Battle of Fredericksburg – Summary and Significance


Following the Battle of Antietam, McClellan failed to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia like President Abraham Lincoln would have liked. In October, following the bloodiest day in American history, Lincoln visited the Army of the Potomac and later had Halleck, general-in-chief, message McClellan to “Cross the Potomac and give battle… Your army must move now while the roads are good.”

McClellan, however, responded that he could not move until his supplies were refilled. This was in typical fashion for the “young Napoleon.” Lincoln, Halleck, and the public alike all expressed frustration at McClellan’s inactivity. On October 13, Lincoln wrote McClellan, “You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing?”

McClellan continued, in his usual manner, to complain of a lack of supplies. Two weeks later Lincoln wrote quite comically, “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?” On October 26, the Federal army finally began to cross the Potomac. However, their movement was so slow that it allowed Lee to send Longstreet’s corps in between the Federals and Richmond.

Out of patience and out of trying, Lincoln, on November 7, replaced McClellan with Ambrose Burnside. This was a post, however, that Burnside did not feel he was qualified for. In a break from McClellan and McDowell, Burnside moved his men south to Falmouth, opposite of Fredericksburg. It was from this point that Burnside planned to move on to Richmond. Burnside had moved so swiftly that he had stationed two corps at Falmouth before Lee could get troops in way of the crossing. While Burnside initially had the advantage, he would soon be slowed by a lack of pontoon bridges. These bridges did not show up for more than a week, giving Lee valuable time to move the majority of his 75,000 men to oppose the Federal crossing.

Burnside Makes His Move

Burnside, not having the luxury to sit and wait, had to make a move despite the advantage lying with Lee and his rebels. Burnside chose to cross the river directly in front of the rebels, believing that “the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front” than above or below the river. This did not surprise Lee like Burnside had expected. Lee positioned Longstreet’s corps along the four miles of heights overlooking the town of Fredericksburg. This position looked down across the field that the Union force would have to cross. Lee offered resistance to give Jackson and his corps time to unite with the other corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, extending the line three more miles.

On the morning of December 11, engineers from the Union force began to construct the Pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg and a few downstream from the city. The engineers at Fredericksburg struggled to do their job as Mississippians fired on them from rifle-pits and buildings. In response, the Union artillery fired shots into the city. Eventually, three regiments of Union soldiers crossed the river and cleared the city. However this gave Lee even more time. When the Union force finally crossed and reached the city, they began to loot the city and smashed “rebel” pianos, glassware, furniture, and more.

The next day, December 13, the Battle of Fredericksburg began. The left wing of the Union army  under General William B. Franklin was ordered to attack the Confederate right under “Stonewall” Jackson. While this move was taking place, the right of the Union army was to probe Longstreet’s corps at Marye’s Heights. If Franklin’s men were successful, then the right wing would make a full attack.

The Fighting Begins

On the morning of December 13, the fog lifted and revealed Franklin’s men moving across the plain to the south of Lee’s headquarters stationed on the hilltop. These men attacked Jackson on Prospect Hill. A Pennsylvania division under George Gordon Meade found a seam in Jackson’s lines and hit the rebel defenses. Had Franklin committed additional troops, this could have been a breakthrough. However, he failed to do so and the rebels sent in reserves and counterattacked, driving back Meade and his men.

Franklin did not engage more than half of the 50,000 men he had and he failed to renew his attack even when ordered by Burnside to do so. While the attacks on the Union left we occuring, probing on the right turned into brigade-size assaults on Marye’s Heights. The Federals marched wave after wave at the rebels situated behind a half-mile long stone fence. With each wav hundreds of dead and wounded we left across the field.


Behind the fence, four ranks of Georgians and North Carolinians fired at a rapid, machine-gun-esque pace. Fourteen brigades continued to try to take the heights through this rapid fire throughout the day. As the night set in, the Union force ended their attack. The Federals suffered nearly 13,000 casualties with the Confederates suffering less than 5,000. Burnside wanted to lead the 9th Corps the next day on a charge against the rebels but decided, wisely, against it. On the 15th, Burnside withdrew his army from Fredericksburg.

One soldier, writing about the carnage of the battle, stated that the bodies were “swollen to twice their natural size…” Here lay “one without a head, there on without legs, yonder a head and legs without a trunk… with fragments of shell sticking in oozing brain, with bullet holes all over the puffed limbs.” Following the disaster at Fredericksburg, another soldier wrote, “My loyalty is growing weak… I am sick and tired of disaster and the fools that bring disaster upon us… All think Virginia is not worth such a loss of life… Why not confess we are worsted, and come to an agreement.” Burnside would later be relieved of his duty as commander of the Army of the Potomac and was replaced by “Fighting” Joe Hooker.

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