The Battle of Fredericksburg

The Battle of Fredericksburg

[1]

The battle of Fredericksburg was easily one of the best victories for the South in the Civil War. The Confederate army had only 4,576 casualties compare to the Union’s 13,353 casualties [1]. Even though the Union Army outnumber the confederates at Fredericksburg, they lost nearly three times as many troops. With nearly 200,000 combatants from the combined sides, this was the greatest concentration of troops in one battle for the entire war [2]. This massive defeat can be mostly accredited to the failed strategy of Ambrose Burnside, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac at the time. He replaced the indecisive George McClellan, and knew that he must act with swiftness to avoid the same fate as his predecessor. He planned to take Fredericksburg to get a foothold for the campaign to Richmond.

He planned to out maneuver Lee by crossing the Rappahannock river and flanking Fredericksburg by surprise. If he did this, he could push Lee’s army out of the town and into the open against a much larger army. As reported to him by officers that scouted the river, there were no bridges left to cross, so he would need to fashion a bridge. He decided that using a pontoon bridge would be his best course of action, so he put in an order for them, in hopes that they would arrive soon and he could maintain his element of surprise. The pontoons needed to build the bridge did not arrive on time, which gave Lee plenty of time to strategize a defense and fortify his position [3].

By the time that Burnside’s army arrived on the south shore of the Rappahannock, it was too late. Lee had already entrenched and gained the upper ground and the upper hand. Lee entrenched on a hill behind the town near a broken wall and sunken road, so he had all the advantages of the battlefield. Burnside refused to call retreat and admit the superior tactical advantages that Lee’s army had.

This battle is often overlooked, even though it is one of the South’s most commanding victories. This battle was the first major battle that the South won since the catastrophe of Antietam [5]. It not only fended off the North from gaining ground towards Richmond, but also provided a bit of a moral victory for soldiers. Antietam caused many Confederate soldiers to lose faith in the cause or in their ability to win the war. Fredericksburg provided a reason for the soldiers of the South to be motivated to fight again.

1. Civil War Trust. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/fredericksburg/maps/fredericksburg-blackburn.jpg (accessed October 15, 2014).

2. Civil War Trust. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/fredericksburg.html?tab=facts (accessed October 14, 2014).

3. History Channel. http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/battle-of-fredericksburg (accessed October 14, 2014).

4. Brotherwar.com. http://www.brotherswar.com/Fredericksburg-14.htm (accessed October 15, 2014).

5. PBS: Timeline of Civil War Battles.  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/death/ (accessed October 14, 2014).

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17 thoughts on “The Battle of Fredericksburg

  1. megans24 says:

    This is a really good blog. I never knew how big of a difference the casualties were and it was very surprising. I didn’t like Burnside. I feel that he made a huge mistake at this battle and because of this the union army lost a lot of people. It is very sad that so many died because he was too stubborn to call a retreat.

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  2. jacobaloweryuca says:

    This battle is so exciting to read about, especially when considering the implications of a Confederate loss at Fredericksburg, and how it could have expedited Union infiltration of Richmond. The numbers alone are so impressive. The fact that the Union suffered three times the casualties that the Confederacy did, despite the Union’s far superior armies in terms of volume, was a true display of strength and determination. Do you think Burnside’s actions were appropriate or do you think McClellan, had he still been in command, had a leadership style that could have awarded the Union a victory at Fredericksburg? Regardless, Fredericksburg is a great example of the Confederacy’s strengths and the battle displayed the leadership struggles that plagued the Union despite the Union’s vast number of soldiers.

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  3. jmccloud1993 says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post, Jarod. The fact that this battle had the largest concentration of Union and Confederate forces throughout the entire Civil War was definitely something I had not heard before. It also made me realize how much of an impact this battle had on the Confederate army. Like you mentioned, they did not have much success after Antietam, and this battle was able to serve as their motivation to keep fighting. Another thing I found interesting was Burnside’s strategy. It is hard to understand why he decided to attack when the Confederate army had such an advantage with their position. I feel like his attack was basically suicide for his men, and the results definitely show it. In the end, some questions come to mind. First, do you think McClellan’s hesitancy would have been beneficial during the battle? Obviously he was no longer the general, but his indecisiveness might have led him to not attack. Secondly, if the North would have won this battle, do you think the Civil War would have ended a lot sooner than it did? Please let me know.

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  4. I find it crazy that there were 200,000 troops engaged at this battle in the 19th century. To me at that day and age, this kind of concentration of troops is bewildering. In hindsight we know the poor decisions could have been avoided but its hard to believe that these leaders couldn’t find a better option to take. Of course I wasn’t there, so we cannot fully understand.

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  5. bgoodin1 says:

    Great post, I enjoy reading about battles. I do find it interesting that after McClellan had been removed and now Burnside is in charge the Union lose. McClellan’s downfall was not acting quick enough, and Burnside acts swiftly. I wonder if McClellan would have picked a different strategy and won? Or even just not lost as many men during the fight. It just goes to show that sometimes acting fast and in the moment is the best thing to do, and other times slow and steady wins the race. In this example swift and quick was the wrong choice. So that’s the thing that I find most entreating, how even with the change it did not help for the battle. Do you believe the outcome would have been different if McClellan had still be in charge?

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    • Terra Lain Votaw says:

      That is what I was thinking about while I was reading as well! If McClellan had been would have been in charge the the numbers and results could have changed drastically. Interesting how the “Slow defense” and the “Swift action” plans both lead to a lost.

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  6. dberry20 says:

    Wow I really enjoyed reading this post. I knew that Fredericksburg was a major victory for the Confederacy but I had no idea the margin of victory it was. For the Confederacy to be that outnumbered and still be able to defeat the Union points to the military intelligence of Lee. Lee took advantage of the way the situation played out due to Burnside’s mistakes.

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  7. jamesgerdes says:

    I think the most interesting thing about this battle was Burnside’s refusal to retreat despite being tactically outmatched. He literally attacked an entrenched position after crossing a river. I’m assuming that was covered in the ‘What never to do 101’ class at West Point.

    It’s likely that Burnside didn’t want the reputation his predecessor had for being too cautious and instead overcompensated and was too aggressive to the point of rashness. In any case it was a humiliating defeat, mainly because the move he made was so foolish and caused thousands of entirely preventable deaths.

    I think Burnside put a little too much politics into his strategy.

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  8. moonsierra says:

    I agree that Burnside’s poor military strategy was a major factor in the Union’s loss, and I would add that it was also the success of a defensive Confederate strategy that helped gain the victory. I remember we discussed in class when we debated about General Lee that when he relied on a defensive strategy he was much more successful. The Battle of Fredericksburg is clear evidence of that. The Northern forces had such poor leadership for an extended period of time, that if Lee had forced the North to follow his army into the South, like Burnside did, the South probably would have had more overwhelming successes for a greater amount of time. Did you come across any more instances of Burnside’s ineffective strategy? Are there any primary sources from soldiers that describe how they felt about him? How soon after this battle was Burnside replaced?

    I enjoyed reading this post and learning more about the troubles that seem to have plagued the Union. It is interesting to think about what would have happened for the Union if strong military leaders had been in place from the beginning. Maybe it would have been as quick of a war as people originally thought.

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  9. I agree that Fredericksburg served as a huge morale booster for the Confederacy. Going back to the Robert E. Lee debate we had in class a couple of weeks ago, this would be an example for those who believe that Lee is overrated as a general. As you pointed out, this was more of a battle the Union lost and rather than a battle the Confederacy won.

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  10. mmillsapuca says:

    The battle, indeed, must have bolstered the waning confidence of the Confederate soldiers after Lee’s Maryland campaign and assured the General of his strategy. Another aspect of the Fredericksburg victory, I think, would be the influence on public perception of and confidence in the Southern cause. As we covered in the debate over Lee’s effectiveness as a strategist, I would be curious to see if there was any significant shift in the South’s idea of Lee and their cause.

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  11. mpthomas10 says:

    As mentioned by others, the figures on this battle are very impressive. I knew that it was very one-sided, but I had no idea of the actual number of Union and Confederate soldiers and deaths. This is a battle, like many others, that is full of “what-ifs.” What if the Union had taken Richmond? What if McClellan was still in command? What if the pontoons were on time and Lee did not have time to dig in and fortify?

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  12. ngarrison123 says:

    It still surprises me when I read eyewitness accounts of the war and it shows that the public opinion circulating at the time originally believed that the war would be very short. I think that, after the Confederacy showed that they would not be an easy opponent to beat after this devastating battle, the citizens on both sides of the conflict began to realize just how big of a toll this war might have on the nation.

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  13. jarredhf says:

    One of the most interesting, and unfortunate, events that really sums up the senseless bloodshed of the Battle of Fredericksburg was that actions of the Irish Brigade. Fully well knowing the immense slaughter they were marching into, they charged the Confederate lines with a degree of heroism and bravery that stands out among all of events of the Civil War. Their actions on that battlefield is one of the few instances in which both sides were in awe of such bravery, which lead to a unanimous recognition that they were the some of the bravest men anyone had ever seen. Their losses, however, were terrible with nearly 50 percent of their mean falling in battle, and only a single officer barely escaping death.

    http://fredericksburg.com/CivilWar/Battle/0623CW

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  14. Talk about a curbstomp. I knew the difference in casualties was substantial, but not nearly that much. If people were still hoping this war would end quick after this, this definitely proved them wrong. It makes me sad however, to think that this battle motivated the Confederacy. Knowing what happened to them in the end, it’s just bittersweet.

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