147 years ago this week, US Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac fought Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in one of the most bloody, one sided engagements, of the entire American Civil War. This was Burnside’s first major engagement as commander of Abraham Lincoln’s largest army. It would also be his last full scale battle. To say that Burnside was a reluctant commander is an understatement. When Lincoln decided to relieve US Major General George B. McClellan from command, after failing to arrest Lee’s retreat into Virginia, after the Battle of Antietam, he had few choices. It came down to Burnside or US Major General Joe Hooker – a behind the scenes schemer of the first order. Burnside would have turned down the command if Lincoln’s second choice had been anyone other than Hooker. The following short narrative is the story of Burnside’s first foray in command of the Army of the Potomac. I wrote this a couple of years ago, for my other website, Battlefield Portraits and it is reprinted here in its entirety.
Battle of Fredericksburg
Location: Fredericksburg, VA
Dates: December 11-15, 1862
Union Commander: Ambrose Burnside, Major General
Confederate Commander: Robert E. Lee, General
In late September, 1862, the Union’s Army of the Potomac, commanded by US Major General George B. McClellan, expelled Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from Sharpsburg, Maryland. On September 17 these armies engaged in what would become the bloodiest single day in United States history -a battle that would be named after a lazy creek that runs through Sharpsburg – Antietam. While the battle was essentially a draw, it was greeted in the north as a resounding victory, prompting Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln’s excitement turned to despair, however, as he tried to nudge McClellan into the offensive, while Lee’s army was most vulnerable to attack. Finally, in late October, 1862, McClellan put his army in motion, entering into Virginia, skirting the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Unfortunately, he moved very sluggishly. Lincoln, in an effort to speed McClellan, wired his commander that his army was closer to Richmond than Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. At the same time, Lincoln made private vow to remove “Little Mac” if he let Lee’s army get between him and Richmond. On November 7, Lincoln had had enough. He sent US Brigadier General C.P. Buckingham to McClellan’s headquarters, at Rectortown, with orders to remove McClellan. The same orders placed US Major General Ambrose Burnside in command of the Union’s Army of the Potomac.
Ambrose Burnside, was a reluctant commander. Friends with McClellan, he preferred to have a supporting role in the east, rather than overall command. Fearing the commanding role would devolve, upon his nemesis, Joe Hooker, Burnside accepted the new position. Burnside would be the third commander of the Army of the Potomac, and was an 1847 graduate of West Point.
Burnside wasted little time. By November 15, he had his army in motion. His plan was to flank Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, crossing the Rappahannock River above, and below, Fredericksburg. By choosing Fredericksburg as his point to launch into the Rebel army, he would only have to cross the Rappahannock River. If he were to take the more direct route, he would have two formidable rivers to cross – the Rappahannock and the Rapidan. A quick movement would assure surprise and would catch the Army of Northern Virginia in a vulnerable position - as it was falling back to protect Richmond.
Burnside also changed the organizational structure of his army. While retaining the overall Corps structure, he organized his Corps into three grand divisions. The Right Grand Division, commanded by US Major General Edwin Sumner, would include the II Corps, commanded by Major General Darius Couch, and the IX Corps, commanded by Brigadier General Orlando Willcox. The Center Grand Division, commanded by US Major General Joseph Hooker, would include the III Corps, commanded by Brigadier General George Stoneman, and the V Corps, commanded by Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. The Left Grand Division, commanded by US Major General William Franklin, would include the I Corps, commanded by Major General John Reynolds, and the VI Corps, commanded by Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith.
By November 17, the flanking move seemed to be working. Sumner’s Grand Division had arrived on the east bank of the Rappahannock and were at Stafford Heights, immediately opposite Fredericksburg. The rest of Burnside’s army arrived shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, a mix up at the war department slowed the arrival of the pontoon bridging equipment necessary to ford the Rappahannock. Burnside would wait a week for his pontoons to arrive. It was at this same time that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was also arriving at Fredericksburg. This effectively made Burnside’s plan, for an unopposed crossing of the river, impossible.
The mighty Army of Northern Virginia was clearly arrayed behind Fredericksburg. Facing Burnside was the powerful 1st Corps of CSA Lieutenant General James Longstreet. His Corps was occupying the high ground, beyond Fredericksburg, known as Marye’s Heights. Fearing a feint at Fredericksburg, and a general movement downstream, Lee had positioned much of his 2d Corps, commanded by CSA Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, 20 miles downstream. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was close to 80,000 troops strong, facing a very impressive Union army of over 110,000 troops.
During the overnight hours of December 11, Burnside deployed his engineers to build pontoon bridges at three crossings: the Upper, Middle and Lower. Work went smoothly until the first rays of sun started to burn through the fog. Once the engineers were visible, they became easy targets for the single brigade assigned to guard against such a crossing. CSA Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Brigade, comprised of soldiers from Florida, and Mississippi, was posted in the lower downtown area.
After Barksdale’s Brigade started its deadly shooting, Burnside determined to use his heavy artillery, posted at Stafford Heights, to force them out of town. For over an hour, the big Union guns fired into the town of Fredericksburg. All told, over 7,000 shells were fired, by 150 heavy guns, into the town of Fredericksburg. Unfortunately, Barksdale’s Brigade was unharmed by the massive bombardment. When the engineers went back to work, they were picked off easily by the Rebel infantry. Finally, it was decided that Federal infantry would use the pontoons as boats, to storm the opposite bank. The small “shock” force quickly dislodged Barksdale’s Brigade, pushing them through the streets of Fredericksburg in some of the only urban street fighting during the Civil War. Burnside’s engineers quickly finished the pontoon bridges, allowing Federal infantry to occupy Fredericksburg on the evening of December 11.
In the meantime, Lee, recognizing that there would not be a crossing further downstream, recalled Jackson’s 2d Corps, assigning them to an area due south of Longstreet. This line, stretching south of Fredericksburg, was naturally strong as Jackson’s troops could dig into the hillside of a long bluff, Prospect Hill, under the cover of trees. Jackson was confident that his position would be very strong.
On December 12 the majority of the Army of the Potomac crossed into Fredericksburg. Unfortunately, the abandoned town was too much for the men with looting, vandalism and drinking commonplace throughout the streets, parlors and homes of Fredericksburg. After the main battle, when questioned about how he would handle the Union debauchery, Stonewall Jackson said, “Kill them, sir, kill every man!”
On the unusually warm, and foggy morning, of Saturday, December 13, US Major General William Franklin’s Left Grand Division was tasked with assaulting the heights, south of town, held by Jackson’s 2d Corps. Due to rather ambiguous language in Burnside’s orders, Franklin was given discretion on how he would feed his grand division into battle. With close to 60,000 soldiers at his disposal, he determined to send in only one division, commanded by US Major General George G. Meade. Later in the battle he would receive support from two other divisions, commanded by brigadier generals Abner Doubleday, and John Gibbon. Moving into position, to attack Jackson’s line, Meade’s division was enfiladed by one battery of Rebel cannon, commanded by CSA Major John Pelham. The fire from the guns was very accurate, and destructive. Gibbon would dispatch one brigade, of Wisconsin and Indiana troops, to silence Pelham’s Horse Artillery. These troops, the only all Western brigade in the Army of the Potomac, had earned the well deserved moniker, “Iron Brigade,” during their action at the Battle of South Mountain.
After dislodging Pelham’s artillery, Meade sent his troops against Jackson’s entrenched infantry and artillery. The area they struck was a sliver of woods that crossed the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad tracks. While they had heavy casualties in crossing the open ground, to these woods, they did enjoy a breakthrough near the tracks. In this area the Confederates would forever lose the services of CSA Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg. He would be mortally wounded during Meade’s breakthrough. Jackson immediately funneled new troops into the area of Meade’s breakthrough, and having very little support, Meade was forced to pull back beyond the tracks, and the Richmond Stage Road.
The second phase – and the better known phase of the Battle of Fredericksburg – against Longstreet’s 1st Corps started when Burnside observed Meade’s repulse. Originally designed to start when Franklin’s Left Grand Division had started to roll up Lee’s right flank, Sumner’s Right Grand Division was to assault Longstreet’s Corps, approximately 1/2 mile beyond Fredericksburg, on Marye’s Heights. Wave, after wave, of Union soldiers marched through Fredericksburg, across the open fields, the Canal Ditch and up the hill, only to be annihilated before they reached the stone wall, beyond which was a sunken road. Here CSA Brigadier General Thomas R.R. Cobb’s Georgia brigade poured out a withering fire. While Cobb would be mortally wounded by an artillery shell, his brigade would mow down successive waves of divisions and brigades. Even the vaunted Irish Brigade would be chewed up trying to reach the Sunken Road.
By sunset, the fighting had sputtered to an end. The weather, however, changed for the worst. Soldiers who had thrown aside their jackets, and blankets, in the balmy weather of December 13, were greeted with sub-freezing temperatures overnight. The area between Marye’s Heights, and Fredericksburg, became a “no man’s land,” where the slightest movement by a Federal soldier would illicit a shot from the Confederates. Besides dying from their injuries, Union soldiers also froze to death where they had fallen. On December 14, CSA Sergeant Richard R. Kirkland, of the 2d South Carolina Infantry regiment, asked CSA Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw if he could aid the wounded Federal soldiers begging for water. At first Kershaw declined Kirkland’s request, but later would allow him to move into the “no man’s land.” However, he refused his request to carry a white flag, which would have protected him. Nineteen year old Kirkland gathered as many canteens as he could, filling them with water, and stepped out over the wall. Sporadic musketry failed to hit him and when the Federal soldiers understood his humanitarian intentions they, along with many Confederate soldiers, cheered him. He walked among the wounded soldiers giving them water and helping those he could. After his canteens were emptied, he returned back to his post and his duties as an infantryman. Known as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights,” Kirkland would continue to fight with the 2d South Carolina until he was killed charging Snodgrass Hill, during the Battle of Chickamauga.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Robert E. Lee was quoted, “It is well that war is so terrible – lest we should grow too fond of it.” How right he was.
While Burnside was determined to make additional attacks against Marye’s Heights, even stating he would lead them himself, he would decide to heed his lieutenants’ advice against doing so. While the two armies held their positions through the day of December 15, Burnside would retreat across the Rappahannock River during the early morning hours of December 16. Thus ended the horrific battle of Fredericksburg, an unequaled rout of the Army of the Potomac that ultimately provided no benefit to the Union arms.
Outcome: Confederate victory
Union: 12,600 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 5,300 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
The butcher’s bill for Fredericksburg was very high. The north was appalled at the waste of life that ultimately provided no advantage to the Union war effort. On January 20, in an effort to resuscitate his career, Burnside tried one more flanking movement, this time against Lee’s left flank. What would become known as the “Mud March” would further demoralize his army, and lead quickly to another change in commanders for the Army of the Potomac. Both armies would remain in their relative positions for the remainder of the winter, before they would meet again, just a few miles west, at a sleepy crossroads called Chancellorsville.
While Abraham Lincoln was not willing to lose the services of Burnside, he was compelled to remove him from the Eastern Theater. Burnside, along with his IX Corps, would be transferred to the Department of the Ohio, which Burnside would command through 1863. In early 1864 he would return to the Army of the Potomac, where he would continue to command the IX Corps through the Overland Campaign. In front of Petersburg, in July 1864, Burnside would approve the explosion of the Crater on July 30. Proving a debacle, US Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant would relieve him of command on August 14, 1864. He would not command another field army during the Civil War. On April 15, the day Lincoln would fall to an assassin’s bullet, Burnside officially resigned his army commission. After the Civil War, Burnside would take executive positions with several railroads. He would be elected to three one year terms as Governor of Rhode Island. From 1871–1872 he would be the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. Burnside would serve as the first president of the National Rifle Association when it was formed in 1871. His service to his country was still not concluded. In 1874 Rhode Island would elect him U.S. Senator. He would be re-elected in 1870 and would serve until his death on September 13, 1881. He is buried in Swan Point Cemetery, in Providence, Rhode Island.