General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, strengthened his defenses even more following his victory at Fredericksburg. Lee’s men had knocked back 14 charges by the Federal Army of the Potomac, but Lee feared that another, larger attack was forthcoming. Just after midnight on December 14, Confederates obtained a dispatch from a captured messenger confirming what Lee feared: the Federals would renew the assault at daybreak.
Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal army, consulted with his three grand division commanders. According to a staffer, “In about 20 minutes they dispersed, having determined to storm the crest at 10 a.m. the next morning with the 9th Army Corps, which was to be supported by the 2d Corps.” Burnside wired his superiors at 4 a.m.: “I have just returned from the field. Our troops are all over the (Rappahannock) river. We hold the first ridge outside the town, and 3 miles below. We hope to carry the rest today.”
Despite his inability to get through the Confederate defenses the previous day, Burnside planned to personally lead his old Ninth Corps in another attack. Major General William B. Franklin, commanding the Left Grand Division, recalled that “the officers were so demoralized that they did their best to keep him out of it.” Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Center Grand Division, was loudest in his opposition to the plan. Major General Edwin V. Sumner of the Right Grand Division persuaded Burnside to hold a council of war on the matter.
Hooker voiced such strong opposition to this plan that some witnesses considered him insubordinate. Franklin suggested they attack Lee’s extreme right flank as he had previously recommended. One of Burnside’s staff officers wrote, “The General was troubled & anxious all the morning, consulting with officers & much by himself.” The generals debated what should be done for several hours past the ordered 10 a.m. attack. Burnside even offered to resign, which the generals rejected.
Burnside ultimately agreed to abort his planned assault on Marye’s Heights. But instead of attacking another point on the Confederate line, he announced that the army would withdraw to its starting point, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg. Hooker argued that they should at least retain control of the town, but Burnside would have none of it. After the generals left, Burnside’s staffer noted that “he choked & his tears ran as he gave the order to evacuate.”
In Washington, news of the battle slowly trickled in. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary that it had to be bad because when the War Department had to report a defeat, it used “a great deal of fuss and mystery, a shuffling over of papers and maps, and a far-reaching vacant gaze at something undefined and indescribable.” Many influential politicians had warned President Abraham Lincoln that only victory, “speedy and decided, will save our cause from utter destruction.” The North would learn of this terrible defeat soon enough.
Lincoln had received a firsthand account of the battle from New York Tribune reporter Henry Villard, who had hurried from Fredericksburg to Washington on the night of the 13th. The next day, while Burnside vacillated about attacking again, Lincoln urged General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to order him to pull back across the Rappahannock. But with his usual reluctance to directly involve himself in field operations, Halleck declined: “I hold that a General in command of an army in the field is the best judge of existing conditions.”
Lee had accomplished his initial goal of stopping the Federal drive on Richmond. But when the Federals showed no signs of renewing the contest, Lee tried to coax them into a fight so he could achieve his overall goal of destroying the Army of the Potomac. He opened a visible gap in his line that he hoped Burnside would try to charge through, but the Federals would not take the bait.
Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson urged Lee to counterattack, and Lee later faced southern criticism for not charging into the demoralized Federals. But the Confederates were still vastly outnumbered, and the Federals were under the protection of massed artillery on Stafford Heights across the river. Moreover, Lee discovered that the Federals had dug entrenchments outside Fredericksburg, which would have been very difficult to overtake. A counterattack could have been easily repulsed, or the Federals could have easily withdrawn across the river and dismantled their pontoon bridges before the Confederates could use them.
Throughout the 14th, thousands of Federal soldiers (either wounded or pinned down by Confederates) still lay in the freezing cold in front of Marye’s Heights. As the sun set, the Federals still living on the ground had to endure a second night of exposure to freezing cold. The aurora borealis appeared in the evening sky, which was an unusual sight so far south. Confederates who had never seen them before claimed that the dancing lights represented God celebrating their victory.
The Federal withdrawal back to Falmouth began during the night. Lee granted Burnside’s request for a truce to collect the wounded and bury the dead on the battlefield. Over a thousand Federals lay dead in one square acre in front of Marye’s Heights. Most died in combat, but some died of exposure, having been lying in freezing cold for two days.
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