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Battle of Fredericksburg Destroyed Optimism

A Costly Battle Meant the Civil War Would Grind On


The Battle of Fredericksburg in mid-December 1862 was a major Confederate victory, but it wasn't so much a turning point in the Civil War as a gruesome confirmation that the war was going to be long and very costly.

As the second year of the war ended, widespread optimism that it could end early faded, and citizens on both sides steeled themselves for more bloodshed to come.

Antietam Horrified the Nation

Confederate dead at Antietam
Library of Congress

The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, shocked the nation. The Union Army, led by General George McClellan, successfully halted Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland, but at tremendous cost. Total casualties of both sides were more than 23,000 killed and wounded.

Alexander Gardner photographed the battlefield. His prints, when exhibited at Matthew Brady's New York City gallery a month later, shocked the public. These were the first photographs ever taken of Americans killed in combat. The New York Times commented:

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.

General McClellan Stalled

Lincoln and McClellan
Photograph by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress

In the days following the cataclysm at Antietam, Lee's army escaped across the Potomac River back into Virginia, and despite urging from President Lincoln, McClellan refused to give chase.

In early October, Lincoln traveled by train to western Maryland to pay a personal visit to General McClellan. Photographer Alexander Gardner photographed the two men conferring. There is no record of exactly what was said as the two men sat in McClellan's tent. But we do know that Lincoln's patience with McClellan was reaching its end.

McClellan Was Replaced With General Burnside

General Ambrose Burnside
Library of Congress

President Lincoln issued orders relieving McClellan of command on November 5, 1862. Desperate to find a general who would fight and defeat the Confederate Army, Lincoln appointed General Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Burnside had the reputation of being genial and honest, and his distinctive whiskers created something of a fashion. Indeed, his name, with the syllables humorously transposed, would enter the English language as "sideburns."

Burnside's fatal flaw was that he was a reluctant combat commander. At Antietam he spent the better part of a day getting his desperately needed Corps across a bridge spanning the Antietam Creek, and his inexplicable delays probably prevented the Union Army from claiming a smashing victory.

Burnside Devised a Plan

Attack on Fredericksburg
Library of Congress

General Burnside came up with a plan to attack the Confederate Army, which was gathered near Fredericksburg, Virginia. It involved crossing the Rappahannock River with pontoon bridges. There were infuriating delays, which gave Robert E. Lee time to make preparations.

The Union troops finally crossed the river and entered the town on December 11, 1862. The rebels were chased out of Fredericksburg, but they assembled in great force on the crests of hills behind the town.

On the hilltops, behind stone walls, Lee placed thousands of riflemen. Confederate artillery also targeted the hillsides, making them a virtual killing ground. One Confederate officer remarked, "A chicken could not live on that ground once we open up on it."

The News Looked Good In the North

Lincoln's Optimism Reported
New York Times, issue now in public domain

As the Union Army occupied the town of Fredericksburg, some observers took the developments as promising news. The New York Times, in a dispatch printed in the edition of December 13, 1862, reported the promising news that President Lincoln himself believed the war would soon be over.

What the people reading northern newspapers did not know was that the real battle had not yet happened.

Lee's army had let the Union troops take Fredericksburg, and from their fortified positions beyond the town, they waited to see if Burnside would commit to a frontal assault.

"It is well that war is so terrible..."

Wounded of Fredericksburg
Library of Congress

General Burnside ordered his massive army to attack the hills beyond Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. General Robert E. Lee was waiting, and his Confederates repulsed successive Union attacks.

The day turned into a horrendous slaughter. Rebel rifleman at the top of a hill called Marye's Heights kept cutting down waves of Union troops. As the sun finally set, dead and dying federal troops covered the long hillsides. The toll would not be as great as that of Antietam, but it was still staggering. On the Union side, more than 12,000 men were killed or wounded. The Confederates lost more than 5,000 killed or wounded.

"It is well that war is so terrible," Robert E. Lee said, surveying the slaughter. "We should grow too fond of it."

Heroism on Marye's Heights

69th Regiment Poster
Library of Congress

The Union Army's Irish Brigade, consisted of three regiments from New York and one from Massachusetts, made six ferocious assaults on the Confederate positions. Each time they were repulsed.

One official report said the Irish Brigade attacked at Fredericksburg with 94 officers and 1,223 enlisted men. By nightfall, 54 officers and 490 enlisted men had fallen.

An observer from the Times of London who harbored secessionist sympathies wrote, "after viewing the hillsides for acres strewn with their corpses, thick as autumnal leaves, the spectator can remember nothing but their desperate courage and regret that it was not exhibited in a holier cause."

Following Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade was nearly finished as a fighting unit.

An American Poet Reacted to the Horror

Walt Whitman 1860s
Library of Congress

As southerners rejoiced in the news of their army's victory at Fredericksburg, northerners spent a sad holiday season reading casualty reports.

In Brooklyn, the journalist and poet Walt Whitman was shattered to see the name of his brother George, a soldier in the 51st New York Regiment, on the list of Fredericksburg wounded in a New York newspaper.

Whitman left for Virginia, where was horrified to view a pile of amputated limbs at a field hospital.

He found his own brother, who had only been slightly wounded. Deeply affected by suffering he saw around him, Whitman began a new career as a volunteer army nurse and would spend the next few years tending to wounded troops.

His wartime experiences energized his writing, and the slaughter at Fredericksburg thus had an indirect effect on American literature.

"If there is a worse place than hell..."

Lincoln by Gardner
Library of Congress

Fredericksburg erased all northern hopes for an early end to the war. And when the wounded from the battle began arriving at hospitals in Washington, Abraham Lincoln visited the wards. Observers said Lincoln seemed to be in agony.

The governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin, visited the White House after visiting Fredericksburg and recalled Lincoln groaning, "What has God put me in this place for?"

A friend of Lincoln remembered him, in late December 1862, remarking, "If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it."

Lincoln knew all too well that the war would not end soon. And his apprehension was deserved, as bigger battles, such as Gettysburg seven months later, were yet to come.

A Sad New Year

Requiem Mass at St. Patrick's
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, Library of Congress

Politicians and newspaper editors engaged in fierce debate about the Lincoln administration's conduct of the war. And throughout the nation, people buried the dead from Fredericksburg.

On the morning of January 16, 1863, a grand requiem mass was held for the dead of the Irish Brigade at the old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street in New York City.

The mass for the Irish Brigade dead was a spectacular event and received widespread press coverage, including a lengthy report in the next day's New York Times.

As 1863 began, the nation knew it was involved in a very bloody war that would grind on for a long time. The optimism of a month earlier had been shattered.

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