Throughout 1862, the Union embraced a defensive, passive approach to prosecuting the Civil War—shying away from incisive troop movements and relentless pursuits even after battles that left Confederates fatigued and fleeing—while the Confederacy had most recently displayed its more aggressive strategy by its attack near the Antietam Creek in Maryland. At the helm of the Union army, and the epitome of its quiescent nature, stood General George McClellan: a man who had come under fire for his failed Peninsula Campaign and refusal to pursue Confederate General Robert E. Lee after the Battle of Antietam. The latter decision prompted action from the White House. President Abraham Lincoln, whom McClellan had labeled as the “Gorilla,” replaced McClellan with General Ambrose E. Burnside on November 7, 1862.[i]
McClellan’s dismissal brought regret to his soldiers, as a great deal of them held genuine admiration for their commander. McClellan, as inflated as his ego may have been, would not allow his troops’ sadness to get in the way of their duties: he told them amidst their yells of affection, “Stand by General Burnside as you have stood by me, and all will be well.”[ii] With a storied career of service ranging from the Mexican-American War to the battles of Roanoke Island and Antietam, Burnside had ample experience to lead the army, but his talents and instincts would be challenged the following month as he made his own attempt at taking Richmond.
Burnside ordered his army of 110,000 men to the banks of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia which would serve as a starting point for a campaign against Richmond.[iii] At the time Burnside ordered the movement, the vast majority of Lee’s men were stationed miles away and would not be able to react to a Union advance, but Lee had a stroke of luck that seemed to imbue him throughout the war: Burnside issued ambiguous instructions that resulted in more than a week delay for Henry Halleck to dispatch pontoon boats needed for the crossing.[iv] By the time that Burnside had his pontoons and was prepared to cross the Rappahannock and advance, Lee had 75,000 men assembled in a four-mile line with James Longstreet in command situated on the high ground with stacks of rifles at their disposal and supporting artillery flanking them.[v] One of Longstreet’s artillery officers claimed “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it,” and Lee had already organized to add another three miles to the Confederate line as Stonewall Jackson arrived.[vi] Floating overhead, balloons with Union men peering at the Confederate defenses could see the trying task at hand, as they wired intelligence to Burnside and his officers.[vii]
The morning of December 11 brought fog to the Fredericksburg area, which Confederate sharpshooters enjoyed as cover in addition to the buildings of downtown Fredericksburg. As the sun came up and started burning the fog, it revealed that Union engineers had begun getting pontoon boats in place allowing Union men to cleanly cross the Rappahannock. With enough light to see what they were doing—but also enough light for the Mississippian sharpshooters to take their shots more clearly as well as jeer and hoot—the engineers began to have the benefit of cover from Union artillery which shelled Fredericksburg and reducing many of its buildings—including the former law office of James Monroe—to rubble.[viii] Three Union regiments crossed the river and invaded the downtown area, going house-to-house rooting out the rebels and then looting the town, smashing “furniture, pianos, glassware, and anything else they could find in the abandoned houses.”[ix]
With Fredericksburg secured, the Union men were positioned to attack the Confederate line. On December 13, Burnside ordered General William B. Franklin to attack Longstreet’s left outside Fredericksburg at the top of a ridge known as Marye’s Heights with the goal of achieving a breakthrough and rolling up Longstreet’s line and then penetrating Longstreet’s right for a full victory.[x] Nearby, that morning, George Meade led an attack on Stonewall Jackson’s line and achieved a breakthrough, causing Confederates to double-time and counterattack which forced Meade’s retreat.[xi] Had Burnside reinforced Meade rather than focus on Franklin piercing through Longstreet’s line, perhaps Meade could have capitalized on his penetration. However, Burnside was not focused on ripping open Jackson’s line; his focus was directed to Marye’s Heights.
Marye’s Heights stood at the top of a hill carved by “ravines, a marsh, and a drainage ditch” and was capped with a stone fence.[xii] Burnside and his subordinates targeted the Confederate line posted on the top of Marye’s Heights with wave after wave of Union attack whose assaults were “as courageous and hopeless as anything in the war.”[xiii] Nearly every wave made it within fifty yards of the stone fence topping Marye’s Heights and then was forced to recede as hundreds were killed or wounded from the gunfire raining down as fast as machine guns.[xiv] Nonetheless, fourteen Union brigades—first led by Brigadier General Nathan Kimball, then Colonel John W. Andrews, then by Colonel Oliver H. Palmer, then by Colonel Joshua Owen, then by Colonel Norman J. Hall, then by Brigadier General Alfred Sully, then by Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis, and so on—attempted the upward climb to the same inevitable result. One soldier later recalled that the troops came forward “as though they were breasting a storm of rain and sleet, their faces and bodies being only half turned to the storm, with their shoulders shrugged,” and as they climbed, everyone including the drummer boy “seemed to be shouting to the full extent of his capacity.”[xv] As much as it is hopeless for one to hope to sprint through a rainstorm without getting wet, the same applied to a Union charge up the ridge. Over the din of the musketry, one could hear the screams of the soldiers strewn about writhing in pain.[xvi] A newspaper reporter, witness to the action, wrote: “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgment.”[xvii] Lee, taking in the sight of an admirable Confederate defense, remarked to an officer, “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”[xviii]
Devastation resulted: the Union army recorded nearly 13,000 Union men as casualties compared to the fewer than 5,000 Confederate casualties.[xix] Burnside, anxious to avoid defeat, announced to his officers that he would personally lead a charge the following morning on Marye’s Heights, but his officers convinced him otherwise. [xx] The next day came and went with no further action, but that night reds and blues streaked across the skies, glowing above the Confederate and Union camps: aurora borealis.[xxi] Rarely seen so far south, one Southerner took the sight as a sign that heaven was “hanging out banners and streamers and setting off fireworks in honor of our great victory.”[xxii] The next evening, on December 15, Burnside—who would not have the glory of victory at Fredericksburg but would be immortalized for his namesake facial hair—led his men on their retreat back across the Rappahannock amidst a stormy night.
Burnside’s defeat stung. The pain was not only burdened by Burnside himself but also the soldiers who witnessed the butchery as well as Lincoln. The scene of the battlefield was enough to make anyone sick as corpses were “swollen to twice their natural size, black as Negroes in most cases,” with soldiers laying “one without a head, there one without legs, yonder a head and legs without a trunk . . . with fragments of shell sticking in oozing brain, with bullet holes all over the puffed limbs.”[xxiii] Some soldiers began wondering whether the cost was worth saving the Union, and Lincoln found himself confessing, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”[xxiv]
The political fallout from Fredericksburg could have only made Lincoln feel worse. Rumors were pervasive throughout Washington that Lincoln’s entire cabinet was going to resign, that Lincoln would resign and allow Vice President Hannibal Hamlin to lead the remainder of the war, that McClellan would lead a military government, that Republicans would execute a coup to reorganize Lincoln’s cabinet in their own image.[xxv] Amidst the crisis, Lincoln confided in a friend: “They wish to get rid of me, and sometimes I am more than half disposed to gratify them. . . . We are now on the brink of destruction. It appears to me that the Almighty is against us.”[xxvi]
[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 569 citing McClellan to Ellen Marcy McClellan, circa Oct. 30, 1862, McClellan Papers, Library of Congress.
[ii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 570.
[iii] See id.
[v] See id. at 570-71.
[vi] Id. at 571 quoting James Longstreet, “The Battle of Fredericksburg,” Battles and Leaders, III, 79.
[vii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 25.
[viii] See James McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 571; Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 20, 27.
[ix] James McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 571.
[x] See id.
[xi] See id. at 572.
[xiv] See id.
[xv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 35.
[xvi] See id. at 38.
[xvii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 572 quoting Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 44.
[xviii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 37.
[xix] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 572.
[xx] See id.
[xxi] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 43.
[xxiii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 574 quoting Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 43.
[xxiv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 574 quoting William H. Wadsworth to Samuel L. M. Barlow, Dec. 16, 1862, Barlow Papers, Henry E. Huntington Library.
[xxv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 574.
[xxvi] Theodore C. Pease and James G. Randall, eds., The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, 2 vols. (Springfield, Ill., 1927-33) I, 600-601.