By November 21, all 130,000 men of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Potomac were positioned across the Rappahannock River from the key town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The southernmost of Burnside’s three Grand Divisions was directly across from Fredericksburg, commanded by Major General Edwin V. Sumner.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was hurrying one of his two corps under Lieutenant General James Longstreet to defend Fredericksburg. If the Federals seized that town, they would only have to defeat Lee in battle to have a clear path to the Confederate capital of Richmond. But the Confederates, though heavily outnumbered, remained defiant, and many were firing on Sumner’s Federals from the town. This prompted Burnside to respond.
On the morning of the 21st, Burnside met with Sumner and Brigadier General Marsena R. Patrick, Federal provost marshal and commander of Federal forces that had occupied Fredericksburg seven months ago. Unaware that Longstreet’s Confederates had arrived outside Fredericksburg, they hoped to force the town’s surrender before the main Confederate army could get there. They drafted a letter for Patrick to deliver from Sumner to Mayor Montgomery Slaughter:
“Under cover of the houses of your city shots have been fired upon the troops of my command. Your mills and manufactories are furnishing provisions and the material for clothing for armed bodies in rebellion against the government of the United States. Your railroads and other means of transportation are removing supplies to the depots of such troops. This condition of things must terminate, and, by direction of General Burnside, I accordingly demand the surrender of the city into my hands, as the representative of the government of the United States, at or before five o’clock this afternoon.”
If the mayor refused to surrender, “sixteen hours will be permitted to elapse for the removal from the city of women and children, the sick and wounded and aged, etc., which period having expired, I shall proceed to shell the town. Upon obtaining possession of the city, every necessary means will be taken to preserve order and secure the protective operation of the laws and policy of the United States government.”
As the message passed through various channels, Patrick learned that Longstreet’s corps was already at Fredericksburg. Longstreet, on behalf of General Lee, “asked the civil authorities to reply that the city would not be used for the purposes complained of, but that neither the town nor the south side of the river could be occupied by the Union army except by force of arms.” Mayor Slaughter then replied to Sumner:
“I have to say that this communication did not reach me in time to convene the Council for its consideration, and to furnish a reply by the hour indicated… Outside of the town the civil authorities of Fredericksburg have no control, but I am assured by the military authorities of the Confederate army near here that nothing will be done by them to infringe the conditions herein named as to matters within the town. But the latter authorities inform us that, while their troops will not occupy the town, they will not permit yours to do so.
“You must be aware that there will not be more than three or four hours of daylight within the sixteen hours given by you for the removal of the sick and wounded, the women and children, the aged and infirm, from this place; and I have to inform you that, while there is no railroad transportation accessible to the town, because of the interruption thereof by your batteries, all other means of transportation within the town are so limited as to render the removal of the classes of persons spoken of within the time indicated as an utter impossibility.”
Sumner responded that “in consideration of your pledges that the acts complained of shall cease, and that your town shall not be occupied by any of the enemy’s forces, and your assertion that a lack of transportation renders it impossible to remove the women, children, sick, wounded, and aged, I am authorized to say to you that our batteries will not open upon your town at the hour designated.”
The evacuation of women, children, and the aged began that night, with many lacking adequate food, clothing, or shelter to make such a move in the late autumn cold and rain. When Sumner received Slaughter’s message, he responded that he would not bombard Fredericksburg, “so long as no hostile demonstration is made from the town.”
While the Federals and the Fredericksburg civic officials exchanged messages, Longstreet’s Confederates continued to pour into the area to take up defenses while Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates were on their way from the Shenandoah Valley to join with Longstreet.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Longstreet, James, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. (Kindle Edition), 1895.