Meeting of February 26, 2013

Alan Sissenwein on “The Battle at Fredericksburg, Part 2”

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside

Alan concluded his two-part presentation, covering the main portion of the 1862 battle and its aftermath.

Meeting Minutes February 2013

Tom Roza wrote the following summary.

Alan Sissenwein conducted the second of a two-part presentation on the Battle at Fredericksburg.  Part 1 had covered all the activities up thru December 12, 1862; Part 2 covered the main portion of the battle and its aftermath.

Union and Confederate Troop Movements

Union engineers finally succeeded in building three pontoon bridge structures over the Rappahannock River: one north of the town of Fredericksburg; one directly across from the town; the third to the south of the town.  Burnside ordered his 3 grand divisions to start crossing over the bridges.  Sumner’s grand division used the northern most pontoon bridge; Hooker’s the center; Franklin’s grand division the southern bridge.

The delay in getting the pontoon bridges built gave General Lee the opportunity to form a strong line along a line of ridges and hills west of Fredericksburg.  The delay also allowed Stonewall Jackson enough time to force march his Corp from the Shenandoah Valley and position his troops to form the right flank of the Confederate line; General Longstreet’s Corp formed the left flank.  Lee made the decision to form his defensive line west of Fredericksburg because placing his troops in the town and along the Rappahannock River would expose them to heavy Union artillery fire from Stafford Heights.

Battle on the on the Southern Front

On December 12, Union artillery had destroyed most of Fredericksburg and drove out the Confederate troops.  General Howard’s Union division was the first to enter the town and many of the troops went on a looting spree going thru the abandoned and destroyed buildings taking whatever they could.

To the south, Franklin positioned his Grand Division on the open fields on the west side of the Rappahannock River.  The VI Corp was on the right; the I Corp on the left; and the III Corp was in reserve.  Franklin ordered his I Corp under the command of General Reynolds to start the attack on the Stonewall Jackson’s line.  Union General Meade targeted his attack on a 600 yard gap in the Confederate line.  The reason for this gap was that it contained marsh land that the Rebels thought would not support attacking troops; so they left it unguarded.

Meade punched through this gap and sent troops to the north against AP Hills troops and to the south to attack Confederate troops on Prospect Hill.  The Union had the upper hand until the Confederates brought up reserves to plug the gap and push back the Union troops.  Meade appealed to General Franklin to send up reserves from either the VI Corp or III Corps.  But, Franklin acted cautiously, especially when he saw massed Confederate forces moving towards his left flank after they had repulsed the Union attack on Prospect Hill.  With no reinforcements, Meade was forced to fall back and the breakthrough was ended.  Franklin was able to stop the Confederate assault inflicting heavy casualties on Jackson’s troops.

Battle on the on the Northern Front

While the battle raged in the south, Sumner was moving his Grand Division over the river and aligning them for a frontal attack on Marye’s Height’s.  His division under General French was first in line for the attack.  The troops had to cross a mill race which delayed their attack while exposing them to withering fire from Confederate troops on Marye’s Heights who were massed behind a stone wall and taking advantage of a sunken road for additional protection.

French’s troops made the attack and suffered massive casualties and were stopped.  Next in line was the Division of General Hancock who attacked over the same front as French’s troops and suffered the same fate.  General Couch, who commanded the Corp that French and Hancock belonged to could not determine what was happening because a thick layer of smoke from the battlefield obscured his view.  He decided to climb into the second story of a building positioned on the east side of where his troops had attacked.  Couch was appalled at the sight of thousands of his troops lying dead or wounded on the slopes leading up to Marye’s Heights.

Under orders from Sumner to continue the attack, Couch took his last division under General Howard and had them first move north, and then west to attack the Confederate line along the sunken road from the northeast.  This attack also failed with heavy casualties.

Final Action

Despite the failures on both of his flanks and suffering massive casualties, Burnside stubbornly use the same failed attack strategy.  First, he ordered General Franklin to renew the attack on his front against stonewall Jackson.  Franklin flat out ignored the order and remained in his lines.  Then, Burnside ordered Hooker’s Grand Division to continue the attack on Marye’s Heights. Hooker had been paying attention to what was going on, and before acting on the order, conducted a reconnaissance of the battlefield in front of Marye’s Heights and quickly concluded conducting any further attacks would be suicide.  Hooker went back to Burnside and told him the attack should not be carried out.

Hooker could not convince Burnside to call off the attack on Marye’s Heights.  But instead of attacking from the front as Couch had done, Hooker attacked more to the south and got close to the Confederate line.  But, in the end, because the Confederates held the high ground and stronger position, Hooker’s attack was also repulsed.

Union Withdrawal

During the evening of December 13, Burnside held a command meeting where he laid the blame for the failed assaults on his subordinates.  However, none them accepted that blame and instead argued that Burnside’s overall strategy was the cause for the failed attacks and heavy losses.  In response to these allegations, Burnside made a decision that on the morning of December 14 he would personally lead his IX Corps which he once commanded in a final attack on Marye’s Heights.  However, the common sense of his generals prevailed and they convinced Burnside to give up that idea,

During December 14, a truce was declared to allow both armies to attend to the wounded. On December 15, moved his army back over to the east side of the Rappahannock river.  Under a cover of a heavy thunderstorm, Burnside then moved his army further away from Fredericksburg.

Casualties from the one-day battle were massive:  The Union army had over 12,600 casualties of which almost 1300 were killed.  The Confederates army had just over 5300 casualties with only about 600 killed.  Most of these losses occurred on Stonewall Jackson’s front where he did not have the same geographic advantage that Longstreet’s troops had on Marye’s Heights.