The Civil War was not going well for the Union during the first two years. The Union was suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and it seemingly had no answer. Backstabbing and in-fighting among the Union’s Army leadership were rampant. President Lincoln had appointed a series of commanders looking for the one who would be able to take on Lee and beat the outnumbered but resilient enemy.

By the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lincoln had given command over to Ambrose Burnside. Burnside had the opportunity to surprise Lee but a series of failures would ultimately cause another Union debacle. In the battle of Fredericksburg Burnside’s army of 114,000 would engage Lee’s 72,500; it would be the largest battle of the Civil War.

It was during the bloody battle of Fredericksburg, that one soldier, Richard Rowland Kirkland, would display compassion for the wounded soldiers of both sides. He’d be recognized as a humanitarian of such accord that he would become known as “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.”

Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland

Background to the Battle

Burnside was given command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7. Lincoln wanted a bold plan and Burnside gave it to him. He planned on attacking the South and taking the Confederate capital of Richmond.

While Burnside’s plan was sound but its execution wasn’t up to par. On November 15, Burnside quickly moved a Corps down to Falmouth to secure a crossing of the Rappahannock River. Once the Union had secured the river bank opposite of Fredericksburg on the 17th, the rest of the army soon followed.

Burnside had surprised Lee and the Confederates. But there was a major issue in the Union’s plan. The pontoon bridges, which Burnside needed to get across the river, were delayed by bureaucratic bungling. Lee anticipated that the Union would push quickly across and he didn’t have the troops in the area to stop them. He planned on defending the next strategic location, along the Anna River. But once he saw how slow the Union troops were moving he ordered all of his troops to Fredericksburg. In fact, the pontoons Burnside needed were nearly two weeks late in arriving. It wasn’t until December 11 that Union engineers built five pontoon bridges, under fire, to get the troops across.

Confederate sharpshooters from Mississippi, under the command of General Barksdale, were pouring lethal fire on the engineers. Burnside ordered 150 guns on his side of the Rappahannock to open fire. They were largely ineffective as the Rebs just took cover in the basements and cellars of the town. Burnside then ordered troops to cross the river in pontoon boats to push the Mississippi men out of the town. It was the first amphibious river crossing operation under fire in the U.S. Army’s history. Barksdale’s men eventually had to retreat up the heights but by then, Lee’s army had arrived. General James Longstreet’s corps occupied the long sloping heights that dominated the town known as Marye’s Heights. The rest of the army crossed on the 12th but the element of surprise was long gone and the Confederates had control of the high ground.

The Battle Begins

Burnside’s verbal orders on the 12th indicated that the main attack was to come in the south by General Franklin’s “Grand Division.” But Burnside didn’t use his numerical superiority; in fact, rather than attacking with all of Franklin’s 60,000 men, the Union decided to attack with one division of just 4,500 men under General Meade. Meade’s men initially broke through a gap in the Confederate lines. Had they been supported on time and with enough men, they could have turned the Confederate line. By the time Meade’s men were joined by General Gibbon and his men, the Rebs had solidified the lines and had pushed them back with heavy casualties. Nearly every high ranking officer under Meade was either killed or wounded. Burnside’s hope for a breakthrough in the south had disintegrated.