When you walk the Fredericksburg battlefield, especially near the stone wall at the base of Mayre’s Heights (which is just beyond the National Park’s visitor’s center), there is an eerie feeling of tragedy mixed with bewilderment and awe. The battle that took place there in mid-December 1862 was the most one-sided major battle of the American Civil War. The ground in front of that stone wall is some of the most hallowed and mystifying ground in the United States: hallowed because of the bravery and courage of the men who fought and died there, mystifying because of the senseless slaughter caused by the folly of Union General Ambrose Burnside.
The slaughter at Fredericksburg followed on the heels of the even greater slaughter at Antietam on September 17, 1862, the bloodiest day in American history. At Antietam, which is considered a Union victory only because the Union held the field at the end of the battle, Union forces suffered 12,400 casualties, including 2,100 dead, while the totals for the Confederates were 10,320 casualties, with 1,550 dead (the numbers are approximate). At Fredericksburg, Union casualties totaled 12,653, with 1,284 dead, while the Confederates suffered 5,377 casualties, including 608 dead. And most of the casualties at Fredericksburg occurred at or near that stone wall.
Ambrose Burnside was named by President Lincoln to command the Army of the Potomac after the president relieved General George McClellan, whose poor generalship had led to missed Union opportunities near Richmond during the Seven Days Battles and during General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North when McClellan had a copy of Lee’s army’s dispositions and battle plans, and moved too slowly to take advantage of the divided and vulnerable Confederate army. Burnside would not make the same mistakes as McClellan; his folly would be in the opposite direction — Burnside at Fredericksburg threw caution to the wind and against the advice of several subordinate generals launched attack after attack on Confederate positions at the base of Mayre’s Heights.
General Lee, who knew the ground much better than Burnside did, set up strong defensive positions on a series of hills — Taylor’s Hill, Mayre’s Heights, Telegraph Hill, and Prospect Hill. On December 12, Union engineers, under Confederate sniper fire, deployed pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River as Union artillery pounded the town. After Union troops crossed the river and entered the town, Confederate forces delayed their advance by firing from buildings and structures and lobbing artillery shells from the heights.
Union forces gradually occupied the town and engaged in widespread looting and destruction of homes and businesses. Burnside ordered a frontal assault on Mayre’s Heights to begin the following day. Lee was content to wait for the Union attack which would have to cover 500 yards of mostly open ground bordered by a sunken road protected by that stone wall at the base of the hill. It was the strongest defensive position Lee ever enjoyed during the war, and he made the most of it.
If General Burnside could be forgiven for launching the initial attack on the morning of December 13, there can be no forgiveness for his subsequent decisions to continue feeding Union troops into the meat-grinder that was Mayre’s Heights. From after dawn that morning until shortly after dusk that evening, one Union regiment after another fell before the stone wall. Confederate artillery on the heights mangled Union soldiers’ bodies, severed limbs, inflicted devastating wounds that were often fatal. Those troops that got closer to the wall were mowed down by Confederate infantry who expertly used the shelter of the sunken road and stone wall to tear into approaching Union troops.
Burnside’s folly at Fredericksburg led to his removal from command and his replacement by General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who the following May lost the Battle of Chancellorsville in yet another devastating Union defeat.
Generals don’t always learn from failure. Burnside’s folly would be repeated by many other generals in the Civil War, including Lee, whose frontal assault on the third day at Gettysburg produced similar results, and General Ulysses S. Grant, who wasted Union soldiers’ lives by repeated assaults at entrenched Confederate positions at Cold Harbor. Fifty years later, British and French generals ordered suicidal assaults on an even greater scale involving hundreds of thousands of casualties during the First World War at the Somme, Verdun, Ypres, and other slaughter pens of the Western front.
The carnage of Fredericksburg was well-depicted in the 2003 film Gods and Generals and is well-described in George C. Rable’s prize-winning book Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). Watch the movie and read Rable’s book, then go visit the Fredericksburg battlefield and experience those eerie feelings of tragedy, bewilderment, and awe.