December, 1862: Battle of Fredericksburg Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Even though the Confederates, led by General Robert E. Lee, established a strong seven-mile defensive line west and south of Fredericksburg, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside decided to attack there on December 13. His plan had no chance of succeeding. A diversionary effort to the south achieved a brief breakthrough in the morning, but failure to press the advantage guaranteed that the main attack would be made at Fredericksburg against an almost impregnable Confederate position along Marye’s Heights.

Fredericksburg, Virginia, from across the Rappahannock River, a few months after the battle there. (National Archives)

Even though the Confederates, led by General Robert E. Lee, established a strong seven-mile defensive line west and south of Fredericksburg, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside decided to attack there on December 13. His plan had no chance of succeeding. A diversionary effort to the south achieved a brief breakthrough in the morning, but failure to press the advantage guaranteed that the main attack would be made at Fredericksburg against an almost impregnable Confederate position along Marye’s Heights.

Advancing uphill across open ground swept by artillery toward infantry well posted on a sunken road behind a stonewall, the Union troops attacked throughout the afternoon. Given the terrain and Confederate placements, the offensive degenerated into a series of piecemeal, suicidal, frontal assaults, all of which were repulsed. Nightfall mercifully ended the slaughter, and two days later, the Union army withdrew across the Rappahannock River. Fredericksburg—one of the most lopsided battles of the war—cost the Union 12,700 lives, the Confederacy barely 5,000.

General Joseph Hooker. (National Archives)

The futile, almost criminal, sacrifice of Union soldiers at Fredericksburg drove morale in the North and in the Army of the Potomac to a new low in the winter of 1862–1863. Burnside was replaced in January, 1863, by Joseph Hooker, who restored the army to its fighting trim.

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