Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, spent most of December 15 consulting with his generals on what he should do. His Federals had sustained a terrible defeat at Fredericksburg two days prior, and although Burnside had ordered a withdrawal back across the Rappahannock River, he was starting to reconsider that decision.
As news of the defeat reached Washington, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck urged Burnside to hold his ground and renew the attack. But then he relented and told Burnside to use his own discretion. Burnside decided to leave 12,000 men to hold Fredericksburg in case he decided to launch a future attack from the town. But Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Center Grand Division, informed him that the army could not hold both the town and the pontoon crossings. So Burnside ultimately decided to pull all his men out of Fredericksburg.
The Potomac army began the movement back from where they came: back across the pontoon bridges spanning the Rappahannock on their way to their old camps at Falmouth. They left Fredericksburg in ruins. A brigade commander had moved into a house and invited all his men to take whatever they wanted from it because it belonged to his traitorous brother-in-law. One soldier wrote:
“The city had been rudely sacked; household furniture lined the streets. Books and battered pictures, bureaus, lounges, feather beds, clocks, and every conceivable article of goods, chattels, and apparel had been savagely torn from the houses and lay about in wanton confusion in all directions. Fires were made, both for warmth and cooking, with fragments of broken furniture. Pianos, their harmonious strings displaced, were utilized as horse troughs, and amid all the dangers animals quietly ate from them.”
Some Federals wrote home complaining about their comrades’ behavior. The regimental historian of the 1st Minnesota tried to justify the plunder but acknowledged that “it would be pleasanter to remember Fredericksburg had there been no looting.”
The Army of the Potomac returned to Falmouth on the night of the 15th, having crossed the river in a terrible thunderstorm. This movement, unlike the battle, was executed to near perfection. The Federals were humiliated and demoralized by their latest defeat. Many officers and men openly questioned not only Burnside’s judgment but his competence. Hooker became the most vocal of Burnside’s critics in the army by openly denouncing his leadership.
Confederate Major General D.H. Hill informed General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, that the Federals had escaped. Lee did not pursue the retreating enemy, partly because attacking the Federals behind their defenses could have been just as suicidal as the Federals attacking them behind theirs. Lee and most southerners knew that the Federals would soon regroup and reequip themselves for another drive against his army and Richmond. Most Confederates therefore did not celebrate their victory; they only wondered whether they let an opportunity slip away.
The Confederates entered Fredericksburg on the 16th and were stunned to see that the same men who had so bravely charged the stone wall at Marye’s Heights over and over again had so viciously looted and pillaged the town. Lee wrote:
“Yesterday evening I had my suspicions that they might retire during the night, but could not believe they would relinquish their purpose after all their boasting & preparations, & when I say the latter is equal to the former, you will have some idea of its magnitude. This morning they were all safe on the north side of the Rappahannock. Those people delight to destroy the weak & those who can make no defense; it just suits them.”
Some Confederate soldiers organized a relief fund for those who lost their homes and belongings at the hands of the Federal marauders. The Federals began building huts and cabins as they took up winter quarters at Falmouth and on Stafford Heights. They stripped the region of its vegetation and wood, making it a wasteland for many years after the war.
Although Lee faced some criticism for refusing to pursue the Federals, most southerners celebrated the Battle of Fredericksburg as a tremendous victory. The Richmond Examiner proclaimed a “stunning defeat to the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil.” The Charleston Mercury wrote that “General Lee knows his business and the army has yet known no such word as fail.”
Burnside submitted a report to his superiors in which he complained about the late arrival of the pontoons but ultimately accepted full blame for the disaster: “The fact that I decided to move from Warrenton onto this line, rather against the opinion of the President, Secretary of War, and yourself, and that you left the whole movement in my hands without giving me orders, makes me responsible.”
As more details emerged regarding this Federal disaster, the uproar from the northern press and politicians would reach a fevered pitch unlike anything seen in America before.
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