What: Decisive Confederate victory
Where: Fredericksburg, Virginia
Why: One of the most one-sided battles of the Civil War
When: December 11-15, 1862.
“We crossed the river Thursday night and have been under fire ever since” – Elisha Hunt Rhodes, 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, written Sunday, December 14.
On November 7, 1862, after relieving George McClellan of command after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln appointed George Burnside commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside was reluctant, having turned down the position twice already, but obeyed. Lincoln pressured Burnside to attack and approved an assault on Richmond. Burnside’s battle plan involved crossing the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg using pontoon bridges. However, the soldiers arrived weeks before the pontoons arrived, and the Confederates dug in, fortifying the hills above Fredericksburg and waiting for the attack. On December 11, the Union began building the bridge under heavy fire, and the Federals took Fredericksburg. On December 13, Burnside attacked the Confederates head on. The Confederates were too well entrenched, and simply mowed down the Union advances, the Confederate positions cancelling out the Union’s superior numbers. The Union suffered twice as many casualties as the Confederates, and Burnside signalled the retreat on December 15. While the battle had been more even on Stonewall Jackson’s southern flank, with 5,000 Union to 4,000 Confederate casualties, on James Longstreet’s northern flank at Marye’s Heights, there were eight Union casualties for every one Confederate, with later Union attacks climbing over the dead and wounded from the previous ones. Burnside was dismissed a month later, replaced by his rival Joseph Hooker. The battle marked a low point for the Union, Lincoln later writing ‘if there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.’ The South were jubilant, the Union having failed for the fourth time to take Richmond, confident in the ability of their beloved General Robert E Lee.