Embarrassed by General McClellan's repeated defeats and apparent
lack of commitment in prosecuting the war, Lincoln replaced him on
November 7 with General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside launched a
winter campaign against the Confederate capital, Richmond, by way of
Fredericksburg, a strategically important town on the Rappahannock
River. The Federal Army of the Potomac, 115,000-strong, raced to
Fredericksburg, arriving on November 17. There were only a few
thousand Confederates on hand to challenge them, yet the Federal
advance ground to a halt on the eastern bank of the Rappahannock,
opposite the city. Burnside's campaign was delayed for over a week
when material he had ordered for pontoon bridges failed to arrive.
Disappointed by the delay, Burnside marked time for a further two
weeks. Meanwhile, Lee took advantage of the stalled Federal drive to
concentrate and entrench his Army of Northern Virginia, some
78,000-strong, on the high ground behind Fredericksburg.
With the arrival of the pontoons, Burnside crossed the river on
December 11, despite fierce fire from Confederate snipers concealed
in buildings along the city's river front. When the Confederates
withdrew, Federal soldiers looted the town, from which the inhabitants
had been evacuated. By December 13, Burnside was prepared to
launch a two-pronged attack to drive Lee's forces from an imposing set
of hills just outside Fredericksburg.
The main assault struck south of the city. Misunderstandings and
bungled leadership on the part of the commander of the Federal left,
Major General William B. Franklin, limited the attacking force to two
small divisions - Major General George G. Meade to lead; Major
General John Gibbon in support. Meade's troops broke through an
unguarded gap in the Confederate lines, but Jackson's men expelled the
unsupported Federals, inflicting heavy losses. Burnside launched his
second attack from Fredericksburg against the Confederate left on
Marye's Heights. Wave after wave of Federal attackers were mown
down by Confederate troops firing from an unassailable position in a
sunken road protected by a stone wall. Over the course of the
afternoon, no fewer than fourteen successive Federal brigades charged
the wall of Confederate fire. Not a single Federal soldier reached
Longstreet's line.
On December 15, Burnside ordered his beaten army back across the
Rappahannock.The Union had lost 13,000 soldiers in a battle in which
the dreadful carnage was matched only by its futility. Federal morale
plummeted, and Burnside was swiftly relieved of his command. By
contrast, the morale of the Confederacy reached a peak. Their
casualties had been considerably lighter than the Union's, totaling only
5,000. Lee's substantial victory at Fredericksburg, won with relative
ease, increased the already buoyant confidence of the Army of
Northern Virginia, which led subsequently to the invasion of the North
the following summer.
Source: "The Atlas of the Civil War" by James M. McPherson
The Battle of Fredericksburg