Virginia: Fredericksburg Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, this site includes the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and the Wilderness.

Site Offices:

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

120 Chatham Lane

Fredericksburg, VA 22405

Web site: www.nps.gov/frsp/

Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center

706 Caroline Street

Fredericksburg, VA 22401

ph.: (800) 678-4748; (540) 373-6122

Although small in both area and population, Fredericksburg has always stood near the center of national history. Because of its strategic position on the Rappahannock River, the city has been a chief river port for the Shenandoah Valley, a home for colonial forefathers, and a critical Civil War battle site that changed hands no less than seven times from 1861 to 1865. Indeed, the city’s most important day remembers not the living but those who died during one of those clashes to take the area surrounding Fredericksburg when Confederate troops led by General Robert E. Lee routed Union troops led by Ambrose E. Burnside.

Early History

Fredericksburg was settled in 1671 and named for the father of King George III. The site was laid out in 1728 but was not incorporated as a town until 1782. It became a city in 1879.

Members of George Washington’s family have as many ties to Fredericksburg as they do to Mount Vernon. From ages six to sixteen, Washington lived at Ferry Farm, across the Rappahannock from the city limits. He later bought a house for his mother in the city, where she lived for seventeen years before her death. Washington’s only sister, Betty, married businessman Fielding Lewis in 1750 and built Kenmore, one of the city’s most famous residences, which still stands today. Around 1760, Washington’s brother Charles built a home where Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington would come to discuss politics. The home later became the Rising Sun Tavern, the name it bears today.

In addition to the Washingtons, Fredericksburg was home to James Monroe, who had a law office in Fredericksburg from 1787 to 1789 and later became the fifth president of the United States. Preserved at the site of his Fredericksburg office is the desk Monroe used to sign the Monroe Doctrine, the policy which stated the United States would frown upon European intervention in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere.

The Civil War

The city that was famous early in its existence for its permanent inhabitants became even more famous for its transient inhabitants, the soldiers, during the Civil War. Northern Virginia, because of its placement between the Union capital of Washington, D.C., and the Confederate capital of Richmond, saw frequent and bloody fighting, particularly in the area of Fredericksburg, where four battles were fought within only seventeen miles of the city limits.

In late 1862, the Union army lay staggered and weary. After a series of unsuccessful battles with high casualties, highlighted by what could at best be called a September standoff at Antietam (Sharpsburg), Maryland, President Abraham Lincoln dismissed General George McClellan as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac on November 5. He replaced him with Ambrose E. Burnside.

Following the Antietam battle, Confederate commander (of the Army of Northern Virginia) Robert E. Lee withdrew to the Shenandoah Valley to refit his troops. When the refitting was finished, Lee took a gamble, splitting his forces and sending Stonewall Jackson south into the Shenandoah Valley in the hope that McClellan would attack and Jackson would be able to outflank and crush the Union army. At one point, the Confederate forces were divided over Virginia by a marching time of two days. Prior to his dismissal, McClellan had planned to exploit this mistake by driving his forces southwestward, hoping to split, cut off, and destroy at least one part of the fractionalized force.

General Burnside’s Campaign Against Fredericksburg

With Burnside in command, however, plans changed. Despite the fact that on the day he took command he outnumbered Lee and James Longstreet, directly in front of him at Culpeper, Virginia, by three to one, he scrapped McClellan’s plan. He instead preferred to drive toward the Confederate capital of Richmond via the southeast, crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. If he took Richmond, he believed, the Confederates would crumble. Burnside’s plan was to cross the river, take the hills west of town, and set up a stronghold on the way, surprising Lee.

Burnside submitted his plan to Washington, D.C., and it was approved by Lincoln, who cautioned that for it to work, it had to be carried out quickly and efficiently, as Confederate intelligence was well known for its accuracy and speed. Still weary and miserable from the Antietam battle, Burnside’s troops began the march south and east through the cold November rain toward Fredericksburg on November 15. True to Burnside’s prediction, Lee was surprised, but poor planning by the Union War Department and subsequent poor judgment on Burnside’s part doomed this attack as the final of the Union disasters of 1862.

Union forces reached the town of Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, on November 17. Burnside had covertly marched his troops down the eastern shore of the Rappahannock–in order to cross to Fredericksburg, he needed materials for pontoon bridges from the War Department in Washington. Although other supplies had met the arriving the army, materials for the pontoon bridges were nowhere to be seen. Either the message was never delivered, or the War Department did not understand the importance of having the bridge material in Falmouth exactly when Burnside arrived. Because of the oversight, the Union soldiers hunkered down in Falmouth waiting for the pontoons to arrive.

On the day Burnside arrived at Falmouth, Lee received the first intelligence of Burnside’s movements. Further investigation revealed that the entire Army of the Potomac had stationed itself near Fredericksburg, and on November 19 Lee ordered his division under James Longstreet to go there immediately. Lee’s troops moved toward Fredericksburg from the west. Other Confederate forces led by Stonewall Jackson and A. P. Hill rushed to the site.

A Snag in the Union Plans

The same November 19 found Ambrose Burnside worrying, as his bridge material had still not arrived. He wrote a letter to the War Department, saying the supplies must be sent at once. Despite the initial error by the War Department, the town and surrounding area could have been taken easily had the supplies arrived within even three days of when they were supposed to, as Longstreet’s men did not arrive until November 21. The bridge material did not begin arriving, however, until November 25. While the Union army waited, Lee and his men dug into the hills that studded the landscape to the west of town in an area known as Marye’s Heights, preparing themselves for the Union onslaught.

Burnside could fault no one but himself for the second grave error. To protect his men crossing the river, he stationed cannon at the top of the heights on his side. Not wanting his men to face the shelling, Lee hid his men and in turn hid their numbers, fooling Burnside into believing the main Confederate force was south of the actual town. He had purposely left the town lightly guarded to lull Union commanders into a false sense of security.

Four days after arriving, on November 21, Union general Edwin Sumner notified Fredericksburg officials that they must surrender by five o’clock that afternoon. More than six thousand citizens were displaced from their homes, taking only what possessions they could carry.

Longstreet and the rest of the Confederate army did not want to see the town destroyed by Union artillery. They were able to persuade Burnside not to use cannon under the provision that the town would not be used as a Confederate stronghold. During the ten days that followed, the waiting continued. Burnside first chose Skinker’s Neck, a site fourteen miles south of Fredericksburg, as one of his main crossing points, but Lee put a division there and Burnside reluctantly retreated to form a new plan. As the Union army dawdled, Lee’s forces kept preparing–digging trenches, placing guns, and stationing groups of forces. Burnside grew increasingly worried as he watched Jackson’s and Longstreet’s forces join Lee, but he refused to abort his battle plan, as pressure from Washington for a Union victory grew.

Burnside finally decided he wanted five pontoon bridges built at various sites up and down the river. At 3 a.m. on December 11, construction finally began, nearly one month late. Work on the lower two bridges went without incident, but others that were built closer to the town faced constant fire from sharpshooters holed up in the buildings. Burnside saw this aggression as a violation of the agreement he had made with Longstreet and thus saw the town as fair game for an artillery assault. On the same day, December 11, the shelling of Fredericksburg began. Under the protection of the artillery fire, the remaining pontoon bridges were finished, and the Union army prepared to enter the town.

By the next day, the last of the sharpshooters had been driven out, and the town was in the hands of the Union. Soldiers advanced into the town and, while waiting for orders to attack Confederate positions, looted, ravaged, and destroyed what they could find. Burnside had nearly 113,000 men and Lee about 85,000–the largest number of men to ever clash on a Civil War battlefield.

Between the town and Marye’s Heights lay an open field that the Union soldiers would have to cross in order to climb the hill. Between that field and the hills stood a stone wall, where four divisions of Confederate infantry stood, waiting to repel any Union charges against the Heights. Lee could not believe that anyone would be so foolish as to attack such a fortified position. Still, Burnside marched on, disregarding warnings given to him by his field commanders.

The Assault Begins

On the morning of December 13, Burnside gave the order for the full-scale assault to begin. Four divisions under the command of William Franklin attacked Stonewall Jackson’s troops, which were on the left. Another Union division led by George Gordon Meade was able to penetrate Jackson’s force briefly but was driven back by artillery fire. Burnside wanted to use this left attack to distract Lee before his central assault began with Sumner and Joseph Hooker. After Meade and Franklin battled with Jackson for nearly two hours, Burnside finally gave the order for Sumner to attack the heart of the Confederates–Lee, the grassy field, the stone wall, and Marye’s Heights.

As wave after wave of troops headed toward the stone wall, Confederate gunners stopped their charge. Hundreds, then thousands of Union troops fell under heavy artillery and rifle fire. Reinforcements waited in the town to join the assault, trying not to notice the scores of mangled men being brought to the field hospitals. After Sumner’s men had been decimated, Burnside ordered Hooker to lead the next major charge. Hooker balked, but Burnside forced him into action. In all, Burnside ordered sixteen assaults on the Heights before deciding they could not be taken. More than nine thousand Union troops lay dead on the field–they never got any closer than twenty-five yards in front of the stone wall that guarded the Heights.

Under the barrage of gunfire, hundreds of soldiers lay in trenches in the ground, waiting for night to fall so they could escape back to the Union lines under the cover of darkness. Wounded soldiers bled and froze to death in the December cold. Those who were alive waited more than twenty-four hours for the truce signed on December 14, which allowed the Union troops to gather their dead and wounded and to retreat across the river.

Burnside sat in shock at the camp, weeping. He decided that he would lead another charge of the wall himself but was talked out of it by other officers. He could not persuade any of his other generals to launch a new attack the next morning. Confederate troops drifted back into the town after it had been abandoned, to salvage what was left.

In all, the Union lost 12,600 men, while the Confederates suffered 5,300 losses, but many of those were assumed missing, having returned home for Christmas. The Union army set up camp near Falmouth for the winter.

Destruction of Burnside’s Reputation

Burnside was looked upon as a fool by both Washington, D.C., and his troops. Even the lowest-ranking soldier knew that after the bridge materials had arrived late, the situation was an impossible one for the Union army and should have been abandoned. Burnside, by his stubbornness and his underestimation of the strength of the Confederate forces, managed to make the stone wall a place that no one in the Union army would soon forget.

Shortly after the December disaster, Burnside was replaced as commander of the Army of the Potomac by Joseph Hooker. Hooker spent the next few months rebuilding his army, preparing for another attack against Lee that would see the infamous stone wall once again playing a role, albeit a small one.

General Hooker’s Campaign

Hooker’s spring plan involved keeping a portion of his troops near Fredericksburg to fool Lee while secretly moving his main force toward Chancellorsville, ten miles to the north and west. This main force would circle around Lee and trap him against the river. The movement began on April 27, 1863.

Lee’s intelligence informed him of the plan, and he rushed all but ten thousand of his troops northward to meet Hooker. As Hooker and Lee clashed to the north, a Union brigade under John Sedgwick stormed across the river into Fredericksburg, trying yet again to take Marye’s Heights in order to attack Lee’s rear. Because the Confederate force was smaller and less entrenched, they were able to succeed in surging over the stone wall and climbing the ridge.

Their celebration was short-lived, though; as Lee was routing Hooker to the north, the Confederate force under Jubal T. Early was able to knock the Union troops off the ridge and again back across the river by May 3. In all, the Union lost an additional seventeen thousand troops at this battle, which would become known as Chancellorsville, while the Confederates lost thirteen thousand, one-fourth of their fighting force. One of the greatest casualties for the Confederates was Stonewall Jackson, who developed pneumonia and died following the amputation of his arm after being wounded by his own forces.

Other Civil War Battles

Later in the Civil War, the Fredericksburg area saw two other battles, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. They marked the beginning of a year-long struggle that culminated in the Confederate surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

In the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5 and 6, 1864, Lee met Ulysses S. Grant in combat for the first time. Grant was by then the commander of all the Union armies. Grant crossed the Rapidan River, an upper branch of the Rappahannock, hoping to confront Lee’s forces in open country rather than in the densely forested area called the Wilderness, just west of the Chancellorsville Battlefield. The Union soldiers, however, did encounter Confederate troops in the Wilderness, and there ensued chaotic fighting with neither side gaining an advantage. During the battle, the dry forest caught fire, raising the number of casualties. Those killed, wounded, or missing totaled nearly 15,400 for the Union, out of a force of 118,000, and 11,400 for the Confederates, out of 62,000.

From the Wilderness, Grant moved to the southeast, hoping to capture the crossroads at Spotsylvania. A Confederate unit arrived there first, however, strictly by chance: The soldiers had had to leave their position in the Wilderness because of the fire. They stopped the Union advance on May 8. The Union and Confederate forces engaged in a series of attacks and counterattacks. One part of the battlefield became known as the “Bloody Angle” because water in the trenches was stained red. Also in this area, the gunfire was so intense that it felled an oak tree. The battle featured fierce hand-to-hand combat. In the end, the Union forces were unable to break through Confederate lines, so Grant moved around the Confederates, southward and closer to Richmond. The siege of Petersburg began in June.

Modern Preservation Efforts

The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park contains all four battlefields. At each one, there are numerous exhibits and markers to outline the historic facts. The Fredericksburg Battlefield includes the Marye’s Heights National Cemetery, and the Spotsylvania Court House site has a Confederate cemetery. In nearby Guinea, Virginia, also part of the National Military Park, is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. Jackson died in this small house, which served as the office for a plantation called Fairfield.

Following the war, the ravaged town rebuilt and later gained city status. Today, though still sporting only a modest population of around fifteen thousand, Fredericksburg remains an important farm and industrial shipping city on the Rappahannock. Its monuments, cemeteries, and fields of battle serve as a memorial to the thousands of men who gave their lives in the American Civil War.

For Further Information
  • Davis, William C. Stand in the Day of Battle. New York: Doubleday, 1983. A detailed account of the early years of the war, with complete quotes from eyewitnesses and battle diagrams.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War. Reprint. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. A colorful and complete history of the conflict. The book formed the basis for a popular multipart television series.
  • Wheeler, Richard. Lee’s Terrible Swift Sword. New York: Harper, 1992. Another detailed account of the early years of the war.
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