The two corps of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia held a line seven miles long on high ground overlooking the key town of Fredericksburg. 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 J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry covered Jackson’s right flank.
Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac in and around Fredericksburg, ordered Major General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division to attack Jackson’s positions before dawn, using the darkness to hide their advance across the open plain. Major General Joseph Hooker’s Center 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 Right Grand Division was to exploit this weakness by attacking Longstreet’s positions.
The pre-dawn assault that Franklin was supposed to make failed to happen because Franklin did not receive the order until 7:30 a.m. By that time, Burnside had changed the plan so that Hooker would support Sumner instead of Franklin. According to the orders, Franklin was to use his “whole command” to launch the main assault on the Confederate line. The Federals were to seize Prospect Hill, a key point on the Confederate right. If they took the hill, they could then drive between Hamilton’s Crossing and the Massaponax River and get into Lee’s rear.
Franklin misinterpreted these orders to be just “an armed reconnaissance, or an observation in force made of the enemy’s lines, with one division… At that time I had no idea that it was the main attack.” Burnside later noted keenly, “I did not cross more than 100,000 over the river to make a reconnaissance.” Once Franklin rolled back the Confederate right, Sumner was to force “the enemy to evacuate the whole ridge” of Marye’s Heights.
The early morning fog lifted around 10 a.m., followed by an artillery duel. Franklin’s Federals then began their march toward the hills south and southeast of Fredericksburg. They advanced on the Old Richmond Stage road and onto the plain toward Jackson’s positions around Prospect Hill and 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 far 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. When Stuart advised Pelham to pull back due to intense counterfire, Pelham said, “Tell the General I can hold my ground.” 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 were 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 the First Corps and the entire Sixth Corps did not get into the fight at all.
Meanwhile, Confederates under Brigadier 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 Second and Ninth 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, they were in plain view of the enemy.
The Confederate fire cut down rows of Federal soldiers as they tried pushing forward. Survivors struggled for two hours to take the heights before either falling back or seeking cover on the field. A Connecticut soldier wrote:
“Of whole companies and regiments not a man flinched. The grape and canister tore through their ranks, the fearful volleys of musketry from invisible foes decimated their numbers every few moments; the conflict was hopeless; they could inflict scarcely any damage upon the foe; our artillery couldn’t cover them, for they would do more damage to friend than to enemy; yet our gallant fellows pressed on…”
Four different Federal divisions charged, generally one brigade at a time, and all four were 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.”
As the Federals paused, Longstreet strengthened his line. When Lee expressed concern that this line could withstand any further charges, Longstreet assured him, “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.”
Having failed to make any substantial progress on either flank, Burnside sent word to Franklin that “I wish him to make a vigorous attack with his whole force. Our right is hard pressed.” Franklin noted that it was a “wish” and not an order, and fearing that a setback while the “right is hard pressed” would be disastrous, Franklin decided not to grant such a wish.
Burnside then ordered Hooker to bring his grand division forward on the right. Hooker personally reconnoitered the area around Marye’s Heights and consulted with other generals on the scene, and, “Their opinion, with one exception (Major General Darius N. Couch) was that the attack should not be made at that point.” Hooker sent word to Burnside advising against the attack, but Burnside insisted.
Hooker then met with Burnside personally, where a Burnside staffer noted that “Hooker expressed his mind very freely at Hd. Qrs. ungentlemanly & impatient.” Hooker finally advanced. He sent three divisions forward, one brigade at a time, and they were all repulsed in a similarly murderous fashion.
The Confederates fought off 14 head-on assaults from seven divisions. No Federal soldier came within 20 yards of the enemy 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 to counterattack 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. Burnside took the defeat very hard, as General Couch “could see that he wished his body was also lying in front of Marye’s Heights.” Burnside pointed across the Rappahannock and cried, “Oh, those men! I am thinking of them all the time.”
The outcome might have been different had Franklin shown more initiative. He had taken Burnside’s directives as mere suggestions and never committed his entire force as ordered. If the Federals had any chance at victory, it could have only been against the Confederate right. Franklin, a close friend of former army commander (and prominent Democrat) George B. McClellan, wrote his wife, “It was not successful and I never thought it would be, but I knew that it had to be made to satisfy the Republicans, and we all went at it as well as though it was all right.”
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.”
Meanwhile, Jeb Stuart rejoiced: “The victory won by us here is one of the neatest and cheapest of the war. Englishmen here who surveyed Solferino & all the battlefields of Italy say that the pile of dead on the plains of Fredericksburg exceeds anything of the sort ever seen by them.” But it came at great cost, as Stuart lamented, “Fredericksburg is in ruins. It is the saddest sight I ever saw.”
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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