Battle of Fredericksburg

Battle of Fredericksburg
Date December 11–15, 1862
Location Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburg, Virginia
Victor Confederate victory
Contenders
United States (Union) Confederate States
Military Leaders
Ambrose E. Burnside Robert E. Lee
Military Units in Battle
Army of the Potomac Army of Northern Virginia
Unit Strength
About 114,000 About 72,500
Casualties and Deaths
Total: 12,653 Total: 5,377
1,284 killed
9,600 wounded
1,769 captured/missing
608 killed
4,116 wounded
653 captured/missing
Part of the American Civil War

The Battle of Fredericksburg was a battle that took place during the American Civil War between December 11 and December 15 in 1862 in Fredericksburg,Virginia and surrounding areas. The Union army in the battle was under the command of Major General Ambrose Burnside, while the Confederates were led by General Robert E. Lee.

The battle was one of several that came about as the Federal forces tried to launch attacks on the Confederate capital, Richmond. Major General Burnside had intended to lead his army across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, and thereafter march on to Richmond. Burnside thought that a successful crossing of the river would allow his army to reach Richmond before the Confederate forces could respond.

The plan failed because the pontoon bridges that the army needed to cross the river did not arrive in time. The delay gave the Confederate army time to move into position to the south and west of Fredericksburg and prepare to defend the area. The Confederates in the charge of Lieutenant General James Longstreet held a strategic ridge called Marye’s Point.

The Union army made several attempts between December 11 and December 13 to breech the Confederate defenses with limited success. A division of the Union army led by Major General William B. Franklin did manage to break through the first defensive position to the south of Fredericksburg on December 13. However, the Confederate troops in that area, under the command of Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson, quickly recovered and drove the Union army back.

Burnside then ordered two divisions of his army under the command of Major Generals Joseph Hooker and Edwin V. Sumner to lead attacks on the Confederates at Marye’s Point. Every attack failed, with the Federal forces sustaining heavy casualties. On December 15, Burnside ordered his troops to withdraw, bringing the Battle of Fredericksburg to an end.

Events Leading Up to the Battle

President Lincoln felt that he was losing the support and confidence of his supporters in the northern states because people were disillusioned with the apparent continuing successes of the rebels. He was keen that his army should be more aggressive towards the Confederates, and felt that a victory against Lee’s forces would boost his standing.

The President had shown his dissatisfaction with the military leadership of Major General George B. McClellan and had replaced him as commander of the Army of the Potomac with Burnside. Lincoln felt that McClellan had failed to press home his advantage after defeating Robert E. Lee’s army at Antietam the previous September, allowing the Confederate army to retreat without pursuit.

Burnside was initially reluctant to take on the duties of commander because he felt he was not experienced enough for the role. He changed his mind when he realized that McClellan was definitely going to be replaced, and there was a possibility that the job would be offered to Major General Joseph Hooker.

Burnside’s plan was to begin assembling his forces near Warrenton, before launching diversionary attacks on areas like Culpeper. Burnside believed that these attacks would persuade General Lee to keep his forces in the rear, rather than move them to defend Richmond. Burnside intended to move quickly from Warrenton to cross the river near Fredericksburg, but when bureaucratic bungling meant his troops arrived at the river before the pontoon bridges, any hope of a quick advance on Richmond had disappeared.

The slowing down of the Union army gave Lee plenty of time to assess Burnside’s true intentions, and he was not fooled into withdrawing his forces to protect Richmond. On the contrary, he assembled his forces in and around Fredericksburg. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, urged Lee to stage a defensive action that would not be too close to Richmond. The slow progress of the Union forces also gave time for other Confederate troops to arrive in support of Lee.

Mobilization

The Union army began moving towards Falmouth on November 15 and learned that the pontoon bridges had not arrived. He was afraid that foul weather would make the river impassable, and also believed that Fredericksburg was poorly defended and could easily be taken.

The first of the requested pontoon bridges did not arrive until November 25 and the Confederates were strengthening their defenses in the meantime. However, if Burnside had initiated an attack at this point, his chances of success would have been much higher. Instead, he hesitated again, giving the Confederates more time to build defensive positions and draft in more units.

Burnside was keenly aware that all the delays had given the Confederates an idea of what his plan was and time to plan their defenses. He devised a new plan based on his own assessments of how the Confederates had distributed their defensive forces and decided to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg itself.

Stages of the Battle

Under cover of darkness, on December 11, troops from the Federal engineering units began to build the pontoons bridges, attempting to construct six bridges in total. The engineers came under constant fire from Confederate soldiers within the city, and Burnside unsuccessfully attempted artillery bombardment to drive them out.

It was then decided to send across a small force in pontoon boats to establish a bridgehead and take on the Confederate marksmen. The maneuver was successful and fierce street-to-street fighting ensued. As more Union troops managed to make it across the river, the Federal forces began to gain control of the town, and the Confederate forces moved to establish a new defensive position south of Fredericksburg.

Instead of using his entire army to attack this position, Burnside chose to use two small sections to attack on different flanks, in the mistaken belief that General Lee would respond by retreating.

The Confederate defensive lines held strong, and gradually the Union army commanders were beginning to realize that the assault was doomed to fail. Burnside was keen to lead one final assault on Marye’s Heights, but his staff persuaded him to change his mind. Instead he and Lee agreed a truce on December 14 to enable the wounded to be attended to, and on December 15, he ordered his troops to withdraw without taking any further action.

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