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This week in history: Fredericksburg highlighted Burnside's poor leadership

Union army, under General Ambrose Everett Burnside, crosses the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges during the attack on Fredericksburg, Virginia depicted in this undated rendering by combat artist Frank Schell.
Union army, under General Ambrose Everett Burnside, crosses the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges during the attack on Fredericksburg, Virginia depicted in this undated rendering by combat artist Frank Schell.
Frank Schell, Associated Press

On Dec. 13, 1862, the Union cause was dealt a crushing blow with the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg. The defeat dashed Union hopes of taking Richmond and resulted in appalling losses for the Northern army.

President Abraham Lincoln had fired the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, after the officer's failure to destroy Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. On Nov. 7, he selected Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to replace him.

Burnside had been a graduate of West Point, though had left the army to pursue a career in weapons manufacturing. Burnside had returned to the army at the beginning of the Civil War and soon rose to various commands. At Antietam, he commanded a corps fielding roughly 20,000 men. He was also known for wearing distinctive facial hair down the sides of his face, and soon after, the style became known as “sideburns.”

Lincoln charged Burnside to do what McClellan had attempted earlier that year but could not: capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. To that end, Burnside began to plan an operation with Henry W. Halleck, general-in-chief of the Union Army. The plan called for the Army of the Potomac to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, then head due south toward Richmond. The operation was planned for mid-November.

Meanwhile, Lee prepared to meet the expected Union blow. Upon hearing the news that McClellan was relieved of his command, the Southern general expressed regret to James Longstreet, one of his corps commanders: “We always understood each other so well. I fear (leaders) may continue to make changes till they find someone whom I don't understand.”

Burnside, who had admitted he was not up to the task of commanding the Army of the Potomac, soon proved himself correct. Though Lincoln had advocated swiftness in the operation, Burnside took his time, waiting for pontoon bridges and other equipment before launching his attack. By the time he was ready, Lee's army had fortified Marye's Heights, a ridge about a half mile to the southwest of the town.

The push into the town of Fredericksburg began on Dec. 11. In his book “Battle Cry of Freedom,” historian James M. McPherson described the crossing:

“In the pre-dawn darkness of Dec. 11, Union engineers began laying three pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg and three more a couple of miles downstream. Covered by artillery, the downstream bridge-builders did their job without trouble. But in Fredericksburg, a brigade of Mississippians firing from buildings and rifle pits picked off the engineers as soon as it became light enough to see.”

Burnside's cannons let loose, and soon much of the city was destroyed. Confederate snipers made use of the rubble, however, and continued to harass the advancing army. The next two days saw Union soldiers clearing the city before the advance against Marye's Heights could begin.

On Dec. 13, the Army of the Potomac advanced against Lee's position on the heights. Lee had done his job well. The ridge was well-fortified, with a lateral road behind the Confederate line. To the south, Lee had deployed Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, arguably his best corps commander, to meet elements of Burnside's army there.

Indeed, Burnside had hoped to turn Lee's right flank to the south while the frontal attack from Fredericksburg pinned him in place. With Gen. William B. Franklin commanding the Union left, the boys in blue hit Jackson's troops.

McPherson again: “These Federals soon assaulted Jackson's position on Prospect Hill. A division of Pennsylvanians commanded by George Gordon Meade (later victor of Gettysburg) found a seam in Jackson's line along a wooded ravine and penetrated the Confederate defenses. Here was a potential breakthrough if supporting troops were thrown in — but Franklin failed to throw them in.”

Because of Franklin's timidity, Jackson was able to hold, then counterattack. Only powerful Union artillery prevented Jackson from completely pushing the Union left back to the river. It was after this near-run thing that Lee famously stated, “It is well that war is so terrible — we should grow too fond of it.”

The real horror of Dec. 13, however, occurred at the attack's frontal assault on the heights. Just in front of the ridge, mercifully blessing the Confederate soldiers, ran a stone wall, a perfect barricade to protect them against the Union attack. In his book “The Civil War: A History,” historian Harry Hansen wrote:

“Dashing forward in full view of the Confederate batteries, the blue-clad troops rushed forward with hardly a sound. The Confederate guns opened upon them and men dropped right and left from shellfire and musketry. As one attack succeeded another, the men in the following lines moved past hundreds of the fallen comrades, tried desperately to reach the wall and either fell in their tracks or ran wildly to get out of the deadly hail. … As one artillery officer said, a chicken would not have been able to live on that field.”

In all, there were six assaults upon the stone wall, and none was able to reach the Confederate lines before being cut down by the murderous fire.

That evening, with his men still on the field, pinned by Confederate fire and piling their dead comrades around them for protection, Burnside considered leading a final thrust with the IX Corps, his old unit. After consulting with his generals the next day, however, Burnside realized the futility of another charge. Instead, Burnside asked Lee for a truce in which to bury the dead and collect the wounded. The Confederate commander agreed.

After pulling his troops back, Burnside prepared for another attack against Lee in the coming weeks. The January cold and rain proved too much for his men to bear, and no one was eager to repeat the failure of Dec. 13, least of all Burnside. When his men began to grumble at his leadership, he demanded they be court-martialed or Lincoln accept his resignation. Thoroughly unimpressed with Burnside's leadership, Lincoln fired Burnside toward the end of January.

The Battle of Fredericksburg illustrated horribly the futility and savagery of waves of infantry sent against prepared positions with modern weapons. It was a grim foreshadowing of events to come in the war and a lesson never learned by Europe's military leaders prior to the butchery of World War I 50 years later. All told, the Union army lost nearly 13,000 men, while the Confederates suffered only approximately 5,000.

For what occurred at Fredericksburg and in his subsequent service in the war, Ambrose Burnside is considered by many to be among the worst of the Civil War generals. This did not prevent him from a successful post-war political career, however. Burnside served as a Rhode Island senator and governor.

The summer after Fredericksburg, during the desperate fighting at Gettysburg, it was the Confederates' turn to make an infantry assault against prepared positions. When Pickett's charge failed on July 3, 1863, the Union soldiers yelled in defiance, “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: