Blundering Underlings Betrayed Burnside at Fredericksburg

Loads of blame to go round for the defeat that price the Union military 13,000 casualties 

To the informal observer, the Battle of Fredericksburg was a horrible blunder for the Union Military of the Potomac, specifically the daylong assaults on Marye’s Heights: 30,000 troops repeatedly despatched 900 yards throughout an open area, uphill, towards Accomplice infantry hunkered down behind a formidable stone wall and supported by practically 50 artillery items perched on the heights behind them. By the top of the preventing on December 13, 1862, the Federals had suffered practically 13,000 casualties, the Confederates fewer than 5,000.

Historical past blames Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside for the Federal fiasco at Fredericksburg. In truth, he had many causes to imagine he would succeed. (

It’s straightforward to solid blame on Union commander Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, to decry the loss as a tragic debacle that ought to have been prevented in any respect prices. However to dismiss Burnside as a blunderer is to make a blunder. The result of the Battle of Fredericksburg was something however an inevitable fiasco-waiting-to-happen. Getting into, Burnside had many respectable causes to imagine he might win.

To higher perceive Burnside’s mindset, flash again to September 17, 1862, when the 2 armies clashed alongside Antietam Creek within the single bloodiest day of the conflict. After the battle, Accomplice commander Common Robert E. Lee slipped his Military of Northern Virginia again throughout the Potomac River and to the security of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan determined to not give chase.

Mathew Brady picture of the assembly between President Lincoln and Common McClellan Oct. 3, 1862, after Antietam. Lincoln had issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and was urgent McClellan to pursue Lee’s military into Virginia. (Ohio Historical past Connection)

Pissed off by McClellan’s inaction, President Abraham Lincoln urged his commander onward, however to no avail—and Lincoln might do nothing about it. The midterm elections have been arising, and issues already regarded grim for his Republican Celebration. By disciplining McClellan, a preferred Democrat, Lincoln would solely make his political state of affairs worse.

However the day after the elections, on November 7, Lincoln sacked McClellan and appointed Burnside in his place. Burnside got here to command realizing that his predecessor was fired for not doing something. Because of this, he knew he needed to do one thing or danger McClellan’s destiny.

Not solely did Burnside should act, he additionally had to take action rapidly. It was already mid-November, and winter would quickly settle in. As soon as the climate turned, conducting a marketing campaign could be subsequent to unimaginable.

It could not be sufficient, nevertheless, to march round and rattle his military’s sabers in a present of power. Burnside needed to win. Due to the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in areas of america nonetheless in revolt. After all, the one strategy to implement the proclamation and garner public assist could be via battlefield victory—in any other case, the president’s lofty plan could be little greater than a paper tiger.

Common-in-Chief Henry Halleck pressured Burnside to battle for political causes.

So Burnside needed to do one thing, he needed to do it rapidly, and he needed to succeed. Washington’s fervor for battle was so intense that Lincoln’s general-in-chief, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, mentioned it was higher for Burnside “to battle a battle now, even when he’s to lose it.”

Reasonably than observe the Confederates southwest into the Shenandoah Valley, Burnside devised a plan to slide his 118,000 males southeast to Fredericksburg, the place he might cross the Rappahannock River, make a fast sprint to Richmond, seize the Accomplice capital, and, he hoped, finish the conflict. If nothing else, threatening Richmond would draw Lee into battle. 

Fredericksburg, a metropolis with a wartime inhabitants of simply greater than 5,000, lay straight between the capitals of Richmond and Washington, D.C. The town was a key part to Burnside’s plan as a result of it had a significant railroad and a river; Burnside might use each to provide his military. Fredericksburg additionally boasted two main roads to the Accomplice capital: the Telegraph Street and the Bowling Inexperienced Street.

Burnside knew the bridges in Fredericksburg had been burned throughout a Federal occupation of the town the earlier summer season. So, nicely upfront of his transfer, he requested the Battle Division to ship bridging supplies that he might use to span the river.

On November 15, Burnside launched his plan, efficiently transferring his military to Fredericksburg by November 19. Because of circumstances past Burnside’s management, although, the bridging supplies had not but arrived. Poor communication between the Battle Division and the engineers answerable for the bridging left the supplies backed up alongside a route that stretched from Washington, D.C., to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. That breakdown in communication would price Burnside and his military dearly.

When Lee found what Burnside was as much as, he rapidly moved to intercept the Federals. With a part of the Accomplice military settled round Culpeper, Va., and a part of it nonetheless within the Shenandoah Valley, Lee ordered the 2 wings to pay attention. He moved his First Corps, underneath Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, into the hills behind Fredericksburg—together with the world often known as Marye’s Heights. These 40,000 males have been in an ideal blocking place.

The opposite half of Lee’s military—the 38,000 males in Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps—stretched out some 25 miles towards the south to cowl all different potential river crossings. Till Burnside confirmed his hand, Lee needed to put together for all contingencies.

A fast strike was now out of the query for Burnside as a result of he’d misplaced the factor of shock—however he nonetheless wanted to do one thing.

As he thought-about his options, Burnside regarded downriver. There, the Rappahannock was wider, it was affected by the ocean’s tides, and the highway community on the other financial institution wasn’t particularly conducive for transferring his massive military.

Alternatively, if the military moved upriver it must cross not solely the Rappahannock but additionally its important tributary, the Rapidan. In the meantime, Lee might merely shift his military to the northwest to fulfill Burnside, after which the Union military would face two contested river crossings as a substitute of 1. Getting into that route would additionally transfer the Union military away from its provide traces.

Briefly, neither route regarded promising. A minimum of if he crossed at Fredericksburg, Burnside might use the town to protect the military’s actions, giving his males a level of safety. So, of the choices accessible to him, Fredericksburg provided the very best likelihood for fulfillment. “I feel now that the enemy will probably be extra stunned by a crossing instantly in our entrance than in some other a part of the river,” Burnside wired Lincoln.

Burnside deliberate to construct pontoon bridges on the north and south ends of city, together with two pontoon bridges a couple of mile under city (finally there could be three bridges at that southernmost location). His military would cross in any respect three locations, however Burnside deliberate to launch his important assault towards the south finish of the Accomplice line, at an space often known as Prospect Hill, the place the excessive floor wasn’t as formidable because it was straight behind the town.

To forestall the Confederates from reinforcing the southern a part of their line, although, Burnside supposed to launch an assault towards the northern finish of the Accomplice place to carry these potential reinforcements in place. He hoped one assault or the opposite would obtain a breakthrough that might flush Lee’s military from its place and open the southward highway towards Richmond.

Burnside set his plan into movement on December 11. The engineers had issue constructing their pontoon bridges due to Mississippi riflemen ensconced within the metropolis. After artillery bombardment did not dislodge the Mississippians, Union commanders despatched a number of regiments throughout the river in boats to determine a bridgehead. It could turn into the primary amphibious touchdown underneath fireplace in American historical past.

Lithograph displaying preventing within the streets of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862 (Library of Congress)

Troops from New York and Michigan established the foothold, and from there, the Union regiments fanned out. Road preventing ensued. Losses have been heavy on each side. The twentieth Massachusetts, often known as the “Harvard Regiment,” misplaced 163 of 307 engaged. The home-to-house battle lasted greater than 3½ hours earlier than the Mississippians have been pushed again to the primary Accomplice line. That they had held off the Union advance for a complete day, shopping for essential time for Lee to pay attention his males.

The Union engineers completed their bridges, however the bulk of the Union military wouldn’t cross the river till December 12. Pissed off by the delay, Federal troopers took out their anger by sacking the town of Fredericksburg. Their commander, in the meantime, frittered away December 12, supervising the advance of his military in and across the metropolis and tweaking his plan.

This delay might have been Burnside’s decisive mistake. Bear in mind, his plan referred to as for an assault on the southern finish of the Accomplice line—the very part of the road that was weakest, stretched out 25 miles to the south. Nonetheless, as soon as Burnside tipped his hand by crossing in Fredericksburg, Lee despatched phrase to Jackson to pay attention his Second Corps. Burnside’s wasted December 12 gave Jackson the precious time he wanted to consolidate his place at Prospect Hill.

Burnside supposed to launch his assault towards Prospect Hill within the predawn hours of December 13 with 60,000 males. Though Burnside reduce the orders on the night time of December 12, Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, commanding the military’s Left Grand Division on the southern finish of the sector, didn’t get them till 7:45 a.m.—35 minutes after daybreak.

To make issues worse, Burnside’s orders have been obscure, saying, “You’ll ship out directly a division not less than…taking care to maintain it nicely supported and its line of retreat open.” Though the written orders flummoxed Franklin, who didn’t fairly know easy methods to interpret them regardless that he and Burnside had gone over the plan the earlier night, he did not ask Burnside for clarification.

After the Military of the Potomac misplaced the factor of shock at Fredericksburg, left wing commander Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin compounded the failure by neglecting to bolster Maj. Gen. George Meade’s males on the southern finish of the Union line. (American Battlefield Belief)

In the meantime, Burnside, unaware that his plan was already unraveling, despatched phrase at about 10 a.m. to Maj. Gen. Edwin V. “Bull” Sumner, commander of the Proper Grand Division, to start the assault on the north finish of the road in entrance of an space often known as Marye’s Heights, a ridge that crested about 900 yards past the western fringe of the town.

Regardless of the uphill slope Union troopers must cross, Union commanders noticed a bonus to the terrain: The wide-open house contained only a few obstructions, which might enable the advancing troopers to construct up momentum for his or her assault. The plan referred to as for a lightning-fast strike out of the town, throughout the open plain, and towards the Accomplice infantry place—a sunken highway that ran behind a stone wall some 30 yards under the crest of the hill, held by 2,000 troops from Georgia, underneath Brig. Gen. Thomas R.R. Cobb. The Accomplice pickets out within the area could be so startled by the quick assault that they might flip tail and run again to the road, performing as human shields for the advancing Union troopers scorching on their heels.

The chest-high wall regarded imposing, though a portion of it was hidden from Union view as a result of it held up a dust embankment. Even so, Federals noticed a possible benefit to attacking the wall. In spite of everything, at Antietam, the Confederates had used a sunken highway as a fortified rifle pit, from which they have been in a position to generate a withering fireplace—however as soon as the Union troopers broke via, it could be like taking pictures fish in a barrel. Confederates had no protected route of retreat.

Right here in Fredericksburg, the state of affairs could be a lot the identical. If Union forces might breach the stone wall, Confederates might attempt to retreat, however the one route accessible could be up the slippery uncovered slope behind them or down the Telegraph Street towards Franklin’s power.

As well as, if Union troops might breach the wall, it could give them security from the artillery fireplace that might absolutely rain down from the highest of Marye’s Heights. First Corps artillery chief Colonel E. Porter Alexander had practically 50 weapons posted alongside the highest of the heights. “Sir, a rooster couldn’t dwell on that area once we open on it,” he boasted to his commander, Common Longstreet, referring to the expanse the Yankees must cross. But when these Yankees obtained shut sufficient to the stone wall, the Accomplice artillerymen wouldn’t be capable of depress their barrels sufficient to fireside on them.

Accomplice squaddies from Brig. Gen. Thomas R.R. Cobb’s and Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s models put up a withering fireplace from behind the stone wall on the base of Marye’s Heights. (British Library Assortment)

By 11:45 a.m., the primary Union troops, underneath Brig. Gen. William H. French, stepped out of the town towards Marye’s Heights. The 4,500 males in his three brigades instantly got here underneath artillery fireplace from Alexander’s batteries. “We might see our shells, bursting of their ranks, making nice gaps,” mentioned one of many artillerists. A Union soldier mentioned that “it appeared we have been transferring within the crater of a volcano.” Nonetheless, the Union troopers got here on, even because the cannons tore them to items.

A millrace reduce throughout the sector. Fifteen ft broad and 5 ft deep, the ditch diverted water from the Rappahannock. Union engineers had blocked off the millrace and tried to empty it, however practically three ft of water nonetheless stood on the backside. The troops clambered via, then tried to get again into formation earlier than persevering with their advance, the artillery ripping into them the complete time.

One other issue the Federals hadn’t thought-about was the climate. On December 13, the temperature rose to 56 levels—however a number of days beforehand, it had snowed. The next heat climate melted the snow, making the bottom moist and spongy and slippery. The sleek-soled boots of the troopers made footing on the muddy floor even slipperier and the advance harder.

When the lead components of French’s assault neared the stone wall, the Accomplice infantry opened on them, halting the advance. “[O]ur males have been by no means subjected to a extra devouring fireplace,” one Union soldier mentioned.

All three brigades in French’s division met the identical destiny as they tried to courageous the “livid storm of shot, shell, and shrapnel.” Almost 1 / 4 of French’s troopers would find yourself as casualties. Survivors took cowl in a shallow swale, a dip within the floor about 200 yards downhill of the stone wall.

Nonetheless, the Union troopers got here on. At about midday, after French’s assault fizzled, Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s 5,000 males have been despatched in to face the storm of lead coming from the stone wall.

Maj. Gen. William H. French led the primary Union troops towards Marye’s Heights. Almost a 3rd of the lads in his three brigades would find yourself casualties. (American Battlefield Belief)

Amongst Hancock’s males was the Irish Brigade, one of many extra famed models to battle at Fredericksburg. Of the 1,200 Irishmen who superior towards the wall, solely 256 would survive the assault to reply roll name the subsequent morning. (After the battle, as stragglers and the wounded returned, the brigade’s ranks would improve to simply greater than 600.) Total, Hancock’s division suffered 2,000 casualties.

By 1 p.m., Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard’s division, with its 3,500 males, was despatched towards the stone wall. Brigadier Common Samuel Sturgis with 4,475 males of the ninth Corps was despatched to assist Howard. They suffered 610 and 1,011 casualties, respectively.

Total, the Union military was struggling a staggering common of 1,000 casualties an hour.

By 3 p.m., Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin’s division, with its 6,000 males, was despatched into motion. As an alternative of constructing the stone wall his goal, Griffin despatched his males in piecemeal to alleviate Sturgis’ embattled troops. When Griffin lastly did determine to assault the wall, he lacked the power to do it. By the top of the day, his division suffered practically 1,000 casualties.

By this time, on the Accomplice facet, practically 3,000 reinforcements had been despatched to the Sunken Street to assist the two,000 squaddies who had began the battle. To get into place, reinforcements needed to descend from Marye’s Heights down a steep embankment that uncovered them to Union fireplace. A lot of the Accomplice casualties suffered throughout the preventing would happen on that hillside. As an example, the eighth South Carolina, stationed atop Marye’s Heights, incurred 31 casualties within the battle—28 of them on the highest of the hill and on the hillside as they superior all the way down to the Sunken Street; on the highway itself, they sustained solely three.

From the Union perspective, it may need regarded as if their advances have been having an influence. Why else would Confederates ship in reinforcements if not as a result of they have been feeling the strain?

A Currier and Ives lithograph of the relentless however futile costs by Union troops up Marye’s Heights.

In truth, Accomplice troopers have been placing a lot lead within the air that they have been operating out of ammunition. To alleviate the issue, Longstreet shifted total brigades onto the highway: Recent troopers meant recent provides of ammunition. “[I]f you place each man on the opposite facet of the Potomac on that area to method me over the identical line, and provides me loads of ammunition, I’ll kill all of them earlier than they attain my line,” Longstreet boasted.

The Accomplice firepower behind the wall was made much more horrible by the effectivity of the squaddies. Some models lined up 4 to 6 ranks deep, with the person in entrance firing after which going to the again of the road to reload whereas the second particular person stepped as much as fireplace. When he did, he went to the again of the road whereas the third man stepped up, and so forth. Thus the Confederates have been in a position to create a conveyer belt–like impact.

Different models put their greatest marksmen within the entrance; they might fireplace, go their empty muskets to the again whereas somebody handed them a loaded one, which they might fireplace and once more commerce for a loaded one. On this manner, “[t]he small arms made one continuous noise and not using a second’s cessation,” a Accomplice infantryman mentioned. One other Accomplice marksman acknowledged he was black and blue from his proper elbow all the best way to his proper hip for the subsequent two weeks as a result of he fired so many rounds that day.

In the meantime, on the far finish of the sector close to Prospect Hill, Union troops underneath the command of Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade—who would finally command the Union military on the Battle of Gettysburg—lastly achieved success. At about 1 p.m., Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves broke via the Accomplice line. Nonetheless, they have been 8,000 males attempting to drive via 38,000 Confederates stacked 4 divisions deep. Meade’s males held for some time, however the Confederates started to push them again.

Meade, assured he might exploit the breakthrough if supported, desperately referred to as for reinforcements. Nobody got here, so Meade rode again himself to search for assist. He even verbally assaulted one other common who had not marched to his help.

However it was all to no avail. Meade’s commander, Franklin, had determined his troopers had had sufficient and referred to as off the assault.

But he didn’t inform Burnside.

And so, Burnside continued to ship troops into the meat grinder in entrance of the stone wall to assist an assault on the far finish of the sector that was not occurring.

Burnside was in a position to see Marye’s Heights from Sumner’s headquarters at Chatham Manor, a big home straight throughout from the motion on the far financial institution of the Rappahannock; he couldn’t see Prospect Hill, although, obscured by timber, smoke, and distance. The Rappahannock, nevertheless, amplified the echoing impact of the sound waves from the battle. Because of this, Burnside might hear fixed gunfire, however he couldn’t pinpoint the route from which it was coming. From his perspective, it sounded as if all the pieces on the far finish of the sector was carrying on as ordered.

Poor communications sophisticated issues. Though the Union military had strung miles of telegraph line, not everybody trusted the brand new system, so officers regularly despatched couriers, who took quite a lot of time to journey from one finish of the road to the opposite.

Finally, Burnside discovered that Franklin had referred to as off the assault and ordered him to renew his offensive, to “advance his complete line.” Franklin, who was as overcautious as his outdated mentor, McClellan, mentioned he’d see what he might do—however then did nothing.

And once more, he didn’t inform Burnside.

A Mathew Brady portrait of Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, whose males succeeded in pushing again Stonewall Jackson’s power at Prospect Hill. Meade referred to as desperately for reinforcements, however William Franklin had referred to as off the assault and left Meade hanging.

Burnside, nevertheless, anticipating that his orders have been being carried out, continued to throw troopers on the stone wall to maintain these Confederates from reinforcing the far finish of their line. And so, what had initially been supposed solely as a diversion took on a horrible lifetime of its personal. By the top of the day, seven waves of Union troopers would crash towards the stone wall and be swept away—18 Federal brigades containing some 30,000 males. Beside French, Hancock, Howard, Sturgis, and Griffin, Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphreys and Brig. Gen. George Washington Getty despatched in assaults.

Humphreys’ 4,500 Pennsylvanians attacked with a collection of bayonet costs. Survivors of earlier Union assaults clung to the pantlegs of the advancing males. “Don’t go ahead, it’s ineffective, you may be killed,” one in all them pleaded as he lay prostrate behind the swale. For a plan that referred to as for a quick bayonet cost, having fellow troopers grabbing on the legs of the advancing males tended to be counterproductive.

Nonetheless, Humphreys’ males claimed they made it to inside 12 paces of the wall. Peter Allabach, a colonel underneath Humphreys, acknowledged, “My boys made it nearer to the gates of hell that day than anybody else on the battlefield.” Subsequent costs obtained to inside 30–45 yards of the stone wall earlier than being repulsed by “a sheet of flames.” Humphreys misplaced greater than 1,000 males in lower than 45 minutes.

Getty’s assault got here on the finish of the day, simply after sundown. His males superior via “(a) excellent storm of bullets, boys; an ideal storm!” in keeping with one Connecticut colonel.

Considered one of Getty’s brigades, underneath Colonel Rush C. Hawkins, obtained inside 80 yards of the stone wall by sneaking underneath the duvet of darkness up an unfinished railroad reduce. Of their pleasure, the lads let loose a yell as they neared the wall, making a gift of their place. “If that they had not began with a cheer,” admitted E.P. Alexander, “I don’t assume that I, not less than, would have recognized they have been coming; for I couldn’t see them.” However because of the giveaway, Alexander’s males loaded up with canister, and the volley that ensued shredded Hawkins’ advance.

Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphrey’s males made the ultimate cost towards Marye’s Heights. Repeatedly, wounded males would seize their pant legs and beg them to not attempt to advance. Their momentum spent, the lads fell again and Common Burnside referred to as off the assault.

So ended the preventing on December 13. Greater than 8,000 Union casualties lay in entrance of Marye’s Heights. The Confederates had suffered nearly 1,000—an 8-to-1 ratio. Almost one-third of the attacking power turned casualties, but not a single federal soldier touched the stone wall or made it into the Sunken Street.

In the meantime, at Prospect Hill, which had clearly held Burnside’s greatest likelihood for victory, the Union military suffered 4,500 casualties, the Confederates simply greater than 4,000.

The following morning, Burnside nonetheless believed he might obtain victory at Fredericksburg. He convened a council of conflict together with his subordinates and introduced that he would personally lead his former troops, the ninth Corps, into battle. Burnside believed that the non-public loyalty these troopers felt towards him would encourage them to observe him anyplace, together with throughout the upward sloping plain towards the stone wall.

Burnside, nevertheless, was the one one who felt that manner. After doing a private inspection and speaking to a number of officers, “I discovered the sensation to be quite towards an assault…” he mentioned, “the truth is, it was decidedly towards it.” In the end, a teary-eyed Burnside referred to as off his plan.

Subsequently, December 14 handed with Accomplice troopers behind the stone wall buying and selling pot photographs with Union troopers trapped behind the swale. Lee tried to goad Burnside into one other assault, however the Union commander balked, so the Confederates merely fortified their place additional. December 15 would go a lot the identical manner, and when December 15 waned into December 16, Burnside withdrew his military underneath the duvet of darkness.

Lee, who was often aggressive, knew this was one victory he couldn’t observe up. He understood that if he counterattacked throughout the identical fields the Union military had simply crossed, he would have the tables turned towards him. The Federals had 147 cannon positioned throughout the river on Chatham and Stafford Heights, and numerous Union infantry had not but been engaged. Pissed off, Lee might solely watch the Federal military slip away to security.

On the night time of December 13-14, the Northern Lights had appeared—a uncommon prevalence that far south. They shone overhead for greater than an hour. Union troopers noticed the lights as God’s manner of commemorating the courageous sacrifice of their fallen comrades. Confederates, however, mentioned that “the heavens have been hanging out banners and streamers and setting off fireworks in honor of our victory.”

However the Battle of Fredericksburg was no magnificent victory for the Confederates, and Lee knew it. At one level, he had watched from a hilltop because the spectacle unfolded under him and had mentioned, “It’s a good factor conflict is so horrible; we must always develop too keen on it.” Lee knew what an terrible worth Burnside’s military had paid in defeat.

The Military of the Potomac had suffered practically 13,000 casualties, with round 8,000 of them on the bottom in entrance of the stone wall. The Confederates, by comparability, suffered fewer than 5,000 casualties, most of them on the far finish of the sector close to Prospect Hill the place Meade achieved his breakthrough.

These lopsided numbers would possibly recommend a horrible blunder on the a part of Ambrose Burnside. Nonetheless, whereas his generalship would in the end show to be unspectacular, at Fredericksburg Burnside was as a lot a sufferer of circumstances, sloppy communication, and poor generalship by his subordinates as he was a sufferer of his personal mediocrity.

Burnside had come to Fredericksburg with many causes to assume he might discover victory there.

As an alternative what he discovered was, as Lee mentioned, conflict so horrible.



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