‘It Is Well That War Is So Terrible’
The battle of Fredericksburg, December 1862
Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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.