Once Lincoln had established the three-part strategy of the federal advance, it remained for the Army of the Potomac to move first, a new commander at its head. He was Ambrose E. Burnside, a handsome, likable, thirty-eight-year-old Rhode Island man whose combat record thus far had been uneven. He had risen to a major general’s rank on the strength of a skillfully conducted amphibious campaign on the North Carolina coast early in the war. Using gunboats to support sea-borne infantry, he had closed every North Carolina port except Wilmington to Confederate shipping. At First Bull Run, however, his division had made two uncoordinated and half-hearted attacks in the first hour of the battle and was done for the day. Most recently, at Antietam, he had shown a singular lack of imagination and flexibility in his head-on assaults at the stone bridge and not much vigor or direction in pressing his attack once the bridge was taken. It was his corps or rather part of it, that was routed by A. P. Hill’s counterattack. Still, Lincoln had to have somebody, and Burnside was now his man. Burnside himself was not sure the president had made the right choice.
Even so, Burnside’s plan was simple and sound: he would swing east to Fredericksburg, cross the Rappahannock there, and then push on toward Richmond, bringing Lee to battle. Lincoln approved it, adding, “it will succeed, if you move very rapidly; otherwise not.” With his 120,000 men now reorganized into three Grand Divisions of two corps each, he got them in motion in good order. By November 17, Edwin Sumner’s Right Grand Division was at Falmouth just upriver from Fredericksburg and ready to cross. On the Fredericksburg side, just a fraction of Lee’s army was on hand. Here, however, arose Burnside’s first difficulty: between his own unclear instructions and Henry Halleck’s misunderstanding of them, the pontoon bridges on which he expected to cross had not yet arrived. Not until the pre-dawn darkness of December 11 would Federal engineers begin laying the first bridges over the Rappahannock, three at Fredericksburg and three more slightly downstream. In the meantime, while Burnside waited for his pontoons, Lee marched. By the time Burnside was ready to cross, December 12, Lee’s whole army was at hand, 75,000 veterans on a seven-mile front: Longstreet’s corps on the left, drawn up on the crest of a long line of forbidding hills behind Fredericksburg, Jackson’s on a low wooded ridge to the right covering the downriver crossings.
Burnside got his bridges built without undue difficulty on December 11, the three lower bridges by noon or so and the three upriver by the close of the short winter day. Artillery fire covered the effort. (This battle would be hard on handsome colonial Fredericksburg. Before it was over, most of its citizens were refugees, and many of its homes and buildings were wrecked, burnt, and looted.) Opposite Fredericksburg itself, the bridge builders took stinging sniper fire from a Mississippi brigade hidden in the city’s buildings. Burnside’s rifled cannons across the river knocked the buildings into rubble, but the Rebels continued shooting. Finally, three regiments of Yanks went across by boat and drove the Rebels out in some nasty house-to-house fighting. With his bridges secure, Burnside made plans to cross his army into Fredericksburg the next day. At this point Burnside might have wondered why Lee had done so little to resist his crossing of the river. It was precisely because he hoped Burnside would come up through the town and attack him on the hills beyond. One private soldier in Burnside’s legions saw the matter a good deal more clearly than his chief: “They want us to get in,” he said. “Getting out won’t be so smart and easy.”
Burnside’s plan now was straightforward: the exertion of brute force on an enemy he believed he outnumbered by 40,000. (Unlike McClellan, who often doubled or trebled Lee’s numbers, Burnside was fairly accurate in his estimates.) William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division, supported by two of Joe Hooker’s divisions from the Center, would make the effort on the Confederate right, cave in Jackson’s flank, and then turn north to drive toward Longstreet’s corps on the left. At the same time Sumner’s Right Grand Division, supported by four of Hooker’s divisions would strike the Confederate left on Marye’s Heights back of the town. With nearly 60,000 men in each wing, and the elements of Jackson’s corps scattered as far as twenty miles downriver covering the crossings, Burnside believed he would overwhelm Lee. For subtlety, he sent a small detachment of Maine woodsmen downriver to Skinker’s Neck and had them corduroy a road leading down to the river as if he planned to cross there. Burnside was sure that the “enemy will be… surprised by a crossing immediately on our front.”
Robert E. Lee, however, was above all a hard man to surprise–even if Burnside’s long delay had not given him ample time to prepare. His left was held by his “old warhorse,” Pete Longstreet, a soldier who much preferred to fight on the defensive. Nor could he have asked for better ground for a defensive fight. His corps, when the attack came, was drawn up four ranks deep on Marye’s Heights parallel to the river behind the town. Directly opposite the town at the bottom of the hill was a sunken road and before it a stone wall four feet high. Peacetime Fredericksburg had built a magnificent breastwork for his corps, and Longstreet’s men improved it by deepening the roadbed and banking the dirt up on the Federal side. On the Heights proper, Longstreet massed his guns to cover the approaches to his five-mile front. His gunners were sure, as one said, that “a chicken could not live on that field once we open up on it.” Lee’s right was held by Jackson, a wooded ridge with Prospect Hill as a strong point in the center and Jeb Stuart’s cavalry posted at Hamilton’s Crossing to protect his extreme right. Burnside believed this sector to be the most vulnerable stretch of Lee’s line. In fact, on the eleventh, when he began his bridges, it was, four Confederate divisions being posted downriver to cover the lower crossings of the Rappahannock. But that night, convinced now that Burnside was going to make his effort at Fredericksburg, Lee ordered the two nearest to close up on Longstreet’s right, and the next day he called for the other two to come up. With only two miles of front, Jackson would have ten men to defend every yard. Lee and his lieutenants would be ready to receive Burnside’s surprise on the thirteenth.
On the morning of December 13, the three Confederate commanders met at Lee’s headquarters on a hill roughly in the center of his line (known today as Lee’s Hill). From here he could see what unfolded in front of both wings of his army; or rather, he would be able to see whenever the fog lifted on this winter morning. Although sunrise was just a little past seven that morning, the fog didn’t burn off until ten. As it lifted, the Confederates saw two dark rivers of men flowing toward the jumping-off points. One, Sumner’s Right Grand Division, marched through Fredericksburg to the plain beyond, headed for the Heights; the other, Franklin’s Left Grand Division, was forming up two miles south of town on the Old Richmond Stage Road ready to turn Jackson’s right at Hamilton’s Crossing. In bright sunlight now, as the Federal batteries on Stafford Heights across the river began to boom, Franklin sent John F. Reynold’s corps forward on Jackson’s front, three divisions, 18,000 men supported by four batteries.
This armed mass did not get far, though. Young John Pelham of Alabama, Stuart’s artillery chief, rolled out two guns on the Federal left, a Blakely rifle and a 12-pound Napoleon, and began to pour a quick and galling fire down the neat Yankee ranks. Federal batteries knocked out Pelham’s rifle, but he continued to bang away with his smoothbore until his ammunition was all but gone. Thus one young man with an appetite for glory held up the advance of an entire corps for two hours. While Franklin’s men worked to regain their formation, Federal batteries turned on the low ridge searching for Jackson’s batteries hidden in the woods, hoping to knock them out before the infantry closed with Jackson’s line. Old Jack’s gunners waited until Franklin’s men were just 800 yards off, and when they opened up, Franklin’s second advance was blasted back in short order. At this point, however, Franklin at least had a clearer idea of the disposition of Jackson’s defenses. He now wheeled one division to the left to keep Pelham’s horse artillery off his flank and sent two divisions forward again to drive the Rebels off their ridge. One–John Gibbon’s–ran into savage musketry and was shot up in front of Prospect Hill, but the other–George Gordon Meade’s–found a gap in the Rebel line. It was a wooded, boggy ravine on A. P. Hill’s front, undefended because Hill believed it to be a natural barrier. Meade’s Pennsylvanians pushed through the bog, fell with a sudden shock on a Rebel brigade in the second line, and broke them. If the Army of the Potomac had any chance of success at all at Fredericksburg, it was here and now. Franklin had plenty of men at hand. If he could drive them into the hole Meade had punched in the center of Hill’s front, he might well turn Jackson’s flank as Burnside had planned. But before Franklin could act, Jubal Early’s men arrived on the run from the right, shouting “Here comes old Jubal! Let old Jubal straighten out that fence!” Now Meade was in a fix. He had a Rebel counterattack in front and flanks and nowhere to go but back the way he came. The boggy ravine was a death trap, and before his men could get back across the plain and under the protection of artillery again, a third of them lay in the woods and the plain beyond. Though Burnside sent urgent orders to Franklin to renew the attack that afternoon, Franklin was done for the day. He had made three lunges at Jackson’s line, had a brief success and a fleeting opportunity, and then a final bloody repulse. Half his men had never even got into the fight–even as a savage battle was raging just two miles to the north in front of Marye’s Heights.
Sumner had marched his men out of Fredericksburg, formed up on the plain beyond, and sent them forward toward the Heights a half-mile distant. They were in trouble almost from the first step. On the right of their advance ran a canal and drainage ditch, on their left a ravine cut by Hazel Run. Thus, the lay of the land itself narrowed the front of their assault. Worse yet for the Yanks, to get over the drainage ditch they had to file over three bridges in order to get in position to attack in the first place. Packed tightly at the bridges, they took a pounding from Rebel guns on the high ground. But they came on. One Rebel on the Heights remembered “How beautifully they came. Their bright bayonets glistening in the sunlight made the line look like a huge serpent of blue and steel.” It was a terrible beauty. As the first wave advanced toward the sunken road, they had a moment’s respite from the guns when they reached a dip in the ground, a kind of swale the Rebel cannon could not reach. There they took a deep breath, and as a Rebel recalled, “on they came, as though they would go straight through us and over us. Now we gave them canister, and that staggered them. A few more paces onward and the Georgians in the road below us rose up, and, glancing an instant along their rifle barrels, let loose a storm of lead into the faces of the advancing brigade.” The first Union attack of the day was demolished with a single murderous volley. A second came on, “as though breasting a storm of rain and sleet,” one survivor remembered, “their faces and bodies… half turned to the storm, with their shoulders shrugged.” The Georgian storm fell on them likewise, and the dead and wounded were already thick before the stone wall. The Georgians were four ranks deep on a narrow front. With each rank firing and reloading in turn, their fire was almost continuous. A third wave made a rush, but, as a Federal officer observed, they seemed to “melt like snow coming down on warm ground.” Watching from above, Longstreet assured Lee that “if you put every man now on the other side of the Potomac in that field to approach me over that same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all.” It looked as if Lee’s quartermaster general would provide the ammunition and General Burnside the victims.
With an hour or so of daylight left, Burnside, unable to get Franklin in motion on his left, ordered Sumner to renew the attack on the right, supported now by the reserve, Hooker’s Center Grand Division. About four o’clock the men massed in that little swale before the wall saw a battalion of artillery withdraw from the Heights and started to advance, believing that if they were going to have a chance at all today, this was it. But the fourth attack went forward just as a fresh battalion of artillery replaced the one withdrawn. Into the storm they went like their comrades before them and were punished almost beyond believing. The Georgians in the sunken road had been reinforced by some North Carolina regiments, and their volume of fire had actually increased. A little later a fifth attack succeeded only in piling the mangled and the slain a little higher. In the last light of a day the Yankees must have believed would never end, Hooker now brought his men forward. He had seen five assault waves go up, try to shoot it out with the Rebel riflemen behind their stone breastwork, and fall back in agony. Now he would try one last head-long, double-quick rush to the wall with the bayonet. If they got there fast enough, there might be enough weight left to the wave to drive the Rebels from their road. The wounded men who lay there in the winter twilight knew better and called out to Hooker’s men to turn back. But in the sunken road, the Rebels were urging them on with grim pleasure. Ill-clad and ill-shod, they called out, “Come on, blue belly! Bring them boots and blankets! Bring ’em hyar!” The sixth and final Federal attack left its dead within forty yards of the stone wall. It was their farthest advance of the day. “It is well that war is so terrible,” said Robert E. Lee looking down from his hill. “We should else grow too fond of it.”
And terrible it was. Before the Heights nine thousand Federal fighting men had been shot; four thousand more two miles to the south. Confederate losses were listed at five thousand killed, wounded, and missing. About a thousand of these, it was later discovered, were neither killed nor wounded, but had slipped away after the battle to go home for Christmas. The Federal wounded, however, lay helpless in the winter darkness. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a former college professor who commanded the 20th Maine that day and was stranded with them on the field, remembered the “strange ventriloquism” of the wounded, “as if a thousand discords were flowing together into a key-note weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear, yet startling with its nearness; the writhing concord broken by cries for help… some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity, and some on friendly hands to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun; some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved names… and underneath, all the time, the deep bass note from closed lips too hopeless, or too heroic to articulate their agony.” Over them that night flickered the eerie reds and blues of the aurora borealis, the northern lights almost never seen this far south. One Southerner thought “the heavens were hanging out banners and streamers… in honor of our victory.” General Burnside, gesturing toward his dead and wounded across the river, could only mutter in distraction, “Oh, those men! Oh, those men!”
Was Fredericksburg the worst day of the high command of the Army of the Potomac? One can say with certainty that it had been a very bad day indeed. Ambrose Burnside, who had wrecked half a corps smashing head-on into a stone bridge at Antietam, had now wrecked half an army smashing into a stone wall at the foot of Marye’s Heights. On his left, William B. Franklin had ventured less and gained nothing at all. Of his eight divisions, he had actually sent only three forward to gain his assigned objective–to seize the ridge and drive north. “Any movement on my front is impossible,” he insisted when Burnside ordered an attack. Late in the day Stonewall, disappointed that he was not being attacked, decided to make an attack of his own with a view, as he put it, to “drive [the Yankees] into the river yonder.” He rolled his guns forward to support the four divisions of infantry then forming up. The Rebel gunners in the open were immediately hammered by Federal guns across the river on Stafford Heights, and Jackson was forced to cancel the attack. The brief demonstration had its effect on Franklin, though. To Burnside, he wrote, “my left is in danger of being turned. What hope is there of getting reinforcements across the river?” On hand, Franklin had an entire corps–24,000 men–who had not been engaged at all on this terrible day.
Lee expected–indeed hoped–to be attacked again the next day, looking for an opportunity to destroy Burnside. Burnside himself wanted to renew the battle, wanted in fact to lead the attack in person. In the early hours of the 14th, he wired Washington that “We hold the first ridge outside the town, and three miles below. We hope to carry the crest today.” Burnside clearly did not understand what had happened to his army on the 13th. But its officers and men did, and they would have none of another day like it. In the end Burnside was compelled to ask for a truce to gather in his dead and wounded, wounded who had endured two winter days and nights on the field. In the dark, on December 15 Burnside’s men silently withdrew.
News of Burnside’s disaster appalled the Northern public. Luckless Irvin McDowell, cautious George McClellan, blustery John Pope had each sought to take their armies on to Richmond, only to be driven back in defeat across the Potomac. Now Ambrose Burnside, stolid, unimaginative, inflexible, was back across the Rappahannock with a broken army. More killed, more wounded, more widows, more orphans, and no end in sight. The people, said Harper’s Weekly, “have borne, silently and grimly, imbecility, treachery, failure, privation, loss of friends and means, almost every suffering that can affect a brave people. But they cannot be expected to suffer that such massacres as this at Fredericksburg shall be repeated.” In the White House, Burnside’s disaster and the country’s despair were a deep personal anguish for Lincoln. “If there is a worse place than hell,” he confided to a visitor, “I am in it.”
Of the terrible day at Fredericksburg, perhaps an Ohio journalist put it best: “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor, or generals to manifest less judgment than were perceptible on our side that day.”