Friday, November 16, 2012

Fredericksburg: Union low tide on the banks of the Rappahannock

By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
Nov. 16, 2012

The Battles of Sharpsburg and Second Manassas highlight brilliant generalship in defense and maneuver.

The carnage of Fredericksburg reveals the nadir of Civil War leadership at a time when Union prospects were the lowest of the war. It was a battle of engineers, snipers, and rapidly deploying artillery. But it also evoked the leadership trap of refusing to change one’s plans in the face of failure.

For want of pontoons

In November, 1862, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, launched a campaign to strike south, cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg and drive for the Confederate capitol of Richmond. In order to effect the crossing, Burnside arranged for pontoon bridges to be transported to Fredericksburg. Unfortunately, as Burnside assembled his army on Stafford Heights overlooking Fredericksburg from the east, his pontoons were stuck in transit. The slowness of the maneuvers allowed Robert E. Lee to prepare defensive positions on Marye’s heights west of Fredericksburg. A portion of this line was anchored with a stone wall behind which he positioned infantry units three-deep. To the south of the Heights, Lee positioned the corps of Lt. Gen. Thomas Jackson. As Burnside waited for his errant pontoons, Confederate artillerists covered the entire field.

Civil war MOUT

By the time Burnside’s bridges arrived, Lee was deeply entrenched on the key terrain. The Confederate brigade of Mississippi’s Brig. Gen William Barksdale deployed into the city of Fredericksburg and took up firing positions.   

As dawn broke on December 11, the sound of hammer falls drifting across the Rappahannock heralded the work of the engineers. The sound was soon joined by Barksdale’s rifles which raked the engineers and rendered their positions untenable.   

Union artillery unleashed shot and shell into Fredericksburg, but Barksdale’s stubborn snipers took up firing positions in cellars and were thus protected from the bombardment. After 14 hours, the Union sent a landing party of 150 infantrymen across the river to secure a bridgehead. The Soldiers executed the river crossing, moved into skirmish lines, and began to maneuver against Barksdale’s positions.  

The Confederates gave ground slowly as the fighting shifted to the streets of Fredericksburg.

In a scene familiar to the modern warrior, Union troops entered into military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) and conducted building clearing operations as Union engineers resumed construction on the pontoon bridges. By the evening of December 11, four Union brigades had crossed the Rappahannock. It would take 36-hours for Burnside to cross the rest of his army and organize. 

The die is cast

(Click to enlarge) - Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust 
The fog dissipated to reveal the staging positions of Union forces to the awaiting Confederates. As the armies prepared for the attack, a lone cannon boomed to the south sending enfilade fire into the Union ranks.  Major John Pelham had moved a single cannon forward and from his extremely isolated position fired a shell that paralyzed an entire Union corps. Uncertain of the forces arrayed in Pelham’s vicinity, Union cannons attempted to suppress the fire. After exhausting his ammunition, Pelham withdrew. He had so unnerved the enemy that an entire division would remain in place to secure the flank against possible attack effectively putting 6,000 troops out of action.

Jackson’s forces occupied favorable ground; however, the division of George Gordon Meade was able to maneuver forces into a swamp which formed a gap in Jackson’s lines. Meade’s men pierced Jackson’s lines but had to withdraw due to insufficient support from adjacent units. As Union troops withdrew, the Confederates unleashed a ferocious counterattack. 

Colonel Edmund Atkinson’s Georgia Brigade smashed into Meade’s flank and routed it. Not content with reestablishing the former lines, Atkinson’s jubilant Georgians pressed forward for a quarter mile onto ground that would be remembered as the "slaughter pen." In the ensuing action, Atkinson was wounded and captured.

A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it

(Click to enlarge) - Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust
Hearing the sound of cannon fire to the south and encouraged by early reports of success, Burnside assumed Lee must be shifting troops to reinforce his right. Burnside began to funnel troops from Fredericksburg to assault Marye’s Heights. Attacking troops had to cross a channel of water five feet wide and three feet deep.  After crossing the channel, 500 yards of open ground would separate the Union attackers from their objective: the stone wall and cannons of Marye’s Heights.   

In closing that distance, the Union forces would be exposed to the artillery of Lt. Col. E Porter Alexander who had informed General Longstreet:
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 on it.
The first Union brigade to assault was commanded by Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball of Brig. Gen. William French’s division. Kimball’s Soldiers were halted 125 yards from their objective by withering artillery and musket fire. The brigade suffered 25% casualties including Kimball. As Kimball’s survivors clung to the ground, successive assaults launched by French’s brigades suffered 50% casualties without getting any closer than Kimball’s limit of advance.

I will kill them all before they reach my line

The Union objective was defended by Georgians under command of Savannah native Maj. Gen. Lafayette McClaws. McClaws had two brigades of Georgians under command of Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes and Brig. Gen. Thomas Cobb. These Georgians, supported by artillery emplacements on the heights, defended against four divisions which were funneled brigade by brigade into a conveyor belt of lead and death.
Surveying the formations of attacking troops, General Robert E. Lee expressed concern to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, commanding first corps, over the possibility of an overwhelming attack. Longstreet famously replied:
General, if you put every man on the other side of the Potomac on that field to approach me over the same line, and give me plenty of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line.” 
We should grow too fond of it

Before Jackson’s lines, the shattered ranks of Meade’s division had fallen back to their original positions, leaving clusters of sky-blue clad corpses littering the fields, swamps, and railroad cuts. To the North, 7,500 Union casualties littered the ground as the sun set and temperatures dropped. That evening, the aurora borealis blazed over the battlefield lending its astral ballet to the horror that lay below.

Moved by the appalling casualties, Robert E. Lee remarked:
It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.
War so terrible

The casualty rolls from Fredericksburg defy comprehension. The Union suffered nearly 13,000 casualties without moving the Confederates an inch. The South lost just 5,000, the majority of these occurring in Jackson’s lines.

Cobb, who had encouraged his Georgians from behind the stone wall, had been mortally wounded in the thigh by a shell and bled to death on the field. Seven months later, Semmes would fall leading his men at Gettysburg. Coincidentally, he would also be fatally struck in the thigh. 

The battle would have immediate negative consequences in the North. Burnside was swiftly replaced.  Northern morale was at its lowest, and criticism of the Lincoln administration rose to a fever pitch. 

The Battle of Fredericksburg remains an almost incomprehensible lesson in poor leadership and coordination of effort. It further offers a caution to leaders who fail to adjust their plans to meet the reality on the ground.
To view an animated battlefield map that covers a timeline of the Battle of Fredericksburg go to

Battlefield maps courtesy of the Civil War Trust (

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