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Battle of Fredericksburg

Battle of Fredericksburg

While the Union forces were the clear victors of the American Civil War, they did not win every battle. One of the battles that they lost was the Battle of Fredericksburg. The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought from December 11-15, 1862 in and near the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Union forces struggled to deal with events out of their control and suffered an embarrassing loss to the Confederate army. Keep reading to learn about this important battle.

Battle of Fredericksburg's Overview

  • Following Major General George B. McClellan's dismissal by Abraham Lincoln after the Battle of Antietam, his replacement, General Ambrose Burnside, was under pressure to make an attack against the Confederate Army of Virginia.
  • Instead of marching toward Richmond directly, Burnside devised a plan by which he would move his army quickly to Fredericksburg, putting his army between the Confederate forces and Richmond. This would create access to a railroad junction that would better supply his large army.
  • This plan required a rapid advance and a fast crossing of the Rappahannock River to capture the city. Taking an army of over 100,000 troops - one of the largest assembled forces during the Civil War - Burnside sped his way to Falmouth, Virginia on the north bank of the Rappahannock River between November 15-17, 1862, and prepared to cross.
  • On the opposite bank lay Fredericksburg, which Burnside's army would have to construct a series of pontoon bridges to reach since the main bridge into the city had been destroyed.

General Burnside was in a difficult position. Logistical failures in the Union supply lines and poor weather meant that Burnside's army was without the critical pontoon bridges for some time after reaching Rappahannock. This defeated his strategy to reach the road to Richmond before the Confederates could react.

Seeing the Union army amassing near Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee called for backup. He recalled General James Longstreet and General "Stonewall" Jackson's armies to Fredericksburg.

Civil War Battle Fredericksburg StudySmarterFig. 1: Battle of Fredericksburg

Once arrived, the Confederate force prepared a defense in and around the city, positioning General James Longstreet's troops on Marye's Heights to the west of Fredericksburg, and General "Stonewall" Jackson's forces on hills southeast of the city.

With speed and surprise lost, Burnside's pontoon bridges finally arrived on November 27th, and he prepared to make a difficult attack against the Confederate defenses to take the city.

Did you know? Burnside's army planned on using pontoon bridges to cross the river in three different places.

Pontoon Bridge

A floating bridge often used by military forces.

Battle of Fredricksburg: Map

Below is a map displaying the location of the Battle of Fredricksburg.

Civil War Battle Fredericksburg Campaign Map StudySmarterFig. 2: Map of the Fredericksburg Campaign before the Battle.

Battle of Fredricksburg: Location

Where did the Battle of Fredricksburg take place? This battle occurred around Fredricksburg, Virginia. This is between Richmond, Virginia, and Washington DC.

The Battle of Fredricksburg

Below is a breakdown of the events of the Battle of Fredricksburg.

DateEvent
December 11thUnion forces crossed the Rappahannock River and entered the city of Fredricksburg.
December 12thUnion forces attacked Mayre's Heights. There were heavy Union casualties.
December 13thUnion forces continued to attack, with severe Union losses.
December 14th and 15thBurnside ordered his men to retreat across the Rappahannock River.

December 11: The Crossing and Capture of Fredericksburg

Union engineers began constructing the pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock River using a night fog to cover their activities.

At the same time, a small force of 1,800 Confederate riflemen under the command of General William Barksdale began to fire on the engineers from across the river, which brought their work to a stop.

That prompted Burnside to unleash a massive artillery barrage against the city. After four hours of bombardment, he ordered the bridge building to continue. Even though the buildings were heavily damaged, Confederate forces fired on the workers.

Burnside then arranged to have several regiments cross under fire in rowboats to secure the opposite bank and clear out the Confederate riflemen. Burnside's attack succeeded, and the Union forces pushed the Confederates away from the river after intense urban combat. By 5:00 PM, the bridge construction was complete, and Burnside could begin to move his army across.

General Barksdale's troops remained in place to continue the fight, harassing and skirmishing with Union forces from inside ruined buildings and alleyways.

Throughout the night, despite attempts from officers to maintain order, Union soldiers looted the city.

December 12: Union Assaults on Marye's Heights

On December 12, Burnside finished moving the rest of his army across the river and prepared to attack the Confederate positions.

Burnside planned to attack Jackson's troops along General Lee's southern right flank using a force under the command of Major General William B. Franklin. He used the remainder of his troops to engage Longstreet's troops atop Marye's Heights, keeping them occupied so they could not assist Jackson.

Flank

Any side of a military formation; is often considered the weak side of the formation.

Beginning around 10:00 AM, the Union attacked Marye's Heights. This tactic forced them to attack with only one brigade at a time, concentrating Confederate artillery. The entrenched Confederate infantry inflicted staggering losses on the attackers.

Brigade

A large military formation.

Burnside's plan required the Confederates on the Heights to be continuously engaged. The Union forces continued to assault Marye's Heights throughout the day.

Civil War Battle Fredericksburg Map StudySmarterFig. 3: Map of the Battle of Fredericksburg,

December 13: The Slaughter Pen

At 10:00 AM on the morning of December 13, two horse-drawn Confederate cannons moved against the southern flank of the Union army under cover of fog and began to fire on them. The incursion delayed for an hour in the morning the Union planned attack against "Stonewall" Jackson's position.

The Union 1st Corps under General John Reynolds began with an artillery barrage against Jackson's position. Jackson decided to conserve his own cannons until the Union infantry assault began, so his forces endured the bombardment.

Following the barrage, Union forces advanced. Jackson ordered his own artillery, positioned on Prospect Hill, to fire only once the Union troops were close, and the resulting damage caused the Union to pull back for the rest of the morning.

At 1:00 PM, the Union forces continued the attack, focusing on a gap in the Confederate line. The attack broke through the gap, and forces under the command of General George Meade began to outflank some of the Confederate troops.

Outflank

To move around the side of an opposing force's formation.

Jackson ordered his reserves to counterattack, driving Meade and the Union back, and re-establishing the lines from earlier in the day.

The intense fighting caused the area to be dubbed The Slaughter Pen.

Meanwhile, further fighting near Marye's Heights continued to result in severe losses for the Union army.

December 14 & 15: Burnside's Retreat

Though some fighting continued in Fredericksburg for two more days, it was clear to Burnside after the night of December 13 that he would not be able to break the Confederate defenses and achieve his objectives, so the Union launched no more deliberate attacks.

Using the nights and rainy weather to his advantage, Burnside ordered his men into a general retreat back across the Rappahannock River, abandoning any further offensive action toward Richmond.

Ambrose Burnside. Battle of Fredericksburg. StudySmarter. Fig. 4: Ambrose Burnside

Battle of Fredricksburg: Significance

The Battle of Fredricksburg was a political disaster. Six weeks after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln dismissed General Burnside from command of the Army of the Potomac and appointed Major General Joseph Hooker in his place.

Fredericksburg was a major moral victory for the Confederate south and General Lee.

Battle of Fredricksburg: Casualties

The Battle of Fredericksburg saw around 18,500 casualties - but most of them were on the Union side. Burnside's forces suffered over twice as many losses as the Confederate defenders, with an estimated 12,500 casualties compared to around 6,000 for the Confederates. Strategically, it meant giving up the ground the Union Army of the Potomac had gained, and another failure for the Union to defeat General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and threaten the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Battle of Fredricksburg Summary

The Battle of Fredericksburg was a failed attempt by Union forces to overtake a branch of the Confederate army. General Ambrose Burnside led a group of soldiers across the Rappahannock River to fight the confederates in Fredericksburg, instead of heading directly to Richmond.

This attempt was plagued by misfortune from the beginning. First, there were issues with Union supply lines. Another issue was the poor weather that prevented the assembly of pontoon bridges.

Burnside had planned to quickly advance upon the city of Fredericksburg, followed by quickly capturing the city. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented this from happening.

This meant that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was able to plan and prepare for the attack. He called other army detachments to come in and offer support. The Battle of Fredericksburg began on December 11th.

DateEventExplanation
December 11Union forces crossed the Rappahannock River and entered the city of Fredricksburg.
  • On December 11th, Union engineers assembled the pontoon bridges needed for Union forces to reach Fredericksburg.
  • They were attacked by Confederate forces.
  • Both sides entered into a firefight.
  • Union forces were able to push Confederate forces back, allowing bridge construction to be completed.
  • Union forces crossed the river and fought with Confederate forces.
December 12Union forces attacked Mayre's Heights.
  • Union soldiers split into groups and attempted to distract different Confederate factions.
  • Union soldiers attacked Marye's Heights. They suffered greatly at the hands of Confederate forces.
December 13Union forces continued to attack.
  • Confederate forces attacked using horse-drawn cannons.
  • Union forces were delayed in their attack on Jackson's position.
  • Union and Confederate forces fought throughout the day.
  • Union army suffered severe losses.
December 14-15Burnside ordered his men to retreat.
  • Burnside decided to not launch more deliberate attacks.
  • Union forces utilized the cover created by inclement weather to retreat across the river.

The Battle of Fredericksburg was a political disaster for the Union forces and a major victory for Confederate forces.

Battle of Fredericksburg - Key takeaways

  • General Ambrose Burnsides replaced General George McClellan as the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac and was under pressure to achieve a decisive victory against General Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia since President Lincoln had been unsatisfied by McClellan's inability to pursue Lee's army after Antietam.
  • Burnside planned to attack Fredericksburg on the way to Richmond as a way to place his army between the Confederate army and their capital. His plan depended heavily on speed and deception to succeed.
  • Logistical failure made it impossible for Burnside's army to cross the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg before the Confederate armies arrived and organized themselves, but Burnside planned to attack anyway.
  • The well-positioned Confederate defenders repelled the Union's attacks at a high cost to Burnside's troops, forcing the Union to retreat and abandon the campaign.
  • The decisive Confederate victory raised morale in Lee's army and led General Burnside to be sacked and replaced.

References

  1. Fig. 2: Fredericksburg Campaign Inital Movements. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fredericksburg_Campaign_initial_movements.png Photo by Hal Jespersen. Licensed by CC BY 3.0
  2. Fig. 3: Fredericksburg Overview https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fredericksburg-Overview-2.png Photo by Hal Jerperson. Licensed by CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

Frequently Asked Questions about Battle of Fredericksburg

The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought from December 11-15, 1862.  

The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought in and near the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

The battle began when General Burnside, who was new to his military position, decided to attack the Confederate army. 

The Confederate Army won. 

It was a win for the Confederate army and an embarrassment for the United States and Union army. 

Final Battle of Fredericksburg Quiz

Question

Who was in overall command of the Union forces at the Battle of Fredericksburg?

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Answer

General Ambrose Burnside

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Question

Who was in overall command of the Confederate forces at the Battle of Fredericksburg?

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Answer

General Robert E. Lee

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Question

What was the result of the Battle of Fredericksburg?

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Answer

Decisive Confederate victory

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Question

What delayed Burnside's attack on Fredericksburg?

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Answer

He was waiting on the delivery of pontoon bridges

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Question

What was the Union army's plan for the Battle of Fredericksburg after their crossing?

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Answer

Occupy the northern part of the line while launching a main attack on the southern flank

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Question

How many Union soldiers were committed at the Battle of Fredericksburg?

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Answer

Over 100,000

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Question

Which side took significantly higher casualties than the other in the Battle of Fredericksburg?

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Answer

The Union

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Question

Much of the city of Fredericksburg was destroyed during the battle due to this action:

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Answer

Burnside ordered an artillery bombardment against the city

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Question

Which Confederate commander led a force of 1,800 riflemen to delay the Union's crossing of the Rappahannock river?

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Answer

General William Barksdale

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Question

What were the farm fields where Union forces clashed with "Stonewall" Jackson's defenses nicknamed?

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Answer

The Slaughter Pen

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