• Tim Murphy

The Battle of Fredericksburg

1862 was a calamitous year for the Union Army of the Potomac. George B. McClellan’s failed Peninsular Campaign and inability to vanquish General Robert E. Lee at Antietam drew the ire of congressional Republicans, who called for the general's immediate dismissal. President Abraham Lincoln—annoyed by McClellan’s lack of initiative and unwillingness to aggressively pursue Lee—finally conceded to the political pressure on November 7, when he named Major General Ambrose Burnside commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside, the former commander of the Union IX Corps, had established himself as a competent leader following a string of victories in coastal North Carolina. Despite his successes in the field, Burnside had personal reservations about directing such a massive army. He had previously declined the position twice, but reluctantly accepted when Lincoln named Major General Joseph Hooker, Burnside's begrudging rival, as his alternative.


President Lincoln tasked the newly-appointed commander with a wintertime campaign, hoping that a significant Union victory—in conjunction with his Emancipation Proclamation—would cripple Confederate morale and encourage reunification. Burnside crafted plan forthwith to mobilize his 120,000 troops against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. From their encampments in Warrenton, Burnside’s army would feign movements southwest towards Culpeper, then rapidly shift east to Falmouth, where they could cross the Rappahannock River and capture Fredericksburg. Once a defensible base of operations was established in town, the Army of the Potomac would march directly on Richmond sixty miles south. Burnside’s strategy relied on swift marching to outmaneuver Lee’s divided Army of Northern Virginia—Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson commanded 37,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley while Lieutenant General James Longstreet oversaw nearly 40,000 troops at Culpeper.



Prior to his campaign, Burnside submitted to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck a request to procure pontoon bridges for an expeditious crossing of the Rappahannock. Halleck promised Burnside the safe delivery of his building materials; however, he failed to make shipping arrangements with any sense of urgency—a “fateful delay” that would jeopardize Burnside’s mission.


Burnside commenced his march on November 15, 1862. When the first Federal infantry trudged into Falmouth two days later, they found no available pontoons. General Sumner pressed Burnside for permission to ford the river and scatter any rebel resistance inside the town. Burnside—concerned that rising river levels could cut Sumner’s force off in enemy territory—anxiously demurred and retained his forces in Falmouth. The first pontoon trains—which were delayed by bad weather and inadequate transportation—did not arrive until November 25.


While Burnside’s army idled, General Lee rushed his garrisons to tactical positions along the Rappahannock River. On November 23, Longstreet’s command occupied Marye’s Heights. Overlooking Fredericksburg from the west, the ridge provided Confederate artillerymen with unobstructed views of the town’s fairgrounds below. At the base of Marye’s Heights was Telegraph Road—a sunken wagon path bordered by a four-foot-tall stone retaining wall. Confederate troops under Major General Lafayette McLaws and Brigadier General Thomas R.R. Cobb utilized the wall as a ready-made rampart. Jackson’s men, who arrived nearly a week later, occupied nearly twenty miles of riverfront south of town, unsure of where Burnside would attempt a crossing.


Faced with strong Confederate defenses, Burnside decided to cross the Rappahannock at three separate points and wage two battles across a seven-mile front. General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division, comprised of 65,000 troops from the I and VI Corps, would lead the primary assault against the Confederate right flank held by Stonewall Jackson. Meanwhile, General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division—the II and IX Corps—would conduct secondary attacks at Marye’s Heights to divert rebel reinforcements from the main engagement. General Joseph Hooker’s Center Grand Division, consisting of the III and V Corps, would remain in Falmouth as reserve. Burnside anticipated that his numerical advantage would overwhelm Longstreet’s defenses, allowing him to outflank Jackson and obliterate the Army of Northern Virginia. Additionally, the presence of 220 Union artillery pieces atop Stafford Heights would deter Lee from mounting any major counterattacks. On December 9, Burnside 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.”



During the pre-dawn hours of December 11, members of the 50th New York Engineers began assembling pontoon bridges below the Union headquarters at Chatham Manor. Around 5 a.m., sharpshooters from General William Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade fired upon the bridgebuilders, inflicting numerous casualties, including Captain Augustus Perkins who was mortally wounded. Federal infantry fired volleys from the opposing riverbank but failed to disrupt the rebel marksmen, who sheltered themselves inside Fredericksburg’s riverside buildings. The unbridled enemy fire continued for several hours, bringing construction to a bloody halt. Fifty engineers lay dead or wounded by ten o’clock. Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, commander of the engineering brigade, directed eighty Connecticut infantrymen to resume construction, but like the New Yorkers before them, several were gunned down before even stepping onto the pontoon planks.


With his engineers encumbered by unrelenting sniper fire, Burnside ordered his artillery units to shell the town. Over 150 Federal guns from Stafford Heights participated in the four-hour-long bombardment that delivered an estimated 8,000 projectiles, destroying at least one hundred of Fredericksburg’s buildings. To the disillusionment of Union leadership, the artillery barrage failed to drive out Barksdale’s tenacious regiments—their muskets flashing as engineers resumed their pontoon work.


Having exhausted all other prospects, Burnside issued the order to ferry troops across the Rappahannock. Colonel Norman Hall volunteered his brigade of Michigan and Massachusetts infantry to lead the crossing. Hall’s men came under intense musket fire but managed to cross the river and engage the Confederates in house-to-house street fighting. More Union troops followed, fighting their way through Fredericksburg in the first major urban combat of the Civil War. Barksdale’s men eventually withdrew to the main Confederate line at Marye’s Heights, allowing Union engineers to readily assemble the army’s pontoon bridges.


On December 12, the remainder of Burnside’s army crossed into Fredericksburg; however, no effort was made to organize an attack. Instead, Federal troops looted and vandalized the town’s abandoned buildings—an atrocity that continued for four days, appalling many Southerners and Unionists alike. Union soldiers indiscriminately plundered the homes of rich and poor, destroying personal effects and burning furniture in the streets. Some Yankee marauders even “divest[ed] themselves with rich dresses [and bonnets] found in the wardrobes.” Fredericksburg was the first sizeable town sacked by American forces during the Civil War. Many residents lost everything they owned.


THE BATTLE FOR PROSPECT HILL


On the morning of December 13, staff brigadier James A. Hardie delivered Burnside’s final instructions to General Franklin; however, the orders were not what Franklin had expected. Rather than ordering the entire Left Grand Division to attack Jackson’s position, Burnside suggested that Franklin send “a division at least” to seize the high ground while keeping his main body “in readiness to move at once, as soon as the fog lifts.” Comprehending Burnside’s orders in the most conservative manner, Franklin instructed I Corps commander General John F. Reynolds to choose two divisions (approximately 8,000 men) for attack. Reynolds selected his smallest division—Major General George Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves—to lead the assault with General John Gibbon’s brigade supporting from the rear.


Meade mobilized his troops at 8:30 a.m. under cover of heavy fog. However, when the mist lifted two hours later, the Pennsylvanians came under fire from Major John Pelham’s Virginia Horse Artillery. Union skirmishers and artillery were sent out to suppress Pelham’s guns, but the 24-year-old major consistently changed locations between rounds, preventing the Federal from finding his range. Pelham pinned down the Union army for nearly an hour. Only after running low on ammunition did his men finally withdraw. An all-embracing artillery duel commenced between Jackson and Reynolds’s divisions for an additional two hours. General George D. Bayard, one of Franklin’s calvary commanders, was mortally wounded during the barrage.


At 1 p.m., Meade pressed his advance through a boggy lowland and discovered a significant gap in the Confederate line. General A.P. Hill, whose regiments occupied this area of the battlefield, had foolishly left the six-hundred-yard stretch of marsh undefended, doubting the enemy’s ability to traverse the troublesome terrain. Colonel William Sinclair’s brigade was the first to exploit the opening, followed by Colonel Albert Magilton’s battalion. Union troops clashed with elements of James H. Lane’s North Carolina brigade and James J. Archer’s Alabamans as they pushed through the muddy moors. General Maxcy Gregg—commander of the South Carolina brigade—mistook the advancing Federals as retreating Confederates and ordered his men not to fire. While riding prominently to the front of his line, a bullet struck Gregg in his spine, mortally wounding him.



Meade’s Pennsylvanians had penetrated Jackson’s line at Prospect Hill, resulting in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Enemy soldiers utilized bayonets, musket butts, and rocks to vanquish the other upon the wooded ridgetop. Gibbon’s division attempted to support Meade’s right, but Confederate artillery inflicted heavy casualties while they maneuvered through low-lying plains. Gibbon, himself, was severely wounded when a shell fragment struck his right hand.


The main Union assault eventually faltered due to insufficient and poorly coordinated reinforcements. Conversely, Jackson’s defenses were bolstered by the timely arrival of Confederate reserves under Generals Jubal Early and William Taliaferro. The fresh Southern troops moved into Gregg’s original position and overwhelmed Gibbon, pushing his men back through open fields. Meade directed his left Brigadier General Conrad F. Jackson to flank the Confederate line, but Jackson was killed while organizing his troops. With more than a quarter of his men lost, Meade ordered a retreat. As the Federals fled across the plains, Jackson launched a counterattack. Confederate troops streamed down the embankments, recapturing the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad; however, their reprisal was stymied by close-range Union artillery and the arrival of Brigadier General Daniel E. Sickle’s III Corps.


Although Jackson remained in command of Prospect Hill, General Franklin relayed encouraging updates to Burnside regarding his division’s progress. Burnside—assuming Lee was dispatching troops towards the southern end of his line—decided to seize the opportunity and launch his ancillary assaults against Longstreet’s division atop Marye’s Heights.


THE ATTACK ON MARYE’S HEIGHTS


“I went into the action with no hope of success but with the conviction I was leading my brave battalion to inevitable and useless slaughter.”

– Colonel Samuel K. Zook, Union Brigade Commander


II Corps commander General Darius Couch had already assembled his troops on the outskirts Fredericksburg when General Sumner issued the order to attack at 11 a.m. General William French’s division led the charge with General Nathan Kimball’s “Gibraltar Brigade” at the very front. Under heavy artillery fire, French’s men crossed a canal ditch and formed lines below the old Fredericksburg fairgrounds—five hundred yards of open field separating the Union army from its objective. Nearly two thousand men sprinted up the muddy rise with fixed bayonets. A merciless torrent of iron and lead met them head-on, decimating their ranks and disintegrating their mighty charge into slaughter. Kimball, himself, was severely wounded in the right thigh. French’s brigade suffered 25% casualties with some companies losing more than half their available men.


Sumner ordered Brigadier General Winfield S. Hancock ahead to support French’s men. Hancock sent forward Colonel Samuel Zook’s brigade, who met a similar fate as French. Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher’s Irish Brigade followed. Some troops made it within fifty yards of the Confederate breastworks, but the Irishmen were ultimately driven back. The valor and gallantry exhibited by Meagher’s men came at a heavy cost. Of the Irish Brigade’s 1,250 soldiers, 545 were lost within an hour.


General Couch watched from the courthouse cupola as his first three attacks were bloodily repulsed. Each brigade would “melt like snow coming down on warm ground” against the impregnable Confederate position. Burnside’s intended diversion against Longstreet’s corps produced horrific casualties. But rather than reconsidering his approach, Burnside stubbornly pressed the same strategy, sending repeated waves of Federal soldiers over open ground.



Around 2 p.m., Burnside learned of Franklin’s continued failure to capture Prospect Hill. Convinced that Lee had shifted his lines, Burnside ordered Franklin to renew his assault with his entire force. The Left Grand Division commander refused, claiming that all of his forces had been engaged. This was not true, however, as the entire VI Corps and Brigadier General Abner Doubleday’s division of the I Corps had been mostly inactive, suffering only a handful of casualties from distant artillery fire while waiting in reserve.


Burnside brought Hooker’s Center Grand Division out of reserve to renew the assaults against Marye’s Heights. Hooker—who was reluctant to implement such misguided orders—selected V Corps General Andrew A. Humphreys to lead the charge. Humphreys attempted a flanking maneuver against the Confederate right, but the bemired canal ditch blocked his passage. He marched his column forward, over the sprawled bodies from previous assaults—the surviving wounded reaching out, begging them to turn back. A number of Humphrey’s men heeded these pleas, causing widespread panic and disorganization. Humphreys galloped frantically about and reorganized his men to charge, but his noble efforts were in vain. Like the brigades who preceded them, scores of Humphreys’ troops fell to the Confederates’ concentrated rifle fire from behind the stone wall. Of Humphreys 4,500 men, over one thousand were listed as casualties.


On the southern end of town, IX Corps commander General Orlando B. Willcox successively sent forward Samuel Sturgis and George Getty’s divisions towards the Sunken Road, hoping to draw some pressure off of Humphreys’ men. Canister shot and enfilading rifle fire withered Willcox’s command before they even crossed the ravine. General George Sykes’s division was ordered to relieve Humphreys later that evening. They too became caught in the crossfire.


The fifteenth and final Union assault was organized by Colonel Rush C. Hawkins’ brigade shortly after sunset. Hawkins witnessed the Washington Artillery retire from Marye’s Heights and presumed the Confederates were retreating. The brigade commander motioned his men to secure the heights. Unfortunately, Hawkins was mistaken. The Confederates were not retreating. Rather, the Washington Artillery was being replaced by fresh guns under Colonel Edward Porter Alexander. The attacking Yankees were immediately repulsed, enjoying no more success than their predecessors.



At 4:30 p.m., Union headquarters received correspondence from General Franklin that he was unable to arrange the Left Grand Division for a renewed assault. Burnside indignantly demanded Franklin launch more attacks on Prospect Hill and ordered Hooker’s Center Grand Division to assault Marye’s Heights. Hooker, who had performed a personal reconnaissance early that afternoon, advised Burnside to abandon the offensive. The Union commander obstinately resisted calls to concede, but as darkness fell, Burnside lamentably relented. Over the course of eight hours, more than thirty thousand Union soldiers were thrown at Marye’s Heights. None were able to breach Longstreet’s defenses.


THE BLOODY AFTERMATH


“When night descended upon the bloody field, nearly 1,500 dead soldiers lay upon an area of two acres in

front of our lines. Three or four times as many wounded howled in the darkness, a dismal concert for

assistance which could not be rendered, or perished in the cold from neglect.”


– Captain James R. Hagood, 1st South Carolina Infantry


Frustrated by his army’s failures, a desperate Burnside prepared to personally lead his old IX Corps command against Marye’s Heights the following morning. However, during his Council of War, Burnside's subordinates expressed collective skepticism about any attacks against Longstreet’s position. As the morning fog lifted on December 14, Burnside surveyed the strengthened Confederate line on the bluffs above Fredericksburg. After brief contemplation, the Union commander canceled his attack.


For three days, thousands of Union soldiers hugged the soil, pinned down in the swales by Confederate riflemen. Many wounded succumbed to their injuries after prolonged exposure to the harsh winter elements. The Union army rushed to evacuate as many soldiers as they could. More than fourteen thousand casualties filled the field hospitals around Fredericksburg. When Burnside finally retreated back across the Rappahannock on December 15, hundreds of Union dead still lay where they had fallen in front of Marye’s Heights. Scantily clad Southerners stripped the bodies of their clothing and belongings. On December 17, General Lee issued a truce to allow the Union burial detail to tend to the dead. It took two days to inter all the bodies.


The Battle of Fredericksburg involved nearly 200,000 combatants—the largest concentration of troops in any Civil War battle. Nine thousand men fell dead or wounded in the fighting around Prospect Hill. Union efforts at Marye’s Heights resulted in nearly eight thousand casualties while the Confederates sustained just twelve hundred losses. In total, the Federals lost nearly 13,000 men compared to the Confederacy’s 5,000. The one-sided nature of Fredericksburg was humiliating for the Union and emboldening for the Southern cause.



In the wake of such a demoralizing defeat, the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of War investigated the circumstances surrounding the Fredericksburg Campaign. While Burnside ambiguous orders did not prioritize one assault over the other, the Committee focused on Major General William Franklin’s failed attempts to capture Prospect Hill from Jackson’s outnumbered rebel force. Franklin defended his actions, claiming that Burnside had downplayed the importance of his Grand Division’s role. However, after not-so-lengthy debate, the Committee found Franklin at fault, reporting “had the attack been made upon the left with all the force which General Franklin could have used for that purpose, the plans of General Burnside would have been completely successful, and our army would have achieved a most brilliant victory.” The decision effectively terminated Franklin’s military career with the Army of the Potomac. Despite the ruling, Burnside accepted full responsibility for the defeat. Many others in Washington blamed Lincoln for pressuring such a hasty and foolhardy offensive. Burnside was later relieved of command in January 1863 and replaced by General Joseph Hooker.


THE FREDERICKSBURG BATTLEFIELD TOUR


The self-guided driving tour begins at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, located at the base of Marye’s Heights. Here, tourists can appreciate various museum exhibits depicting the perspectives of soldiers and civilians who witnessed the consequential battle and its aftermath. Adjacent to the Visitor Center is the Sunken Road Trail—a half-mile walking path that passes by several significant sites around Marye’s Heights. The first noteworthy landmark is the Stephens House and Cemetery, which was used by Confederate sharpshooters during the battle. The house managed to survive the battle but was burned down in 1913. Only its foundation remains today. Directly across the Sunken Road sits the modest Cobb Monument, one of Fredericksburg’s earliest war memorials dating back to 1888. The stone marks the spot where Confederate General Thomas R.R. Cobb fell mortally wounded early in the battle. A short walk from the Cobb marker stands the Innis House—one of the last remaining original battlefield structures. Bullet holes pepper the inner timbers of the home, reminders of the vicious fighting that took place 160 years ago.


Positioned across Mercer Street is the Kirkland Monument, honoring Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers—the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.” During the chilly dawning hours of December 14, 1862, Kirkland vacated his position behind the stone wall and dispensed water to wounded Union soldiers across the battlefield. Though vulnerable to Federal fire, Kirkland reached his first casualty unharmed. According to one witness, “he reached the nearest sufferer [and] knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head…and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever-scorched throat. By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was over.” Kirkland performed his humanitarian service for nearly two hours before returning to his post. Kirkland was later killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863 at the tender age of twenty.



Situated atop the heights stands Brompton (c. 1824). Originally constructed by John L. Marye—a prominent Fredericksburg lawyer and businessman—Brompton was the headquarters for Colonel James B. Walton, who commanded the Confederate batteries along the ridge. The estate was later used as a Union field hospital during the Overland Campaign. Today, the University of Mary Washington maintains Brompton as a private residence for the school’s president. Directly south of the manor is Willis Hill Cemetery—a mid-18th century burial ground that served as a Confederate triage center during the battle.


The final stretch of the Sunken Road Trail passes through Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Completed in 1869, the graveyard inters over 15,000 United States soldiers, only 20% are identified. At the center of the cemetery stands the Humphreys Monument. While Humphreys survived the battle and the war, his statue commemorates the brave men who served under him, and all the troops involved in the failed assaults against Marye’s Heights.


The second stop on the battlefield tour is Chatham Manor, located across the Rappahannock atop Stafford Heights. Built between 1768 and 1771 by William Fitzhugh—a distinguished Virginia state delegate—Chatham was owned by staunch secessionist J. Horace Lacy at the outbreak of the Civil War. When Lacy volunteered to serve as aide-de-camp in the Confederate army, his wife, Betty, moved her family out of the home, leaving it free to be commandeered by the Union army.


Federal troops first occupied Chatham in April 1862, when General Irvin McDowell brought his 30,000-man corps to Fredericksburg. On May 23, McDowell hosted President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at Chatham to discuss possible maneuvers against Richmond. However, before his plans could be implemented, McDowell was sent to confront Stonewall Jackson’s Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley. General Rufus King took over Fredericksburg’s command in McDowell’s absence.


During the Fredericksburg Campaign, Chatham initially served as a communications center but was quickly converted into a field hospital in the wake of Burnside’s devastating defeat. Hundreds of wounded men filled the house while many others were forced to lay outside on the cold, unforgiving ground. Caregivers such as Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and Dr. Mary Walker tended to the sick and dying. Over one hundred soldiers died at Chatham and were buried in the yard. At least three soldiers remain interred here; the rest have been relocated to Fredericksburg National Cemetery.



The final four tour destinations are situated along the bluffs south of town. The highest peak along this ridgeline—Lee’s Hill, formerly known as Telegraph Hill—served as the vantage point for Confederate high command. During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Confederate batteries here and at Howison Hill (the next tour stop down the road) unleashed effective enfilading artillery fire against the Federals streaming out of town. Amidst the barrage, a thirty-pound Parrott rifle exploded, sending shrapnel across the hilltop, nearly missing Generals Lee and Longstreet. Later, a Union shell lodged itself in the earthworks at Lee’s side, but failed to detonate.


The tour road terminates on Prospect Hill—the Confederate’s far right flank defended by Stonewall Jackson. Beyond the railroad tracks, vigilant visitors can observe a peculiar stone structure known as the Meade Pyramid. Erected by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society in 1897, the monument marks the climax of Meade’s advance through the Slaughter Pen Farm.


The Battle of Fredericksburg was an unfortunate culmination of past failures for the Army of the Potomac. Ambiguous orders, indiscreet strategy, and bureaucratic insubordination—pervasive inadequacies Lincoln tried to correct with Burnside’s appointment—doomed the highly touted winter offensive. The dispirited Union army returned to Washington and used the winter months to mend its ranks. Under new leadership, Federal forces would return to Fredericksburg the following spring and confront Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Chancellorsville.




Visit the National Park Service, American Battlefield Trust, History, ThoughtCo, Stone Sentinels, and HistoryNet to learn more about the battlefield and its historic events

Check out the following publications for more context surrounding the Battle of Fredericksburg:

  1. Bryant, James K.. The Battle of Fredericksburg: We Cannot Escape History. History Press, 2010.

  2. Jamieson, Perry, Wineman, Bradford. The Maryland and Fredericksburg Campaigns, 1862-1863: U. S. Army Campaigns of the Civil War. United States Army, 2019.

  3. Marvel, William, Skoch, George F, Pfanz, Donald. The Battle of Fredericksburg. Eastern National, 2007.

  4. Matteson, John. A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation. W. W. Norton, 2021.

  5. O'Reilly, Francis Augustin. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

  6. White, Kristopher, Mackowski, Chris. Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862. Savas Beatie, 2013.

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