One hundred and fifty years later, when you tour the battlefield, you can take a short footpath to the top of a little knob where the Confederate commander watched as the battle played out in a kind of natural amphitheater, with the enemy’s regiments advancing on his lines, their flags flying, and the shells of his own artillery blowing holes in their ranks.
“It is well that war is so terrible,” Robert E. Lee said as he watched. “We should grow too fond of it.”
The governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin, also witnessed the battle and he reported to Abraham Lincoln what he had seen. The president, according to Curtin, was in anguish over the bloody defeat of his army. Curtin later recalled Lincoln piteously saying, “What has God put me in this place for?”
It may have been the lowest point yet for Lincoln and for his country’s fortunes in a war that had become more terrible than anyone could have foreseen. Almost three months earlier, the Union Army had turned back Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North at the battle of Antietam. Lee’s army held its ground in the bloodiest single day of the war, then slipped across the Potomac River, unopposed, back into Virginia, to Lincoln’s great disappointment. He urged his general, George McClellan, to pursue Lee and annihilate his army. McClellan, however, was sublimely content with what he considered a great victory. “Those in whose judgment I rely,” he wrote to his wife, “tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art.”
So he spent days, and then weeks, resting and resupplying his army. And he did consider it his army. “The Army of the Potomac,” he said to a member of his staff, “is my army as much as any army ever belonged to the man that created it.” The army was, indeed, loyal to him, and Lincoln knew it. McClellan was a political force, more threatening in some ways to Lincoln than he was to Lee. The battle of Antietam was fought in late September 1862. Election Day was coming in early November, and if Lincoln were to relieve McClellan of command before then, it would hurt his party’s already weak prospects at the polls. McClellan was a favorite of the Democrats, who wanted an early—and possibly negotiated—end to the war. McClellan might be (and eventually was) the Democrats’ candidate in 1864.
Since Lincoln could not afford to martyr the general, he prodded him and urged him to move. “If we cannot beat the enemy where he now is, we never can,” he wrote to McClellan. “It is . . . easy if our troops march as well as the enemy, and it is unmanly to say they cannot do it.”
He also resorted to sarcasm, responding to a McClellan request for fresh horses to replace his tired mounts with, “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?”
McClellan did move, finally and in desultory fashion. And the elections went against the Republicans. Lincoln decided, at last, to move himself, and a courier was sent to McClellan’s headquarters on a snowy night with an order relieving him of command. His replacement was Ambrose Burnside.
Where McClellan suffered from an excess of confidence, Burnside lacked sufficient belief in himself. And, as events proved, with good reason. But Lincoln liked him and had offered him command on two previous occasions. Both times, Burnside had declined saying he was not up to the job. He gave in on the third occasion only because he knew that if he did not accept, Joe Hooker would. He considered himself the lesser of two evils.
The Army took McClellan’s dismissal hard. Some of the men that he had made into soldiers and molded into an army wept and vowed that if he would lead them, they would march on Washington. McClellan calmed them and took the whole thing with a measure of public grace. One could almost infer that he’d decided he would rather run against Lincoln than fight against Lee.
So that left Burnside in command, on November 11, with the weather becoming an important consideration if he was to move on Lee and give battle. Since there was no ambiguity about Lincoln’s expectations, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac came up with a plan for moving his army quickly, from its position near the old Manassas battlefields to a place almost equidistant between Washington and Richmond, on the Rappahannock River, which he proposed to cross on pontoon bridges. The aim was to force Lee to react; for the Union Army to seize the initiative. Unlike McClellan, who routinely estimated his enemy’s strength as being two or three times the actual numbers, Burnside recognized that he enjoyed numerical superiority. Roughly 120,000 men in ranks against some 80,000 in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. If Burnside could outmaneuver Lee, get between him and Richmond and force him into battle on ground of his choosing . . .
The plan was presented to Lincoln. On November 14, Burnside was informed, by wire: “The President has just assented to your plan. He thinks it will succeed, if you move rapidly; otherwise not.”
So Burnside did what was asked of him. He moved rapidly. So rapidly, in fact, that for a few days Lee was not sure what his opponent intended. Burnside’s armies were in place on the Rappahannock before Lee had concentrated his forces. There were only 1,000 troops on the other side of the river to resist the crossing the Union troops would make on the six pontoon bridges, which Burnside had requisitioned through channels.
The bridges, however, did not arrive that day. Nor the next.
Burnside waited a week for the pontoons and bridging materials to arrive. One small but typical piece of bad staff work, in a long chain of them, resulted in the delivery of unbroken horses to a wagon train that had been assembled to transport the bridging material. While the horses were trained to harness, Lee acted.
Burnside had been frustrated back in September by a stone bridge across Antietam Creek. The bridge that he had been unable to take in time to win the battle—and, perhaps, end the war—has been known ever since as Burnside’s Bridge.
Now, in command of the entire army, he found himself again unable to force a crossing. And while he waited for the pontoon bridges to arrive, observers riding over his lines in baskets hung below tethered balloons, watched as the Confederates prepared their defenses along a naturally strong position on the opposite bank of the river.
By the time the pontoons arrived, the situation had changed completely, and Burnside informed his superiors he could not “make the promise of probable success with the faith I did when I supposed that all the parts of the plan would be carried out.”
Even so, he decided to attack. It was that or return to Washington and winter quarters. And he had been put in command to attack.
His plan was to use the town of Fredericksburg, on the opposite bank of the river, as cover for his crossing and to get the bridges across during darkness. There would be another crossing, further downstream. Two wings of his army would attack Lee’s lines, left and right. The downstream attack would carry the enemy’s line and then turn and advance to support the other wing. Lee would be taken flank and front.
Burnside’s commanders were dubious. He, uncharacteristically, insisted. But his orders were vague and allowed the commander of the downstream wing to interpret them according to his own cautious inclinations.
Upstream, the laying of the pontoons was not finished before daylight and Confederate troops, firing from concealed positions behind the walls of the town, killed enough engineers to make further work impossible. Burnside ordered the town shelled and his artillery took it under fire, causing extensive damage but failing to dislodge the Confederate infantrymen. Finally, Union troops from Michigan crossed the river, under fire, in boats and established a beachhead where they were reinforced by some Massachusetts and New York men. In a rare War episode of urban combat, they drove the Confederates from the town and Union soldiers proceeded to sack it.
The crossing was accomplished on December 11. Burnside did not hurry in getting his divisions across the river and assembled for the assault on the high ground where Lee’s troops watched and waited from positions that they were convinced could not be taken. It was another full day before all was ready and the attack was finally launched.
General William Franklin commanded the downstream attack, and he conducted it without much conviction, committing less than one-third of his men to the assault against Confederate forces under the command of Stonewall Jackson. Still, there was a momentary success. General George Meade’s troops found a weakness in Jackson’s lines and drove through it and were advancing. But they were too few—less than 4,000 men—and unsupported by the rest of Franklin’s command. Jackson’s reserves met them head on and the units on either side struck the Union flanks and broke up the attack. Meade lost 1,850 men killed, wounded, or captured.
This was as much success as Burnside’s army would experience in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Beyond that there would be frustration, defeat, and slaughter.
The battle beyond the town of Fredericksburg came down to a Union attempt to cross some 400 yards of open ground, across a relatively narrow front, moving uphill, against a line of infantry that occupied a sunken road behind a protective stone wall, with artillery in support and able to depress its barrels and fire over the heads of the defenders into the attacking ranks. Burnside’s plan called for a brute, frontal assault on a narrow front with secure flanks. It was an unimaginative blueprint for disaster.
The attack did not begin until a few hours after daylight. The low ground along the river was covered in dense fog, so the Union formations were concealed, with the Confederates able to hear the sounds of their preparations, “like the distant hum of myriads of bees.”
By midmorning the fog was burning off and the Confederates could look down from their formidable defensive positions and watch as the enemy regiments formed up and dressed on the center for the attack. This was the majesty of battle as many had imagined it would be before the firing started. This was war that Lee believed men could grow too fond of.
The Union formations came on, disappearing into a shallow swale, and then rising out of it, in range of the Confederate muskets that had been waiting behind the stone wall and the cannons that were in place slightly above and behind them.
Six assaults were chopped down by rifle fire and blown apart by artillery without a single Union soldier coming within 50 yards of that wall and the sunken road behind it. December 13 was one of the shortest days of the year, but to the Union soldiers who lay bleeding and dying on the ground in front of the stone wall, it must have seemed endless.
Men under Hooker’s command carried out the last, futile assault. They did their duty, and then it was over. In his official report, their general put it bitterly: “Finding that I had lost as many men as my order required me to lose, I suspended the attack.”
Burnside wanted to continue to battle the next day and proposed to lead the assault himself, at the head of his old corps. It would have been suicidal, and that may have been the point. He could have been spared but not the additional men who would have been lost. Burnside’s generals persuaded him to quit the battle, lest it prove, one said to him, “disastrous to the army.”
That night, with the dead and wounded scattered across the battlefield, the skies came alive with a cold, unworldly light. It was a rare occurrence, this far south, of the aurora borealis, the northern lights, seen by many men, no doubt, as an omen.
But of what?
The battle was over. The Union had taken some 12,653 casualties, more than twice the losses in Lee’s ranks. Burnside was done, though he later made one more doomed attempt to outmaneuver Lee, and it resulted in what was known as the “mud march,” and, mercifully, no actual battle.
Among the many Union wounded was one George Whitman, brother of the poet, who, when he saw the name on the casualty lists, traveled to Fredericksburg to do what he could, even if that would be merely to provide a decent burial.
Walt Whitman’s brother was only slightly wounded. Others, many others, were not so fortunate, and his exposure to them and their suffering gave Whitman voice. He described what he had seen in his journal:
(December 21, 1862) among the camp hospitals in the Army of the Potomac, under General Burnside. Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion . . . used as a hospital since the battle, and seems to have received only the worst cases. Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc.—about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel staves or broken board, stuck in the dirt.
The battle of Fredericksburg did not end the war, of course. But, as both Lee and Whitman sensed, it was the end of something.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.