Submitted by C.J. Johnson
The city of Fredericksburg, Virginia is located about half-way between the Union and Confederate capitals – Washington and Richmond. In mid-December 1862, the strategic city of Fredericksburg was the site of a significant battle in the War Between the States, 150 years ago this week. The National Park Service sums up the battle this way.
“On November 14, Burnside, now in command of the Army of the Potomac, sent a corps to occupy the vicinity of Falmouth near Fredericksburg. The rest of the army soon followed. Lee reacted by entrenching his army on the heights behind the town. On December 11, Union engineers laid five pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock [River] under fire.
On the 12th, the Federal army crossed over, and on December 13, Burnside mounted a series of futile frontal assaults on Prospect Hill and Marye’s Heights that resulted in staggering casualties. Meade’s division, on the Union left flank, briefly penetrated Jackson’s line but was driven back by a counterattack. Union generals C. Feger Jackson and George Bayard, and Confederate generals Thomas R.R. Cobb and Maxey Gregg were killed. On December 15, Burnside called off the offensive and recrossed the river, ending the campaign.”
The Battle of Fredericksburg was important on many levels. It has been commented that it was one of the largest battles, as well as one of the deadliest, during the course of the war. With close to 200,000 troops involved in action, Fredericksburg had one of the highest troop counts of any battle up to that point.
According to civilwar.org, the battle “…featured the first major opposed river crossing in American military history.” In addition, block-by-block street fighting in the city, something uncommon for this war, was utilized early in the battle, as Union forces came off the boats and entered town.
Burnside’s initial artillery bombardment of the city, river crossings, urban combat, numerous frontal assaults on the Confederate line – none of these were effective against the Rebel army in place, even though the Union forces, estimated at 100,000 outnumbered the Confederates at 72,000. The 600 yard battlefield was a killing field for the Yankees. No Union soldiers came close to the wall at Marye’s Heights. Losses for the Union were heavy, over 13,000 compared to 4,500 Rebel casualties.
General Lee was quoted as saying to General Longstreet during the fighting, “It is well that war is so horrible, or else we should grow too fond of it,” Confederate artillery officer Edward Porter Alexander’s comment that “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it” proved true during the battle of Fredericksburg.
According to history.com, “The defeat was one of the most decisive losses for the Union army, and it dealt a serious blow to Northern morale in the winter of 1862-63.” Ultimately, Union General Burnside, who had replaced McClellan, would be replaced at the beginning of 1863.