Battle of Fredericksburg

Ambrose Burnside / General Joseph Hooker

The Battle of Fredericksburg was a decisive one for the victorious Confederates. The Union losses were catastrophic and the morale dipped to an all-time low. The plan drawn up by General Ambrose Burnside called for a feigning movement in an attempt to deceive General Robert E. Lee’s that they would attack at another point. Then a quick redeployment of the Union Army would have them cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, followed by a strong drive to take Richmond.

Maryes Heights FredericksburgFredericksburg! Fredericksburg!The Fredericksburg Campaign

The battle plan was approved by President Abraham Lincoln and by general-in-chief Major General Henry W. Halleck. Lincoln was facing immense pressure to achieve a victory as politicians and the public alike were beginning to lose confidence in the Union Army of the Potomac. Lincoln reluctantly approved the plan on November 14 but warned that Burnside must move with great speed as he doubted Lee would stay still for too long.

General Ambrose Burnside had just been appointed to take command on November 7, 1862 to replace the inept General George W. McClellan. Burnside at first rejected the offer as he didn’t feel up to the task of commanding such a large army. He later accepted when notified that should he refuse, McClellan would be replaced by General Joseph Hooker. His intense dislike and distrust of Hooker eventually motivated him to take the position.

* All maps by Hal Jespersen,

Battle of Fredericksburg, Ambrose Burnside, General Joseph Hooker, Fredericksburg Battle Map

His plan was put into action on November 15 with a quick march along the Rappahannock River that stalled when the pontoon bridges he had ordered were not ready. Two days after the campaign had begun everything was going wrong for Burnside. His commanders urged him to cross at Falmouth - just west of Fredericksburg - and break up the 500 or so Confederates that occupied the heights but he feared they would be cut off if the fordable parts of the river became flooded.

Lee knew Burnside’s army was on the move and anticipated that he would quickly cross the Rappahannock River at which point he would move his army further south in a defensive position to protect Richmond. However, when Lee saw how slowly Burnside's army of 112,000 men were moving, he converged his 72,500 man force on Fredericksburg.

On Lee’s order, Thomas Stonewall Jackson and his corp were to occupy Marye’s Heights overlooking the city and this decision alone would seal the fate of the Union army at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The rest of Lee’s army soon followed suit and the heights to the west of Fredericksburg were getting well-fortified as more men arrived.

A single pontoon bridge arrived on November 25 and Burnside had an opportunity to cross his men and attack quickly as the hills contained just over half of Lee’s army. Instead he hesitated and any chance of a quick victory were lost. The rest of the bridges didn’t arrive until the end of the month but this was too late for Burnside to cross his army unopposed.

Setting Up the Bridges (Battle of Fredericksburg)

There was much discussion over the next week amongst Burnside and his commanders until finally a decision to attack was made. On December 9, Ambrose Burnside wrote to Halleck, "I think now the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than any other part of the river. ... I'm convinced that a large force of the enemy is now concentrated at Port Royal, its left resting on Fredericksburg, which we hope to turn."

At dawn on December 11, Union engineers began the construction of 6 pontoon bridges directly in line with Fredericksburg. Confederate General William Barksdale is deployed there and his sharpshooters constantly harass the engineers during bridge-building. Union artillery targeted the positions but they were largely ineffective from rooting the sharpshooters from the protection of cellars.

Colonel Norman J. Hall volunteered his brigade to clear out the sharpshooters and at first Burnside denied him. Eventually Burnside relented and Hall and his men crossed in boats, and made it successfully to shore. They went house-to-house clearing all resistance and finally the engineers could work unmolested. The bridges were finally assembled on December 12 and Burnside’s army started to make its way across.

Battle of Fredericksburg, Ambrose Burnside, General Joseph Hooker, Fredericksburg Battle Map

Attack on Fredericksburg (Battle of Fredericksburg)

The city was shelled nonstop and it’s estimated 5,000 were dropped on the city by Union artillery. Surprisingly, the civilian casualties were very low. Houses were cleared and four brigades of Union infantry occupied the town in the first event of urban warfare in the American Civil War.

The troops looted Fredericksburg with a fury not seen before in the war. The Confederates were outraged at this act as many were native Virginians and they awaited their revenge on the heights west of Fredericksburg.

General Ambrose Burnside issued vague orders that night in regards the infantry assault the next morning. Many of his generals were confused as to what he ordered and didn’t receive confirmation or details until 7:15am the next morning. It was December 13 and the initial assaults were to be on the heights south of Fredericksburg defended by Thomas Stonewall Jackson and at Marye’s Heights to the west.

Battle of Fredericksburg, Ambrose Burnside, General Joseph Hooker, Fredericksburg Battle Map

Map: General Sumner's assault on Marye's Heights. Dec. 13, 1862, 1pm.

Marye’s Heights (Battle of Fredericksburg)

Marye’s Heights was only defended by 2,000 men with 7,000 in reserve but their artillery covered the field the Union would have to advance over. General Porter Alexander, the artillery commander for the Confederates is quoted as saying to General James Longstreet who commanded the heights, “General, we cover that ground now so well that we will comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it."

Burnside ordered General Edwin V. Summer to seize the high ground west of the city at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The approaching ground was open fields with scattered houses, fences and other obstacles that would restrict the formation of advancing lines of infantry. As if that wasn’t enough a canal had to be crossed using 3 narrow bridges that would funnel the troops into confined areas where they’d have to reform again - all the while under fire.

Once the fog lifted over the city at 10am, Sumner ordered the attack and the Battle of Fredericksburg had officially begun. The first wave under Brigadier General Nathan Campbell crossed the canal around 11am, reformed their lines behind the protection of a bluff and advanced up the slopes to attack the heights. They were promptly mowed down as they approached to within 100 yards of a stone wall behind which the Confederates continued their murderous fire. Other waves followed with worse results as the battlefield was covered with the wounded and dying at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

At one point General Robert E. Lee was concerned that the Union troops would break through to which General James Longstreet replied, "General, if you put every man 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."

Although the Union attacks failed on all fronts, General Burnside refused to deviate from the original plan of attacking straight-on. The Union soldiers kept attacking the heights, and they kept getting cut down by the thousands. At 4pm, General Joseph Hooker went to Burnside’s headquarters to try and talk him out of the attacks, but again Burnside refused to listen to any of his officers.

Battle of Fredericksburg, Ambrose Burnside, General Joseph Hooker, Fredericksburg Battle Map

Map: General Hooker's assault on Marye's Heights. Dec. 13, 1862, 3:30pm.

To that point 14 separate attacks were launched, and all failed with between 6,000-8,000 Union casualties while the Confederate casualties were much lower at only 1,200. Burnside tried to blame his subordinates for the failed attacks but they communicated that the fault was his own.

Many Union soldiers spent the night on the battlefield at the Battle of Fredericksburg while Confederates kept up the musket-fire each time they lifted their heads, or tried to withdraw. The next morning Burnside made a request of Lee that the wounded be evacuated from the field to which Lee graciously agreed.

Union Retreat (Battle of Fredericksburg)

On December 14 both armies maintained their positions. The next day the Union army retreated across the river thus ending the Battle of Fredericksburg. Union casualties totaled 12,563 with Confederate casualties at 5,377. President Lincoln received much criticism for this defeat as he ha appointed Burnside and endorsed his plan. Lincoln was noted to have written, "If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it." Burnside was to be relieved a month later following the humiliating defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and General Joe Hooker would get his chance to lead the Union Army of the Potomac.

General Lee on the other hand was hailed as a hero as he had successfully defended Fredericksburg in his native home, and restored the city to the citizens of Virginia. The Battle of Fredericksburg will always go down as one of the most one-sided victories of the American Civil War.

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