemporaries doubted the battle’s significance. Clara Barton headed south to assist the wounded; Louisa May Alcott went to work as a nurse in a Washington hospital. Walt Whitman traveled to Falmouth to look after his wounded brother; Herman Melville wrote a poem. In London, Karl Marx fumed over military incompetence, and Henry Adams screwed up his courage to face another Union disaster. Somehow the war and even this battle mattered to everyone – from the phrenologist who had offered a laughably silly reading of Burnside’s character to the staid editor of the Scientific American who blamed the politicians and generals for the nation’s woes.

The war would drag on for nearly two and a half years. And in a world where, in the words of the Apostle Paul, we often “see through a glass darkly,” the battle of Fredericksburg might well serve as a healthy reminder of both our human strengths and, more important, our all-too-human limitations.

About the Author

George C. Rable

George C. Rable is the Charles G. Summersell Chair in Southern History at the University of Alabama. His books include Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (1989), The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics (1994), Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (2002), and God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (2010).

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1 Comment

  1. Wonderful essay! I might add that this is why I would argue that California’s loyalty meant so much, because this period is just when large sums of money were arriving for the USSC from the Golden State, and this was good for morale!

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