December 13, 1862 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside launched a doomed Federal assault on General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate defenses south and west of Fredericksburg.
By this date, the two corps of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia held a line seven miles long on high ground overlooking the town. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps held the Confederate left, west of town, which included Marye’s Heights, a sunken road, and a stone wall. Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps held the Confederate right, south of town, which included Prospect Hill and other ridges. Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry covered Jackson’s right flank.
Burnside ordered Major General William B. Franklin to lead his Grand Division in an attack on Jackson’s positions before dawn, using the darkness to hide their advance across the open plain. Major General Joseph Hooker’s Grand Division would come up in support. Burnside expected Franklin’s assault to force Longstreet to reinforce Jackson, thus leaving the Confederate left vulnerable. Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Grand Division was to exploit this weakness by attacking Longstreet’s positions.
Franklin’s pre-dawn assault did not happen because Franklin did not receive the order until after sunrise. By that time, Burnside had changed the plan so that Hooker would support Sumner and not Franklin. The early morning fog lifted around 10 a.m., and artillery opened on both sides before Franklin’s Federals marched toward the hills south of Fredericksburg.
The Federals advanced on the Old Richmond Stage road and onto the plain to attack Jackson’s defenders at Hamilton’s Crossing. The fighting intensified and the Confederate line wavered, but Jackson assured an aide, “My men have sometimes failed to take a position, but to defend one–never.”
On the Confederate right, Stuart announced that he was “going to crowd ‘em with artillery.” Major John Pelham, Stuart’s promising young artillery chief, expertly placed his cannons so their fire enfiladed the Federals’ left and stalled their advance for nearly two hours. Lee complimented Pelham, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.”
Around 1 p.m., Major General George G. Meade’s Federal division broke through the enemy line and separated two brigades in thick woods; Confederate Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg was killed and his South Carolinians routed during the action. However, Franklin did not send reinforcements to follow up his advantage; of the two corps under his command, a division of I Corps and the entire VI Corps did not get into the fight at all.
Meanwhile, Confederates under Generals Jubal Early and William Taliaferro hurried forward to knock the Federals back and shore up the line. More Confederates under Major General D.H. Hill also hurried from their positions further south along the Rappahannock to reinforce Jackson. Fighting ended when the Confederates finally pushed the Federals back to their original positions.
A mile northwest, Sumner’s II and IX corps began moving west out of Fredericksburg around noon to attack Longstreet’s corps holding Marye’s Heights and other high ground. The only way to take the enemy positions was to advance across open ground, exposed to the Confederate guns. As the Federals approached, a Confederate artilleryman told Longstreet, “General, a chicken could not live in that field when we open on it.”
The Confederate fire cut down rows of Federal soldiers as they tried coming forward. Survivors struggled for two hours to take the heights before either falling back or seeking cover on the field. Every Federal charge was repelled at a terrible cost of human life. Lee watched the carnage from atop Marye’s Heights and said, “It is well that war is so terrible; we should grow too fond of it.”
Hooker’s III and IV corps began another advance near nightfall, but this was repulsed in a similarly murderous fashion. The Confederates easily fought off 14 assaults, with no Federals coming within 20 yards of their line. When word spread that Burnside might order another attack, many officers announced that they would not obey. Burnside then planned to personally lead one more assault, but his subordinates talked him out of it.
This was the worst defeat ever sustained by the U.S. army, as the Federals lost 12,653 men (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, and 1,769 missing). The Confederates reportedly lost 5,309 men, but this was later adjusted to 4,201 when it was discovered that the figure included over 1,000 soldiers who went home for Christmas just after the battle. Most of the Confederate casualties were sustained in Franklin’s attack. This stunning and decisive Confederate victory solidified the reputation of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as the premier fighting force of the war.
Jackson tried counterattacking near dusk, but Federal artillery on Stafford Heights across the Rappahannock stopped him. The Federal troops in front of Marye’s Heights were pinned down on the battlefield, unable to retreat without being exposed to Confederate sharpshooters above them. Many men remained there overnight with no shelter in the freezing cold. Some froze to death.
Journalist Henry Villard rushed from the battlefield to relay news of the battle to President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Arriving late that night, Villard warned Lincoln that nearly every officer believed the army could be destroyed if the troops were not pulled back across the Rappahannock. Lincoln, not yet aware of the defeat’s magnitude, said, “I hope it is not so bad as all that.”
Lee met with his top commanders that night, and nearly all of them expected Burnside to attack again. Lee telegraphed Richmond at 9 p.m.: “I expect the battle to be renewed at daylight.” Around midnight, this seemed confirmed when Confederates captured one of the Federal messengers delivering Burnside’s order to attack in the morning. Lee hoped to repel these assaults and then launch a counterattack that would destroy the Army of the Potomac once and for all.
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