Burnside in command

On November 15, Burnside moved his massive army of 110,000 south toward Richmond, Virginia. They headed directly for Fredericksburg, which lies about halfway between Washington, D.C., and Richmond. Burnside hoped to reach the town along the banks of the Rappahannock River before Lee could reach it. He then planned to push farther southward and place his army between the Army of Northern Virginia and Lee's forces.

Within two days, Burnside had about one-third of his men at Falmouth, Virginia, on the north bank across the river from Fredericksburg. Lee's forces had not yet all arrived, so entering the town was only a matter of crossing the Rappahannock. However, the U.S. Department of War was slow in delivering pontoon boats to Burnside, which held him back from crossing the river. Burnside needed the pontoons to lay down a floating bridge across the river. In the meantime, Lee pushed his men to Fredericksburg, arriving at the town with 75,000 men between November 19 and 20. Burnside's pontoons had still not reached his field position. The delay waiting for boats had cost the Union Army dearly.

As Lee faced Burnside's army, he called for reinforcements from Stonewall Jackson, who was in the Shenandoah Valley with his corps. Jackson and his "foot cavalry" hit the roads at once for Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Burnside called the town's mayor for a meeting and called on him to surrender Fredericksburg.

Naval Station Newport

General Ambrose Burnside took control of the Army of the Potomac after Lincoln relieved General George McClellan of his command. Instead of continuing with McClellan's slow march into the South, Burnside took his forces on a campaign to attack and occupy Fredericksburg. Burnside directed Union engineers to place pontoon boats across the river to form temporary bridges (above).

The mayor refused, even in the face of Burnside's threat to blast the riverside buildings to pieces.

The Union commander provided 16 hours for the town to be evacuated before he began the bombing. When the mayor requested additional time, Burnside agreed. This delay gave

Jackson plenty of time to reach Lee, who had taken up field positions behind Fredericksburg at the top of a sloping hill called Marye's Heights. As for Burnside, his guns were established on the opposite banks of the river at Stafford Heights.

Little took place during the final week of November and even early December. Burnside was hesitant, talking with Lincoln regularly and putting off what was sure to happen. As Burnside settled on his strategy, he kept things overly simple. Lincoln suggested that he move his forces to use Fredericksburg as a turning point, not the direct target. But Burnside refused because he thought, as explained by historian James McPher-son, that "the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front" across from Fredericksburg.

Burnside was wrong to plan things in such a simple way. For weeks, Lee and his lieutenants had hoped against hope that the Union commander would use so little imagination that he would order a direct frontal assault against the town and their forces dug into the ground behind it. Burnside chose to do just that. When the Federal attack finally opened, Lee had placed Longstreet's corps along a 4-mile (6 km) line of high ground overlooking the half mile (800 m) between the town and Marye's Heights. A stone wall 4 feet (1.2 m) high stood at the base of the hill, stretching for a half mile and providing cover for hundreds of Rebels.

During the weeks of delay and anticipation, both sides were dug into trenches in the ground so close to one another that some men could hear the conversations of their enemy. Sometimes Confederates and Union men even shared conversations. According to historian Geoffrey Ward, one Confederate officer recalled:

We were attracted by one . . . of the enemy's bands playing . . . their national airs—the "Star Spangled Banner," "Hail Columbia," and others once so dear to us all. It seemed as if they expected some response from us; but none was given until, finally, [they] struck up "Dixie," and then both sides cheered, with much laughter.


On December 11, after weeks of preparation, what was perhaps the most anticipated battle of the Civil War took place. Burnside ordered his engineers to begin laying down pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock. Three bridges were to be built across from the town and an additional three a few miles downriver. The work downriver progressed well, with the engineers' efforts covered by artillery.

Those working directly across from Fredericksburg had a much more difficult time of things. Mississippi sharpshooters were in position in the storefronts and warehouses along the riverfront, picking off blue-clad engineers one by one. The Union engineers were driven from their work so many times that Burnside finally ordered the shelling of the town to drive the Rebel riflemen from their positions. But the Mississippi men did not immediately abandon their posts, and they continued to lay down harassing fire against the engineers. Frustrated, Burn-side ordered troops to man the pontoon boats and row them across the river's width of 400 feet (120 m). Only then were the sharpshooters driven out of the town to rejoin the main Confederate force. Finally, the bridges in front of Fredericksburg could be placed without menace.

Throughout the remainder of the day and into a second, Union soldiers crossed the floating bridges into Fredericksburg. Civilians and Rebel soldiers alike had abandoned the town. The Union men, frustrated by the Rebel sharpshooters the previous day, rampaged through the houses, shops, and other buildings, taking everything they could. They destroyed everything they could not take, including furniture, glassware, and other domestic articles.

Two days after the bridge building had begun, the general was ready to march directly against Rebel lines at the top of Marye's Heights. Burnside's opponent held the high ground and had clearly seen the attack coming for some time. A direct frontal assault translated into suicide, but Burnside ordered one all the same. The field stretched for miles, and even before the Union attack, Lee had extended his lines by another 3 miles (5 km) by sending Jackson's corps up the Rappahannock to create an unbroken chain between Jackson's and Longstreet's men. So many Confederate gunmen and artillery units covered the ground up Marye's Heights that Longstreet quoted one of his cannon men as noting that "a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it."


On December 13, the grand Army of the Potomac prepared to make its deadly march toward thousands of well-trained enemy guns. Burnside sent his forces toward Lee's army. At the far end of the Union line, General William B. Franklin's men faced Jackson. If Franklin could only manage to crush Jackson's right, other places along the Union line of attack—especially on its right flank along Marye's Heights—might be able to press through as well. But Franklin did not produce positive results that day. The efforts of his 50,000 men were weakened by Burn-side's confusing orders and by Franklin's lack of drive to force the enemy out of position.

After the heavy ground fog lifted at mid-morning, Franklin's men hit Jackson's positions along Prospect Hill. On the Union left, Burnside had also sent Major General George G. Meade leading a division of Pennsylvania troops. Those troops discovered a break in Jackson's formations near a wooded ravine and, for a brief moment, took advantage of it and sent men into the break in the line. But Jackson's men rallied and soon drove the Union troops back outside their lines.

If Burnside had supported Meade, the Battle of Fredericksburg might have ended differently. In fact, Burnside did order Franklin to renew his assault against the enemy, but Franklin failed to respond to the order. He put only half of his men into the fight and was pushed back. Historian Douglas Southall Freeman recalls what General Lee said to Longstreet in response to the frenzied action on his right: "It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it!"

Meanwhile, Burnside was also focusing on his own right side along Marye's Heights. Burnside had placed General Joe Hooker in charge of mounting the attack up the "Long Slope." It was here that the Union forces would meet furious fire from the Rebels, most of them positioned behind the stone wall and along a sunken road at the base of the heights.

The lay of the land made the direct frontal assault even more difficult than it would have been otherwise. A drainage ditch crossed the length of the heights. It was in a position such that the Union troops could only be sent up the slope one brigade at a time and then onto the portion of the field where Confederate firepower was most concentrated. Throughout the day, Burnside almost mindlessly sent troops charging up the hill with no hope of taking the field or pushing the Rebels off of it. One brigade after another was sent to its doom as the enemy poured shot at them, leaving bodies scattered across the ground, sometimes stacked two or three deep. As one newspaper reporter would write after the battle, according to historian Shelby Foote: "It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgment."

All told, Burnside ordered 14 assaults up Marye's Heights and all of them failed. Finally, near the day's end, the Union commander decided to call off the attack, finally certain the hill could not be taken.

By the time night fell across the bitter-cold battlefield, the ground west of Fredericksburg was littered with stacks of bodies. The day had delivered 13,000 casualties to the Union Army,

Battle Fredericksburg Aurora Borealis
Burnside led the regiment into the Battle of Fredericksburg, a devastating event that resulted in approximately 13,000 Union casualties. Burnside's loss at Fredericksburg made his troops question his leadership in future campaigns like the Mud March (above).

about the same number it had suffered at Antietam. The difference was that Antietam had ended with a Union victory. On the Confederate side, the losses amounted to 5,300 men, the majority of them missing. Many of them had simply left the army after the fighting and headed home for Christmas.

The Battle of Fredericksburg ended with Ambrose Burn-side weeping openly in front of his men, desperately pleading to lead one more charge with himself at the head of his old 9th Corps. It was not to be. The general had been beaten. Later, as he rode his horse past some of his men, one of his aides called for three cheers for Burnside. No one responded.

The night following the battle was one of misery and cold. The dead and dying were scattered across the immense field of battle. Men were removed from the field cautiously, since there was no agreement between the two sides on how to evacuate their comrades from the battleground. The night temperature fell to below freezing and a strong wind carried across the field. One of the wounded was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the commander of the 20th Maine Volunteers and a former college professor. Historian Geoffrey Ward recalls Chamberlain's later written account: "It seemed best to bestow myself between two dead men among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise for a pillow out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, pulling the flap of his coat over my face to fend off the chilling winds, and still more chilling, the deep, many voiced moan that overspread the field." Chamberlain and many of his men lay on the field even the next day as Confederate snipers fired into the bodies there, trying to discover who might still be alive. That night sky of December 13 to 14 was lit up by the aurora borealis, the "northern lights," which are normally not visible that far south. Confederates viewed the eerie lights in the sky as a sign that God was blessing their efforts of the day.

When Burnside counseled with the officers under his command that night, he considered remounting the attack the following day. Fortunately, he was talked out of it. Instead, Robert E. Lee met with his officers, determined to launch a counterattack the next day against the Union forces he had bloodied already. A successful attack by the Rebels would have pinned Burnside against the Rappahannock, as Lee had been against the Potomac at Antietam. But the Northern army left its field positions and withdrew across the river through the night of December 14 to 15.

After the Union men evacuated Fredericksburg, Confederate troops came down from Marye's Heights to inspect the damage the Federals had done to the town. They found everything in chaos, destroyed, smashed, ransacked. Stonewall Jackson was among those who reentered Fredericksburg and was disgusted by what he saw. Historian Ward recalls Jackson's words when one of his officers asked him what men who do such things deserve: "Kill 'em. Kill 'em all."

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  • Berhane
    What was the final commander of the union army?
    5 years ago

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