Fredericksburg Campaign N-4 and Battles of Fredericksburg E-44

Historical Marker Text

Fredericksburg Campaign N-4
Frustrated by the Army of the Potomac’s lack of progress, President Abraham Lincoln replaced army commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan with Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, who assumed command on 9 Nov. 1862. Within a week, he had the army marching from its camps near Warrenton toward Fredericksburg along this road. Burnside hoped to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg by pontoon bridges and march on Richmond, but a delay in the arrival of the pontoons thwarted his plan. By the time the bridges arrived, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army blocked his path. Burnside forced a crossing of the river on 11 Dec. but was defeated two days later at the Battle of Fredericksburg. [2002]

Battles of Fredericksburg E-44
During the First and Second Battles of Fredericksburg, the Confederates occupied Marye’s Heights, a defensive position enhanced by a sunken road and stone wall on the eastern slope. On 13 Dec. 1862, during the first battle, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Confederate corps withstood attempts by Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s and Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner’s Grand Divisions to take the heights. During the second battle (Chancellorsville campaign), on 3 May 1863, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s Union troops repeatedly attempted to capture the ridge from Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s brigade. A bayonet charge finally drove the Confederates off the heights. [2000]

Extended Research
On November 7, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln replaced the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan, with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. McClellan was much beloved by his men, but Lincoln was in need of a Union victory by the end of the year, so changes needed to be made. The army had suffered a string of defeats, elections were approaching, and Lincoln’s Republican party needed military progress to retain their strength in politics. Burnside was reluctant to take over from his friend McClellan, claiming that he was not qualified enough to command such a large force as 120,000 men (Finfrock 6). McClellan stayed at the army’s camp in Warrenton for a few days to help Burnside’s transition to command (O’Reilly, Fredricksburg, 17).

Burnside’s goal of his new campaign was to capture Richmond. He intended to concentrate his forces near Warrenton to make the Confederates believe that he would attack Culpeper or Gordonsville and send forces to the upper Rappahannock, and then to quickly move his army to Fredericksburg (O’Reilly 21). Within a week, he had reorganized the army into three Grand Divisions, under major generals Edwin V. Sumner, Joseph Hooker, and William B. Franklin.

On November 15, the army began its march toward Fredericksburg. The Army of the Potomac would need to build pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock in order to take the town, since civilian bridges had been burned earlier, so Burnside ordered pontoons to be delivered there by the time troops arrived and were ready to cross . They would need to cross unopposed for the plan to go well. Unfortunately, although Union forces began to arrive at the Rappahannock on November 17, the pontoons did not arrive until November 25. This had given Lieutenant General James Longstreet time to quickly march his Confederate troops from Culpeper to Fredericksburg in anticipation of the crossing, reaching it on November 19, and already chances of Union success were decreasing (Greene 19-20).

The weather only made things worse. With snow and freezing rain, any crossing would be delayed for days. Within two weeks of Longstreet’s arrival, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and his corps arrived from the Shenandoah Valley to reunite the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee ordered them to guard different points on the river as far as twenty miles down.

On December 10, Burnside determined that his troops would lay bridges and cross the Rappahannock the following morning. One officer even wrote that “under favorable circumstances, [the river] could be bridged in two hours” (O’Reilly, Fredericksburg 54). Two bridges were to be built at the northern side of Fredericksburg, one at the southern side, known as the middle pontoon crossing, and two a mile to the south, known as the lower pontoon crossing.

Before dawn on the morning of December 11, men from the 50th New York Engineers began to lay the pontoons at the upper pontoon crossing, under cover of a fog. They didn’t go undetected for very long. They were halfway across the crossing-rpk-color-locgov.jpg400-foot span when Confederate sharpshooters from the opposite shore picked off the engineers as they worked on the bridge, making it near impossible to proceed. Nine separate attempts to complete the bridges were driven back, and even after a two-hour bombardment on the city from Union artillery on Stafford Heights, Confederates still were there to fire upon the bridge-builders. Only after Federals rowed across the river to drive out the brigade of Confederate sharpshooters could the 50th New York come close to finishing the pontoon bridges. After dusk, they were completed and the Army of the Potomac finally forded the Rappahannock (Greene, Fredericksburg, 20-21).

The next day, Burnside sent more reinforcements into Fredericksburg, but gave no orders to attack. Lee took the opportunity to strengthen the area around Fredericksburg, spreading his army out over seven miles (Greene, Fredericksburg, 24). Longstreet positioned an artillery battalion onto Marye’s Heights, and below the heights Brigadier General Thomas R. R. Cobb’s brigade entrenched along the Sunken Road, behind a stone wall that would provide an advantageous offensive position (O’Reilly 105-106). Jackson’s command post was at Prospect Hill, a few miles south of the city, where he stacked his four divisions nearly a mile deep.

On December 13, Burnside issued orders for Franklin’s Left Grand Division to attack Jackson’s Corps and then Sumner’s Right Grand Division to advance toward the well-defended Marye’s Heights (Greene, Fredericksburg, 24). Burnside’s directives lacked clarity, and thus Franklin interpreted them cautiously, designating only one division out of his three, providing merely 4,500 men, to lead the attack against Jackson (29). Meade set out at about 8:30, but in the middle of the morning his division was delayed an hour due to the bold actions of Confederate Major John Pelham, who boldly fired against their flank with only one gun and its crew, from a protected spot 400 yards away (O’Reilly, Fredericksburg 144). Once Meade continued and was 500 yards away from Prospect Hill, Jackson let loose his concealed artillery and, with the Union response, an artillery battle persisted for an hour. Meade’s division was ultimately too outnumbered against Jackson’s Corps, reserves, and superior tactics, and was eventually forced to retreat to the Richmond Stage Road. By dusk the battle’s fighting had finished (Greene, Fredericksburg, 29-30).

Closer to town, Sumner’s advance against Marye’s Heights fared much worse. The heights were well-fortified by the Confederates and from the beginning Sumner’s infantry had little chance of accomplishing anything significant. dead-along-sunken-road.jpgOne artilleryman declared “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it” (Greene, Fredericksburg, 30). He was hardly exaggerating. Late in the morning Burnside ordered the advance to begin, and until dusk Sumner sent wave after wave of brigades across open fields toward the heights. Longstreet’s artillery upon the heights and Cobb’s infantry, entrenched in the Sunken Road and protected behind its stone wall, slaughtered the Union troops as they came, entirely unprotected. During the course of the day Sumner sent a total of fifteen waves, and not a single one ever came closer than within twenty yards of the road. All during the night the moans of the wounded lying in the fields could be heard (35). However, the Confederates did not get by without casualties of their own. Among the men lost at that engagement was General Cobb. Above is a photograph of the Confederate dead in Sunken Road, taken after a similar set of advances in the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, in May 1963.

Burnside originally wanted to renew assaults the following day, but was persuaded against it, and he finally withdrew the army during the evening and night of December 15-16, having them dismantle the pontoon bridges in their wake so they could not be pursued. The defeated Army of the Potomac camped on Stafford Heights and in Falmouth, and thus ended the fateful Fredericksburg Campaign, only the first of several “On to Richmond” campaigns (Greene, “Battle”). The Army of Northern Virginia camped around Fredericksburg.

During the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Army of the Potomac lost 12,600 men, while the Army of Northern Virginia suffered only 5,300 casualties. Yet the Confederates gained nothing from their victory, while their loss of men and supplies—not so easily replaced—had serious effects, compared to the Federals, who could afford and obtain replacement infantry and supplies (Greene, “Battle”).  For all its gore, the Battle of Fredericksburg benefited neither army.

The ensuing winter was an easy one for neither army. Both experienced hunger, most extremely the Confederates, due to insufficient supplies. But Burnside didn’t stop there. In late January he initiated his next ‘On to Richmond’ advance, known as the Mud March, which was a complete failure and resulted in the loss of troops, supplies, horses and mules, and last but not least, the men’s morale and their will to do anything further for their inept commander. Within days, Lincoln replaced Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac with his rival, General Hooker.

To read more about Hooker and the changes he made, see General Hooker’s Headquarters N-34. To read more about Confederate winter camps and excursions, see Lee’s Winter Headquarters E-38, Longstreet’s Winter Headquarters E-41, and Stuart E-8. For information about the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, see Cox House E-42 and The Chancellorsville Campaign, E-118

Photo Credits
“Battle of Fredericksburg,” Library of Congress (accessed April 15, 2008).

“Confederate Dead Behind the Stone Wall of Marye’s Heights, Killed During the Battle of Chancellorsville,”, (accessed April 17, 2008)

For Further Reference
Finfrock, Bradley. Across the Rappahannock. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1994.

Greene, Wilson A. “Battle of Fredericksburg.” National Park Service. (accessed April 30, 2008).

_____. Fredericksburg Battlefields: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park, Virginia. Division of Publications, National Park Service. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.

O’Reilly, Francis Augustín. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

O’Reilly, Frank A. “Stonewall” Jackson at Fredericksburg: The Battle of Prospect Hill, December 13, 1862. Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, Inc., 1993.

Rable, George C. Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Fredericksburg Campaign N-4 Department of Historic Resources map and directions

Battles of Fredericksburg E-44 Department of Historic Resources map and directions


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