The Civil War did not go well for the Union during the first two years of the war. They suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and seemingly had no answer. Backstabbing and in-fighting among the Union’s Army leadership were rampant. President Lincoln went thru a series of Commanders looking for the one who would be able to take on Lee and show enough gumption to beat the talented Southerner at his own game.

By the time the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lincoln had given the command to Ambrose Burnside. Burnside would have the opportunity to surprise Lee but a series of failures would ultimately cause another Union debacle. Fredericksburg was the largest number of armed troops that would confront one another during the Civil War. Burnside’s army of 120,000 men would engage 114,000 of them in the battle. Lee’s 78,000 troops would have 72,500 engaged.

In September 1862, after the Battle of Antietam in Maryland which was a tactical draw, the President grew increasingly fed up with the slow, deliberate and unaggressive George McClellan, who refused to chase Lee. For the third time during the year, he offered the Command of the Army of the Potomac to Burnside. And this time, the general reluctantly accepted.

Ambrose Burnside in 1862

Burnside was a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point in 1847 and upon graduation served out west first in occupation duty as a Lieutenant and then under Braxton Bragg fighting the Apaches. Bragg would later command a corps under Lee. Burnside was wounded in the neck by an Apache arrow during his time in the west.

When the war broke out, Burnside who had left the service was given command of a Brigade. By the time  Lee invaded the north at Antietam a year later, Burnside commanded the right wing of the Army, which was two corps (I Corps and the IX Corps).

During Antietam, Burnside was tasked with fording a crossing over a narrow creek. Had he done a proper reconnaissance, he would have found a few places where his troops could have crossed with the water barely knee deep and out of sight of the Rebel gunners. Instead, he focused a narrow concrete bridge. The opposite side was dominated by high ground chock full of Confederate sharpshooters. His men finally took the bridge but couldn’t press home their advantage in time, and Confederate reinforcements arrived to push them back.

He 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.

Burnside’s plan was sound, however, the execution of it was much less so. On November 15th he quickly moved a Corps down to Falmouth to secure a crossing of the Rappahannock River. Once they had secured the river bank opposite of Fredericksburg on the 17th, the rest of the army soon followed.

Burnside had gotten the drop on Lee and the Confederates were caught by surprise. But there was a major snafu in the Union’s plan. The pontoon bridges that Burnside needed to get across the river were delayed, by bureaucratic bungling. Lee anticipated 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 11th, that Union engineers built five pontoon bridges, under fire to get the troops across.

Fredericksburg pontoon bridges

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 US Army’s history. Barksdale’s men eventually had to retreat up the heights in town but by then, Lee’s army was there. 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 in the South: 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, the smallest of just 4500 men under General Meade. Meade’s men had initially broken thru 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 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.

Massacre at Marye’s Heights: Burnside then turned his attention to the center of the Confederate’s line in the middle of town. About 600 yards west of Fredericksburg was a ridge that rose out of the plain about 60 feet above the open fields that led to it in town. The Telegraph Road, known after the battle as the Sunken Road—was protected by a 4-foot stone wall, built up in places with log breastworks, making it a perfect infantry defensive position. There the Southerners could fire into the advancing troops virtually impervious to return fire. 

Sunken road stone wall at Fredericksburg

As the Union troops began to move up the slope, the open terrain made them easy targets for the Confederate gunners and they were cut down mercilessly before they could advance no nearer than 125 yards from the defensive position. Some of the troops got to within 40 yards of the enemy lines but they were forced to hug the ground as they were blasted by withering fire. Casualties rates were between 30-50 percent for the first units attempting to take the heights. The Irish Brigade, the 69th New York made several charges only to meet the same fate. And got a hurrah from their Irish Confederate enemies from Georgia behind the Stone Wall. (Clip from the film “Gods and Generals)

Burnside stubbornly kept at it, sending seven Union divisions and making 14 charges against the heights, using a brigade at a time and each one failed, resulting in carnage for the Union troops. When darkness fell, the Union troops assaulting Marye’s Heights had suffered 8000 casualties. Burnside railed at his subordinates and announced that he’d personally lead his former XI Corps in a bayonet charge the next day. His generals thankfully talked him out of that folly.

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That entire day, December 14, the two armies stayed put in their lines. That night Burnside asked for a truce from Lee to attend the wounded. And then the Union began slipping back across the Rappahannock. Fredericksburg had been a disaster.

The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, 1,769 captured/missing).Two Union generals were mortally wounded: Brig. Gens. George Bayard and Conrad Jackson. The Confederate army lost 5,377 (608 killed, 4,116 wounded, 653 captured/missing), with the majority of their casualties in the early fighting on Jackson’s front. Confederate Brig. Gens. Maxcy Gregg and T. R. R. Cobb were both mortally wounded.

Burnside was relieved of his command about a month later. He tried an abortive second attempt at invading the South in January that bogged down in the winter mud, derisively described as the “Mud March” by his detractors.

Photos: US Archives, Wikipedia

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