December 14, 1862 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside planned to renew the Federal attacks following yesterday’s terrible defeat, but his subordinates strongly objected.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee strengthened his defenses even more throughout the night and early morning of the 14th. Since yesterday’s charges had been so easily repulsed, Lee feared that another, larger attack was forthcoming. Just after midnight on the 14th, Confederates obtained a dispatch from a captured Federal messenger confirming that Burnside planned to renew the assault.
Burnside wired his superiors at 4 a.m., “I have just returned from the field. Our troops are all over the river. We hold the first ridge outside the town, and 3 miles below. We hope to carry the rest today.” Despite 14 futile charges against Marye’s Heights, Burnside planned to personally lead his old IX Corps in another attack on the position at dawn, with V Corps in support.
Heavy fog covered the field, hiding the thousands of Federal soldiers (either wounded or pinned down by Confederates) still laying in the freezing cold in front of Marye’s Heights. As word of Burnside’s plan circulated, many commanders refused to obey. Major General Edwin V. Sumner pleaded with Burnside to reconsider. Burnside responded by calling a council of war with his three Grand Division commanders (Sumner, Joseph Hooker, and William B. Franklin).
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. Burnside finally agreed to abort his planned assault, but instead of trying to attack at another point on Lee’s line, he would withdraw the Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock River.
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 Federal army. He opened a visible gap in his line that he hoped Burnside would try charging 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 be 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.
As the sun set on the 14th, the Federals still living on the ground in front of Marye’s Heights 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.
Burnside spent most of the 15th consulting with officers on what he should do. He also considered resigning, but Sumner thought that was an overreaction. 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, but when Hooker informed him that the army could not hold both the town and the pontoon crossings, Burnside pulled all his men out of Fredericksburg.
The Army of the Potomac returned to Falmouth by the night of the 15th, crossing the river in a terrible thunderstorm. 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 Lee that the Federals had escaped. The Confederates did not celebrate their victory; they only wondered whether they let an opportunity slip away. Lee did not pursue the retreating enemy. He and most southerners knew that the Federals would soon regroup and reequip themselves for another drive against Lee’s army and Richmond.
The Confederates entered Fredericksburg on the 16th and were horrified to see that the entire town had been looted and pillaged. Even some Federals wrote home complaining about their comrades’ behavior. Lee and Jackson expressed outrage, with Lee writing:
“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 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.”
Conversely, northerners were horrified to learn of this disaster. The Cincinnati Commercial stated, “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day.” Federal soldiers had displayed tremendous bravery for no gain, leading officers and soldiers to openly question Burnside’s decisions.
In Burnside’s report to Halleck, 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.”
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