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‘It Is Well That War Is So Terrible’

The battle of Fredericksburg, December 1862

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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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.

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