Thursday, June 14, 2018

F is for Fredericksburg (Blogging through the Alphabet)

Battle of Fredericksburg

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In December of 1862, a battle raged around the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Just a month prior, General George McClellan was leading the Army of the Potomac until President Lincoln replaced him with Ambrose Burnside. As it had been the goal of other Union commanders, Burnside's mission was to capture Richmond – the capital of the Confederacy.

Fredericksburg was chosen as Burnside's destination for a number of reasons:
  • The Union Army would need to eventually cross the Rappahannock River and it was navigable below the city 
  • It was the largest city between Washington, D.C. and Richmond
  • It featured a railroad crossing site
  • It was home to an intersection of roads on which supplies traveled throughout Virginia 
Because part of the complaint against McClellan was his lack of movement towards attacking Lee and the Confederate army, Burnside did not want to squander the resources available to him. He did not want to wait until spring to move the Union Army. However, there was a problem for the Union Army: Burnside would need to supply his own bridges to cross the Rappahannock River because the bridges had been burned a long time prior by Lee's army.

The pontoon bridges took over ten days to arrive during which time Burnside's men sat idly and the element of surprise quickly vanished. General Lee was moving his army into position to meet Burnside's army. General Longstreet's corps had moved to the hills west of town and General Jackson was on his way as well. The territory surrounding Fredericksburg gave Lee and the Confederate Army the advantage in position. 

Early on December 11, 1862, the engineers began building the pontoon bridges. Unfortunately, for the Union engineers and carpenters, there were Mississippians in the town. They fired upon the Union men as they attempted to build the bridges. The Union artillery fired upon the town to force out the Confederate men and eventually Burnside approved Federal troops to cross in boats to flush out the remaining Mississippians. 

The Federal army crossed on the five pontoon bridges on December 12 to occupy the town. Even though they were in Fredericksburg, they would have to wait another day to set up positions and move through the town that was destroyed by the Federal artillery barrage the day before. 

Quote: "many a fellow lay down in his get up was certain death or bad wound"On December 13, 1862, Major General William Franklin's men attacked Jackson's lines but he ordered only one division – that commanded by General George Gordon Meade – to attack the Confederates. Meade pushed through the one point left open by Jackson – an area A.P. Hill thought was impassable by troops. Meade pushed forward but Jackson's Confederate reinforcements forced Meade to retreat. Franklin had never ordered more divisions to join Meade's attack. Perhaps if Meade had his own reinforcements, the results of Fredericksburg might have been different.

In the early afternoon, Union Major General Edwin Sumner was ordered to attack Lee's position on the hills – Marye's Heights. The Confederate army defended Marye's Heights behind a stone wall and a sunken road. To make it to the wall, Federal troops had to cross a half-mile wide open field. The Federals marched forward and tried assaulting the stone wall. Brigade after brigade – fourteen total – would try to move upwards to take Marye's Heights under Confederate fire and an artillery barrage. The field piled up with dead, dying, and wounded Federal troops. The men continued to advance line after line across the slopping field. Two-thirds of the casualties of Burnside's army had fallen in front of the stone wall by the end of the day.

While observing the Federal advance and attempts to take Marye's Heights, Lee observed to his officers:

"It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should become too fond of it." 

Burnside's Quote "for the failure in the attack I am responsible"After December 14, Burnside moved the army back across the Rappahannock River to reorganize even though he had thought about resuming the attack. A consultation with his top commanders changed his mind and he decided it would be best to end the campaign. There was no benefit in holding the city of Fredericksburg. 

The night of December 15, 1862 would bring an unusual phenomenon for the skies of Virginia. Both sides – the Confederates and the Federal troops – were treated to seeing the Aurora Borealis. 

There were nearly 13,000 Federal casualties and only 5,000 Confederate casualties from the Battle of Fredericksburg. 

Resources and References 

Image used for the title and that of Burnside are from WPclipart and are in public domain.

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park 

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  1. Thank you for writing up such a good history of what happened in this battle. When I first saw your title, I thought of the Fredericksburg close to us where my daughter enjoyed going a few years ago. Neat to read of other places.

    1. Thank you...Now I have to go look up other towns with the same name! Didn't really think there was more than one. I should have known better. :)