Yesterday my friend and fellow historian, Barton Myers of Washington and Lee University, delivered the keynote address as part of the 154th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. I delivered this address back in 2008. The National Park Service does a phenomenal job each year commemorating the battle and Professor Myers was certainly an appropriate choice for this year’s keynote speaker.
The American Civil War had raged for little more than a year and a half when General Ambrose Everett Burnside reluctantly assumed command of the Army of the Potomac on a cold, blizzardy night in early November 1862.
And Burnside’s recent command decisions were not inspiring for a war-weary Northern public. His slow battlefield performance at the Battle of Antietam less than two months before had cost the Union army a chance at dealing a devastating blow against Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. But affable old “Burn”, as his many friends called him, under pressure to commence an offensive that November, followed his orders and put forward a plan to the Lincoln Administration for seizing the Confederate capital before the end of the calendar year.
Burnside offered a sound, but not terribly innovative strategic plan for seizing Richmond–a task McClellan, Burnside’s close friend, had failed at with the highly imaginative amphibious operation that led to the Peninsula Campaign the previous summer. General Burnside suggested a rapid movement of Union forces by land and train along a North-South axis between DC and Richmond before Lee’s Army could change front and place his battle hardened veterans once-again between the Union Army and its ultimate prize.
But the geography of northern Virginia was bisected by flowing rivers (running generally from northwest to southeast) providing obstacles to any such move. Such geographic lessons would come time and again for Union commanders in the years to come, but Burnside would see his plan come apart over one of the most critical of those waterways—the Rappahannock River—just opposite Fredericksburg, a key town that sat almost equidistant from the two great capital cities. Just south of Fredericksburg was the all-important Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, which Burnside sought to seize as a critical supply line for his operation against the Confederate capital.
But logistical delays with the pontoon bridges that were necessary to move this enormous blue army across that river permitted the “Gray Fox” Robert E. Lee to once again assess the military situation in Virginia and concentrate first sturdy James “Old Pete” Longstreet’s command on Marye’s Heights behind the city of Fredericksburg, making sure that no crossing of the Rappahannock at that point would come without a fight. And then once he was sure of a general movement by the Union army along that line, Lee ordered the remainder of his forces under Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the eccentric VMI professor, to once again march from the Shenandoah Valley in the final days of November in support, and eventually position his wing of the Confederate army south of Fredericksburg.
An opportunity for an unobstructed crossing of the river at Fredericksburg had been lost to Burnside, even before the Christmas season was underway. Burnside waited, and waited, and waited for the appropriate equipment to arrive, but did not deviate from his original plan of march. Finally, the pontoons arrived on November 27. Even after Lee blocked his opportunity for an unmolested crossing, Burnside—with advice from his senior Grand Division commander, the aging Edwin Vose Sumner–still believed that a rapid movement against Lee’s forces south of Fredericksburg could still provide the opportunity for victory. Burnside would build bridges both directly across from the city and a lower crossing south of town for his forces to threaten both Longstreet’s and Jackson’s positions.
Before dawn on December 11th, Burnside ordered his engineers to begin the construction of the bridges opposite town. Lee understanding that Burnsides’ heavy guns on Stafford Heights commanded the city, sent only a fraction of his army to the city itself. Urban fighting would be part of this Civil War engagement, placing the few remaining civilians not evacuated by Lee squarely in the middle of the two great armies. General Lee deployed the crack Mississippi Brigade of fire-eating secessionist William Barksdale, supported by Floridians from E.A. Perry’s brigade, to defend the bank of the Rappahannock and harass the New York engineers building the pontoon bridges for the Union Army to cross. As the fog began to lift over the city, Barksdale’s men did their deadly work. But Union Chief of Artillery Henry Hunt’s guns would work to reduce the houses along the wharf to eliminate the cover the Mississippians needed to be effective. Finally, Union soldiers would use the pontoon boats to ferry across the river and actually storm the streets. But it would be Lee’s orders that ultimately withdrew the tenacious Mississippians from the city as the Union Army finally gained a foothold in town.
Under heavy fog on December 12th, Union troops protected once again by the guns of Stafford Heights crossed the Rappahannock and entered the city in force. The carnival of punishment that Union soldiers displayed on that day exemplified a harsher war. The war was becoming harder in its military policy toward civilians and the Union army was beginning to use economic destruction as a weapon of war to bring hardship upon the whole southern population.
Fredericksburg would see this shift in microcosm during the war as Union soldiers who protected and guarded houses during an earlier occupation of the city would return as part of an army that would loot the city on December 12, 1862. Anger, frustration, and revenge would be doled out by both armies during this battle. For the Union army, it would be on the 12th. And for the Confederate Army, it would come on the 13th.
There were roughly 115,000 men in Burnside’s three grand divisions of infantry, commanded by Joseph Hooker, Edwin Sumner and William B. Franklin. Burnside’s tactical plan for December 13 was sound in theory. First, William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division (the main attack) would flank and overwhelm Stonewall Jackson’s men south of town near Hamilton’s Crossing, with a goal of seizing the Richmond road and a new road Confederates had cut to link the two wings of their own army, and ultimately turn the flank of Lee’s entire army on that end of the battlefield.
More importantly, Burnside’s army would then have controlled the important road and the RF&P rail line between Fredericksburg and the Confederate capital, making the Confederate army’s position untenable. Confederates would then have had no other choice but to move to defend Richmond.
In Burnside’s plan, the secondary attack would come with the Right Grand Division of Edwin V. “Bull” Sumner driving the Confederates from their works and the heights after Franklin had been successful. Both Franklin and Sumner would have support troops designated from Hooker’s Center Grand Division. If Franklin’s move south of town had been successful, then Sumner’s men would be able to drive the entrenched Confederates under Longstreet from their now untenable positions on heights directly behind the city.
But Franklin’s attacks were not ultimately successful due in part to the confusion of Burnside’s own vague orders not making the supreme importance of Franklin’s own movements clear in the overall battle plan. And the assaults made against Marye’s Heights would be the assaults that countless Americans remember as Burnside’s futile folly.
On the morning of December 13th, Confederates under Longstreet and Jackson were arrayed along a seven-mile front (with Jackson’s men stacked in lines along the final two miles). On the extreme Confederate right flank, south of Fredericksburg, along Prospect Hill stood Stonewall Jackson’s four divisions. Union General Franklin’s movements on the morning of December 13th were delayed more than an hour by the bold actions of the 24-year-old Alabama artillerist John Pelham, who commanded just one cannon that harassed the flank of the large Union attacking force. Jackson himself once said of Pelham: “It is really extraordinary to find such nerve and genius in a mere boy. With a Pelham on each flank, I believe I could whip the world.”
Among Jackson’s subordinates, General A. P. Hill, who Jackson personally disliked and had even had arrested for dereliction of duty just a few months before, had permitted a 200-yard gap in the Confederate line. A fateful decision designed to spare his men the difficulty of standing or sitting in a marshy lowland. It would be this area that Union General George Gordon’s Meade’s Division of Franklin’s force (the old Pennsylvania Reserve Corps) would walk into around 1:00pm on the early afternoon of December 13th, throwing the Confederate defenders into confusion. This attack pushed back two brigades of A.P. Hill’s troops driving into the center of Jackson’s second line. A furious counterattack by Jubal Early’s division dislodged the Union attackers, but the heavy artillery cover Union soldiers had from Stafford Heights and its guns halted the Confederate momentum.During the attack on Jackson’s front, South Carolina Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg would be killed. On this end of the field, the casualties would be much more even.
On the right Union flank, the attack of Sumner’s Grand Division commenced at just before noon, not completely aware of what was transpiring on the other side of the battlefield. Georgians, North Carolinians, and South Carolinians defended the sunken road and old stone retaining wall running along the base of the hill that afternoon. The Confederate position on this end of the field was one of the best defensive positions Lee’s army would ever hold. Lt. Col. Edward Porter Alexander, commanding Longstreet’s artillery, told his commander prior to the battle: “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 upon it.” But it wouldn’t be chickens. It would be men from Rhode Island and Ohio, Massachusetts and Maine, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Confederates in the Sunken Road eventually stood five deep as they loaded and then stepped to the firing step and fired over and over again over the now restored Stone Wall—one of the American Civil War’s most powerful and important symbols of enduring Union.
Artillerists from James B. Walton’s Washington Artillery of New Orleans, a prewar militia unit made up of many of the Crescent City’s noblest families, commanded along the heights spewing forth iron death. Among the ranks of Joseph B. Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade, Richard Kirkland could not stand the cries for help, water and solace from the enemy troops just over the wall, in the dangerous no-man’s-land. He requested permission to relieve these men with water. Despite the danger, he went, providing service to fallen enemies, an act of humanity during a battle filled with days of rage.
All afternoon and into the dusk, the Union assaults came, marching across the rising open plain outside of town, crossing a millrace, attempting to carry the sunken road and heights beyond. The brigade commands as they came forward offer a sober, deadly cadence: Kimball, Andrews, Palmer, Zook, Meagher, Caldwell, Owen, Hall, Sully, Ferrero, Nagle, Barnes, Sweitzer, Stockton, Allabach, Tyler and Hawkins. In all, 17 brigades attempted to charge the stone wall. Parts of eight separate Union divisions drawn from the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 9th Corps would be part of the attacks or be deployed as covering and relief soldiers for failed charges, coming no closer than 25 paces from the wall according to Union General Winfield Scott Hancock’s report of the battle.
The assaults ceased as night fell on the field, but not before Burnside offered to lead one final assault himself, wisely his officers convinced him of the futility of that action. The bitter cold hastened the deaths of many that December evening as frozen corpses were used as shelter by some of the living stranded on the field.
The attack would be memorialized by Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives in a print created just days after the battle and made widely and inexpensively available for Americans to hang on their living-room walls, a long-term reminder for the Northern public of what Currier and Ives called “the Lion Hearted Army of the Potomac.”
On the night of December 15, having secured his wounded, Burnside withdrew his troops back across the Rappahannock River, ending the battle.
In both a tactical and a strategic sense, the Battle of Fredericksburg was a Confederate victory in the field. Adulation from around the Confederacy poured in for Lee and his gray-clad veterans. This was Lee’s most one-sided battlefield victory of the war, by casualties and popular perception.
But something about the nature of this battle caused even the carefully comported R.E. Lee to become reflective. “It’s well that war is so terrible, we should grow too fond of it.” Lee, the confident, yet philosophical warrior, commenting on the majesty of men facing their duty alongside other brave men, and the seeming finality of a battle where things, politics, war’s outcome, might be decided in one bold stroke of military maneuver led by a genius commander.
War held that seductive power, even for Robert E. Lee. He was dazzled by the pageantry of battle. But he was self-aware enough to temper that statement alongside the costs, in men and lives, and its inherent terrible nature.
Abraham Lincoln’s private reaction summarized the pits of national despair over Fredericksburg. Upon hearing of the carnage, he simply stated: “If there is a place worse than hell, I am in it!”
The deep symbolism that the Civil War generation created by reburying men from all of the major campaigns of 1862, 1863 and 1864 atop the heights that Union soldiers had failed to carry on that cold, heroic day, but that had been carried in the less well known action of May 3, 1863 during the Chancellorsville Campaign was striking. The transformative meaning of victory and defeat for a divided nation is literally sown into the ground by the men who fought over this hallowed space.
It is at Fredericksburg in December 1862 that we see the sacrifice and duty of the citizen-soldier demonstrated in perhaps its most poignant way in the face of what now seems to us murderous and impossible odds. For Confederates, this moment would come later with Pickett’s Charge, but for the Union, Marye’s Heights literally spelled the word: SACRIFICE.
Union soldiers who made the long-remembered assaults would not live to see the victory of their cause, but their military defeat was also a long-term victory of Union memory, of the great costs and sacrifice of a war for Union, of the importance of selfless service in a time of political division. Few successful attacks made by the Union army during a victorious war stand out as much as the military defeat of the attacks on this ground.
Today, the National Cemetery includes over 15,243 Civil War interments of whom only 2,473 soldiers are identified, some of the more than 100,000 casualties that occurred within the bounds of the land of the four major battlefields in this national park, one of the largest military parks, by land size, in the world.
Ironically, now, we as Americans so often go to battlefields to find peace away from our working lives, the daily humdrum. But we must always remember the high price that was paid by men who would never know that their personal cause had been fulfilled.
At Fredericksburg, Burnside engaged over 100,000 men, primarily citizen-soldiers, not regulars, volunteers who sought, primarily, the preservation of the Union. While Robert E. Lee’s over 70,000 soldiers engaged, volunteers and conscripts, sought the birth of a new nation-state. Both sides fought for something larger than the self. Both sides fought for what they believed was right. Both armies sought finality to a civil conflict over the future of slavery in a battle waged on the fields and streets of one of our nation’s most historic cities.
Yet, both armies did not taste the satisfaction of military victory on December 13th, 1862. The Union’s proud Army of the Potomac, the grand army of the republic, saw one of its most agonizing defeats, 12,653 casualties, 60 percent of them on the rising plain in front of Marye’s Heights. While the vaunted Confederate Army of Northern Virginia saw one of its greatest victories of the war, suffering just under 5400 casualties as it turned back multiply charges on both ends of the battlefield. Collectively, Lee’s defenders had served something larger than their individual powers.
But Lee’s own uncomfortable and philosophical reflection on the battle sent a cautionary message through time to any who seek war for glory or national aggrandizement or some other transient cause. “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”
Service is always costly; that is what it means to serve. The audacious acts of those men North and South that December, help us 154 years later to still grasp at understanding the gravity of those days.
But the service of the Union soldiers who fell in defeat at Fredericksburg, punctuated by the placement of a national cemetery on the heights they could not carry in mid-December 1862, demonstrate shocking, sobering, arresting sacrifice.
That service, selfless, heroic, yet, for Union soldiers during those December days, in failure, has always seemed to me one of the clearest demonstrations of the high cost of our continued national existence. Those boys in blue sought a Union of states, united, strong, and resolute, bought by those who lost all in its defense. It is a price that we cannot and must not forget.”
Union takes sacrifice, service and work. And the work continues.