Fredericksburg: Confederates Take the Heights

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, arrived at Falmouth in northern Virginia with the Federal rear guard. It took the entire 130,000-man army just three days to move from Warrenton to Falmouth, with Burnside’s objective of Fredericksburg just over the Rappahannock River about a mile downstream. Burnside reported to Washington, “(Major General Edwin) Sumner’s two corps now occupy all the commanding positions opposite Fredericksburg… The enemy do not seem to be in force. As soon as the pontoon trains arrive, the bridge will be built and the command moved over.”

The Federal army assembled in and around Falmouth, and along Stafford Heights overlooking Fredericksburg from across the river. The Federals had 147 siege and long-range field guns on the heights. Burnside believed that he had been correct in ordering his army not to cross the river before the pontoons arrived because recent rains had swelled the 400-foot-wide stream until most of the usable fords were flooded.

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit:

Major General Joseph Hooker submitted a proposal to Burnside and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in which he would lead his Center Grand Division across the river via United States Ford, four miles upstream. His Federals would then drive south of Fredericksburg to Hanover Junction, where he would cut the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. A new Federal supply base could be established at Port Royal, down the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg. The Confederates “have counted on the McClellan delays for a long while,” Hooker argued, so they would not be ready for such an audacious move.

Burnside dispatched cavalry to determine whether a crossing could be made, and received a report stating that “an examination of the ford here to-day demonstrated that the infantry and artillery cannot pass.” A heavy rain on the afternoon of the 19th seemed to confirm Burnside’s decision to wait until the bridges could be built. He called Hooker’s plan “a very brilliant one,” but “a little premature.” If the rains continued, Hooker’s Federals could be bogged down in mud, unable to get back across to the rest of the army.

This did not satisfy Hooker, and he violated military protocol by telling all the generals he could find, as well as Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, that Burnside had lost the initiative by waiting. Hooker insisted that he should be allowed to ford the river, with or without the pontoons, and live off the rich farmlands while marching southward. Of course, Hooker knew that Washington would never undermine Burnside’s campaign by ordering him to follow a subordinate’s plan, but he wanted it known that the army was on the verge of disaster.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, the pontoons that Burnside needed were slow in coming from Washington. Federal officials had sent an initial shipment to Burnside’s supply base at Belle Plain via water, but once they arrived there were no wagons to take them overland to Falmouth. A second shipment of pontoons was sent via wagon train, but foul weather turned roads to mud, and the wagons stopped for the night at Alexandria. They traveled just six miles. Burnside was notified of the delay, but he still would not move until they got there, even though he risked losing the race to Fredericksburg.

As the Federals waited in the rain, they began to lose the initial confidence they had when they set out from Warrenton just four days prior. Captain (and future Supreme Court Justice) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of the 20th Massachusetts wrote:

“I’ve pretty much made up my mind that the South have achieved their independence & I am almost ready to hope spring will see an end… The army is tired with its hard and its terrible experience & still more with its mismanagement & I think before long the majority will say that we are vainly working to effect what never happens–the subjugation (for that is it) of a great civilized nation. We shan’t do it–at least the army can’t.”

General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was still divided, with Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps stationed near Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, and Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps at Culpeper Court House. Lee hurried two of Longstreet’s divisions east to occupy the heights overlooking Fredericksburg, then he directed Longstreet’s three remaining divisions to the town as well. While the Federals waited for bridges to cross the Rappahannock, the Confederates crossed the river upstream from Fredericksburg by wading through freezing, three-foot-deep water.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit:

Despite being surprised by the Federals’ remarkable speed in reaching Falmouth, Lee had correctly guessed the Federals’ intentions and had troops defending Fredericksburg just one day later. The Confederates now held commanding positions on the heights west of town, which Lee believed they could defend until Jackson arrived from Winchester. If anything, Lee expected Longstreet to fall back slowly if Burnside attacked, biding time until Jackson came up on Burnside’s right flank and rear. Lee overestimated his new adversary.

Lee and Longstreet arrived at Fredericksburg on the 20th. Longstreet noted that residents there were “in a state of great excitement” because they could see the thousands of Federals and their guns assembling on Stafford Heights across the river. Lee considered abandoning the town and taking up defenses on better ground to the south, but President Jefferson Davis insisted that Fredericksburg be defended. Lee personally oversaw troop placements on the high ground outside town, including the formidable Marye’s Heights.

Back up near Alexandria, the wagons carrying the second shipment of Burnside’s pontoons were mired in mud, having to be carried by the accompanying troops at times. Major Ira Spaulding, commanding the operation, wrote, “the roads are in such a shocking condition that I find I cannot make over five miles a day with my bridge train, and to do even this much I am obliged to haul many of my wagons for miles by hand and work my men half the night.”

Spaulding finally gave up and requested a steam transport be arranged at nearby Occoquan Creek to take the pontoons by water to Belle Plain. The first shipment of pontoons was already there, but nobody notified Burnside, and nobody at Belle Plain seemed aware that they needed to be sent to Falmouth.

The rainstorms continued that day, further swelling the Rappahannock and making Burnside even more dependent on the pontoons that had not yet arrived. Burnside informed his Grand Division commanders to be ready to move “rapidly and on an hour’s notice,” but for the time being they were not going anywhere.


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