Alan Sissenwein on “The Battle at Fredericksburg, Part 1”
Tom Roza provided the following meeting summary.
Alan Sissenwein conducted the first of a two-part presentation on the Battle at Fredericksburg. Part 1 covered all the activities up thru December 12, 1862; Part 2 at the February 26, 2013, meeting will cover the main portion of the battle and its aftermath.
Selection of General Ambrose E. Burnside as Union Commander
President Lincoln was dissatisfied with the performance of both General John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run and General George McClellan in his failure to follow-up after Confederate forces following the Battle of Antietam. Lincoln selected General Ambrose E. Burnside primarily on the strength of his minor victories in along the North Carolina coast.
Union Battle Strategy
General Burnside planned to take advantage of Confederate forces being split with Lee in central Virginia and Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley by crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg and then moving swiftly towards Richmond. Burnside ordered ample quantities of supplies and pontoon boats and directed that they be delivered to Falmouth, VA across from Fredericksburg. Burnside had reorganized the Army of the Potomac into three Grand divisions under the belief this would make the army more effective in battle.
Failure of Union Battle Strategy
Burnside got his troops moving on time and positioned them across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg well before General Robert E. Lee realized what the Union forces were doing. There was only a token Rebel force in Fredericksburg in early December when the advance units of the Union Army began to arrive. But, delays caused by weather and bad planning in delivering the supplies and pontoon bridges prevented the Union forces from crossing the river.
By the time the pontoon bridges had arrived, Lee had already begun to move troops to Fredericksburg and Jackson was on the move from the Shenandoah Valley to join the remainder of Lee’s troops. With just a small portion of his army in place, Lee fought an effective delaying battle preventing the Union Army from crossing the Rappahannock and allowing time for Jackson to get into position on the right side of the Confederate positions at Fredericksburg.
Initial Union Maneuvers
When the pontoon boats finally arrived, Burnside ordered them built. But Confederate troops stationed in Fredericksburg effectively stymied this effort. Burnside attempted to conduct a flanking crossing of the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg at a location named Sinker’s Creek. However, Lee was able to position enough troops so that the river crossing attempt failed.
Burnside ordered three pontoon bridges be built across the Rappahannock River: one directly across from the town; one to the north, the other to the south. Because Rebel sharpshooters, using the protection of the buildings in Fredericksburg were effective in preventing the Union engineers from building the pontoon bridges, Burnside lined up 140 artillery guns on Strafford Heights and ordered a huge bombardment of Fredericksburg to force the Confederates out of the town. This tactic worked, but Burnside was vilified for shelling a town full of civilians.
By December 11, the Union engineers had succeeded in building the three pontoon bridges and Burnside ordered his troops to cross. There was heavy street fighting in Fredericksburg as Union troops cleared the town of Confederates. Burnside used the remainder of December 11 and 12 to position his troops and plan his attacks.