Location: Fredericksburg, Virginia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: In December of 1862, Fredericksburg was the first American city to be shelled by the American Army during the Civil War and is remembered as part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. President Abraham Lincoln had big plans to release the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 formally making the Civil War a war for freedom of black slaves and not just a rebellion of the southern states. After General McClellan’s failure in taking Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign over the summer and defeats at the Second Battle of Bull Run and General Lee’s first invasion of the north at Antietam, he badly needed a major victory to help politically sell the still controversial idea that the war was also about freedom of the slaves. He replaced General McClellan with Major General Ambrose Burnside and ordered him to immediately cross the Rappahannock River and race General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Richmond, even though it was already mid-November. The Confederates had destroyed all the bridges over the Rappahanock River around Fredericksburg leaving only a token force of about 500 soldiers to defend the town. When the first elements of Burnside’s Army of the Potomac arrived north of the river on November 17, they had no way to cross the river since the pontoon boats needed to build temporary bridges had not yet arrived. In fact, they did not arrive until November 25 which allowed General Lee to move his army into and around Fredericksburg. At this point, Burnside still had the advantage as only half of Lee’s forces under General Longstreet, had arrived by this point and were still digging in. However, he delayed the crossing until December 11 as he tried to decide where the crossing would occur. To the west of Fredericksburg, he would be faced with having to cross both the Rappahannock and Rapidan River above where they came together and to the east the Rappahannock rapidly gets wider as it approaches the Chesapeake Bay. So the decision was to cross at Fredericksburg, even though by this time General Longstreet had created strong defenses to the west of Fredericksburg along Marye’s Heights and General Jackson had arrived to take up positions on the heights of Prospect Hill on the Confederate right. Before dawn on December 11, Union engineers began constructing pontoon bridges across the Rappahanock at three locations. They had hoped to complete the bridges before they were spotted at dawn, however, the center crossing at the center of town came under fire by 150 MIssissippian sharpshooters hiding in the buildings along the river. Burnside ordered 150 cannons to open up on these buildings, but this bombardment proved ineffective. This was the first time US forces ever shelled an American town. Thankfully, the town of Fredericksburg was largely evacuated prior to the battle. Eventually, at 3 pm, Burnside ordered a brigade to cross the river on boats to establish a small beachhead and flush the sharpshooters out of the town. Fighting became street to street while the engineers completed the bridge and the Union forces began crossing over at 4:30. However, the bulk of the army did not cross until December 12 and 13. Finding the town of Fredericksburg to be deserted elements of the Union army began to sack and loot the town creating huge bonfires of anything they could not take with them. While not ordered to do this, the Union command did nothing to stop it. This so enraged the Confederates outside of town that “Fredericksburg” became a common battle cry for the rest of the war. On the morning of December 13, Burnside ordered only a token attack on the well protected Confederate position west of town on Marye’s Heights to keep Longstreet pinned down, with the main attack to the south against Jackson’s position to the south at Prospect Hill since was still unaware that Jackson’s division was yet to arrive and would be lightly defended. Not only was Jackson in position with a strong defense established on the hill, but Burnside’s orders were not clear and Major General Reynolds sent only his smallest division of 4500 men under Major General Meade to take Prospect Hill. Even though the Union penetrated the Confederate line in a weak swampy spot that was lightly manned, the Confederates rallied and held firm throughout the day. Meanwhile at Marye’s Heights, the Union army ran into a meat grinder. Throughout the day, the Union army sent division after division out across the open fields that had been the fairgrounds outside of Fredericksburg. First, they had to cross a canal that was 15 feet deep and crossed by only three narrow foot bridges. After reforming their ranks they had to charge uphill across open ground without any cover. All the time being hit from three directions with cannon fire. At the base of Marye’s Heights was the Telegraph Road, which was a sunken road with a waist high stone fence behind which the Confederates were lined up four deep. At 200 yards, they would rise up and shoot at point blank range into the surviving Union lines, at which point the surviving soldiers would either drop where they were to return fire or retreat back down the hill. This continued all day long with the Union sending division after division for a total of 14 separate charges costing 6000-8000 casualties against the 1200 casualties suffered by the Confederates. Nightfall ended the carnage. On December 14, both sides remained where they were and on December 15, Burnside withdrew back across the Rappahanock River. The Union suffered a horrible defeat losing 12,653 casualties versus the 5,377 lost by the Confederates and President Lincoln did not get his much needed victory before releasing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
1) The Visitor Center is located at Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, which is the best known location of this battle. This is the main Visitor Center for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. There is an excellent museum at the Visitor Center that has multiple rooms dedicated to different aspects of the battle. The first room focuses on the event leading up to the battle and the evacuation of the town prior to the crossing of Burnside. The next room focuses on the battle in 1862 itself and a third room on the aftermath of the battle. This last room is especially interesting as it includes artifacts that survived the looting of the town, for example, a piano that was left in the streets. There is also an excellent movie about the battle itself.
2) While we were at the Visitor Center we took advantage of a Ranger Walk down the Telegraph Road where a volunteer from Germany gave an excellent presentation about the battle from the perspective of the Confederate soldiers positioned behind the stone wall, of which a small original section still exists along with two attempts of reconstruction. From here you can see the few houses that provided a limited amount of protection to the Union, as well as, a slight dip or swale in the ground that was the extent of their cover. Of course, the residential houses built as Fredericksburg has expanded over the years limits the effect.
3) We also purchased the Driving Tour CD for the battlefield, which added a lot to our understanding of the battle. This tour differs from the regular driving tour taking you to some additional locations, but also in a different order that maintains the chronological order of the battle.
4) The driving tour begins with a look at two of the three locations for the pontoon bridges constructed by the Union army.
5) In between these two locations you cross the Rappahanock River to the Chatham house which was the Union Headquarters and hospital during the battle. This is a very famous house in its own right with formal gardens and wonderful architecture hosting many famous periods through the years including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, and Walt Whitman. There is also an 80% scale model of one section of a pontoon bridge with a detailed description. While this house is on a bluff on the north side of the river, you can understand on the problems faced by General Burnside as the town blocks most of the view of Marye’s Heights and you can’t see the action around Prospect Hill at all.
6) The driving tour then exits south of Fredericksburg to Prospect Hill along a road on the crest of the hill. Beginning at the east end you can still see the depressions where the cannon were placed. A short walk takes you to Hamilton Crossing along the railroad that for a short period of time at this time was the main supply base for the Confederate army.
7) The next stop is swampy area where the Union army achieved a temporary breakthrough the Confederates line before being forced back.
8) The final stop is at Lee’s Hill, which was the location of General Lee’s headquarters. After a short strenuous climb to the top of the hill you have the same view that Lee had during the battle, except for the trees that today block much of the view to the south. From here Lee could see the actions at both Marye’s Heights and Prospect Hill, which was a huge advantage. They had also mounted two huge Parrot rifle cannon on this and the adjoining Howison Hill that provided cross fire primarily against the Union charges on Marye’s Heights.
9) There are additional stops on the Driving Tour in and around Marye’s Heights, but since we had already seen most of this while we were at the Visitor Center, we decided to move on to the battle for Spotsylvania Courthouse.