“The President has just assented to your plan,” Union general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck telegraphed to Burnside in November 1862. “He thinks it will succeed, if you move rapidly; otherwise not.” Burnside’s proposal was to move the Army of the Potomac from the Warrenton area along a line of operations following the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to one based on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad and crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Burnside was never a terribly confident general, but he understood well the pressure to pursue the Confederates vigorously. After all, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln had just removed his predecessor, Major General, from his position as commander of the Army of the Potomac because he judged McClellan to be excessively prudent. (McClellan, Lincoln believed, had had a chance to pursue and smash Lee’s army following the Battle of Antietam in September, but instead had held his ground.) Consequently, upon receiving approval for his plan, Burnside moved quickly.
By November 19, after a series of rapid marches, significant elements from Burnside’s army had reached the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. Fortunately for Lee, mismanagement in Washington delayed the arrival of the pontoon bridges Burnside’s forces needed to cross the Rappahannock. As a result, Lee was able to reach Fredericksburg and establish a strong position on the hills just outside the town. On November 25, the long-overdue bridges finally arrived, and Burnside began actively looking for opportunities to cross the river below Fredericksburg in order to maneuver the Confederates out of their positions. The search proved fruitless, however, and Burnside was left with an unpromising set of options: either anger Washington by calling an end to the campaign season and going into winter quarters, or make a direct assault on Lee’s formidable defensive position. Burnside chose the latter.
Early on the morning of December 11, Union engineers rushed forward to lay the pontoon bridges down, only to be met with harassing fire from the town, courtesy of Mississippians under the command of Brigadier General William Barksdale. Burnside responded by opening fire on Fredericksburg with nearly 150 cannon located on Stafford Heights. Although it took a heavy toll on the town, the artillery failed to drive off Barksdale’s men. Assault parties on boats finally accomplished the task by late in the afternoon, and by nightfall the pontoon bridges were finally in place.
After crossing the Rappahannock into Fredericksburg, Union troops engaged in widespread looting and vandalism, effectively destroying what was left of the town. “The town was all ransacked. [B]ooks, chairs and every kind of furniture was lying on the Streets,” a Pennsylvania soldier wrote in a letter to his brother. “Some of the boys got books and some other things. Haze Boyd got Milton’s complete works lying in the Streets.”
Lee responded to these developments by ordering Lieutenant Generalto concentrate his forces on the Confederate right at Prospect Hill and Hamilton’s Crossing. (His corps had been spread out along the Rappahannock almost to Port Royal, some twenty miles away, in case the Union troops crossed the river downstream from Fredericksburg.) It was here that Burnside planned to deliver the first blow against Lee’s position on December 13. By Burnside’s thinking, the Union left, under Major General William B. Franklin, would either crush the Confederate right or induce Lee to shift sufficient forces in that direction. This would provide an opening for Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s men against the Confederate left on Marye’s Heights. Major General , meanwhile, would wait in the center, ready to reinforce a breach in the Confederate lines, wherever it might occur.
Franklin’s attack managed a brief success in the morning when a division commanded by Major Generalfortuitously hit a weak spot in Jackson’s line along a wooded ravine. Franklin’s instructions from Burnside were vague, however, and he failed to put enough force into Meade’s attack to support or exploit Meade’s extraordinary advance. This was partly out of concern for his southern flank, which was then facing a barrage of Confederate artillery fire. A Confederate counterattack eventually drove Meade’s Pennsylvanians back out of the woods, ending the day for Franklin. He refused to engage Jackson further, despite Burnside’s orders to the contrary.
With the failure of Franklin’s attack, hopes for Union success came to rest on the ability of Sumner and Hooker to break through the Confederate left, commanded by Lieutenant General. Here, however, Lee’s line was nigh impenetrable, with Longstreet’s men well positioned at the base of Marye’s Heights, enjoying the cover of a sunken road and the shelter of a low, half-mile-long stone wall. The several hundred yards in front of them were to become a killing field. “We cover that ground now so well,” one artillerist advised Longstreet before the battle, “that we will comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
Nonetheless, around eleven in the morning on December 13, Sumner dutifully moved his Second Corps forward out of Fredericksburg. In order to attack Longstreet’s position, the Union troops would have to cross a canal ditch, reestablish their lines, then make the final assault over open ground whose terrain funneled them exactly in the direction of the stone wall. Under murderous Confederate artillery fire the entire time, three divisions from the Second Corps crossed the field.
“We came forward as though breasting a storm of rain and sleet,” one Union soldier later wrote, “our faces and bodies being only half-turned to the storm, our shoulders shrugged.” Confederate fire was so intense, another soldier wrote, that the Union lines seemed to melt “like snow coming down on warm ground.” Nonetheless, Sumner and Burnside persisted in their attacks, throwing two divisions from the Fifth Corps and one from the Ninth against Marye’s Heights. Not a single man reached the stone wall, and Longstreet was able to advise Lee that “if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line.”
Darkness finally brought an end to the slaughter. Even in victory, Lee and Jackson were frustrated that they had not been able to find an opening for a counterattack. Burnside, meanwhile, found himself dealing with a recalcitrant Hooker. The corps commander, who would soon take Burnside’s job, had been openly critical of the decision to attack at Fredericksburg and, by his own initiative, had called off the assaults on Marye’s Heights on the grounds that he had already “lost as many men as my orders required me to lose.” A devastated Burnside briefly considered personally leading a final, desperate charge before being talked out of it on December 14. Instead, he asked for a daylong truce to bury the dead, which Lee granted, and ordered his army to retreat across the Rappahannock the night of December 14–15. Of the approximately 120,000 men in Burnside’s army, more than 12,000 were killed, wounded, or captured, while Lee lost about 5,300 of the 80,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia who were present at the battle.
The Battle of Fredericksburg brought an ignominious end to Burnside’s attempt to rectify McClellan’s mistake and to pursue the Confederates more aggressively. The thousands of dead strewn across the field, their corpses black and swollen, many headless and limbless, created a national crisis of confidence that seemed to mirror Burnside’s personal one. (After the battle, Burnside wept and took full responsibility for the carnage.) Union soldiers wrote letters home suggesting that “Virginia is not worth such a loss of life,” while rumors in Washington foretold a Lincoln resignation, a radical Republican coup, even a military government with an angry McClellan at its head. Morale in the army was at an all-time low, with desertions totaling 86,330 by the end of January 1863—almost 27 percent of the entire Army of the Potomac. The Richmond Examiner, on the other hand, celebrated “a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil,” and the normally reticent Lee was seen to be “jubilant, almost off-balance.” His setback at Antietam had been redeemed, it seemed, and Confederate independence, in December 1862, still seemed a real possibility.