The Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, involved nearly 200,000 combatants, the largest concentration of troops in any Civil War battle. Ambrose Burnside, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, had ordered his more than 120,000 troops to cross the Rappahannock River, where they made a two-pronged attack on the right and left flanks of Robert E. Lee’s 80,000-strong Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. On both ends, Lee’s rebel defenders turned back the Union assault with heavy casualties (nearly 13,000), particularly from their high position atop Marye’s Heights. The results of the battle sent Union morale plummeting and lent much-needed new energy to the Confederate cause after the failure of Lee’s first invasion of the North at Antietam the previous fall.
Battle of Fredericksburg: A New Union Commander
Before the fall of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had twice offered Ambrose Burnside overall command of the Union’s Army of the Potomac due to frustration with its present commander, George B. McClellan. Burnside turned it down both times–once after the failed Peninsula Campaign and again after the Confederate victory in the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)–insisting that McClellan was the man for the job. In September 1862, Burnside led the left wing of the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam, during which his forces struggled to capture what became known as “Burnside’s Bridge.” When McClellan declined to press his advantage and pursue Robert E. Lee’s defeated Army of Northern Virginia after Antietam, Lincoln reached the limits of his patience. On November 7 he removed McClellan from command and appointed the reluctant Burnside to his post.
Burnside may have doubted his own qualifications to command the Army of the Potomac, but he nonetheless acted quickly to move the large force into Virginia in an advance toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. By mid-November, he had moved two advance corps to Falmouth, located on the north bank of the Rappahannock River across from Fredericksburg. In response, Lee rushed his troops to dig in positions in the hills south of the Rappahannock before the bulk of Burnside’s army could arrive.
Battle of Fredericksburg: An Ill-Fated Advance
Unfortunately for Burnside, the section of the Rappahannock near Falmouth was too deep to ford, so he was forced to wait for pontoon bridges to arrive in order to cross the river. Due to a miscommunication between Burnside and Henry Halleck, general in chief of all Union armies, the pontoons were delayed in arriving, and James Longstreet’s Confederate corps had ample time to occupy a strong position on Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg. On December 11, as Burnside crossed the Rappahannock with more than 120,000 Union troops, Lee offered only a token resistance in order to give Stonewall Jackson’s corps time to connect with Longstreet’s, stretching out the Confederate line by some three miles.
On December 13, Burnside ordered his left wing (led by General William B. Franklin) in an attack on Lee’s right, commanded by Jackson, while the rest of his army attempted to assault Longstreet’s First Corps at Marye’s Heights. Though a division led by General George Meade managed to temporarily break Jackson’s line, Franklin failed to send 50,000 more troops forward when given the opportunity, and Jackson was able to launch a successful counterattack. Meanwhile, Longstreet’s artillery mowed down ranks of attacking Union soldiers from their strong position on high ground. By the time darkness fell, there had been no change in position. The Union had suffered nearly 13,000 casualties, most of them in front of Marye’s Heights, while the Confederates counted fewer than 5,000.
Impact of the Battle of Fredericksburg
The Battle of Fredericksburg was a crushing defeat for the Union, whose soldiers fought courageously and well but fell victim to mismanagement by their generals, including confused orders from Burnside to Franklin. Burnside accepted responsibility for the defeat, though many blamed Lincoln for pressuring him to go ahead with an impossible offensive. In the rush of political recriminations that followed, a majority of Republican senators voted to remove Secretary of State William Seward, who had become the primary target for their frustrations over the administration’s conduct of the war. Led by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, the senators pressed Lincoln to reorganize his cabinet, and when he refused, Chase offered his resignation. Seward had also offered to resign, but Lincoln refused in both cases, smoothing over the cabinet crisis and deftly limiting the political repercussions of the defeat at Fredericksburg. In January 1863, the president named Joseph Hooker to replace Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
On the Confederate side, the victory at Fredericksburg restored Confederate morale after Lee’s unsuccessful campaign into Maryland in the fall. At the head of a rejuvenated Army of Northern Virginia, Lee would follow up with an even more smashing success over a numerically superior Union force at Chancellorsville in May 1863 before launching a second invasion of the North through Pennsylvania. In July, Lee’s army would again meet the Army of the Potomac–by that time under the command of George Meade, who replaced Hooker after Chancellorsville–in the decisive Battle of Gettysburg.