This week in history: Fredericksburg highlighted Burnside's poor leadership

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Dec. 12 2013 5:35 p.m. MST

Union army, under General Ambrose Everett Burnside, crosses the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges during the attack on Fredericksburg, Virginia depicted in this undated rendering by combat artist Frank Schell.

Frank Schell, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

On Dec. 13, 1862, the Union cause was dealt a crushing blow with the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg. The defeat dashed Union hopes of taking Richmond and resulted in appalling losses for the Northern army.

President Abraham Lincoln had fired the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, after the officer's failure to destroy Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. On Nov. 7, he selected Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to replace him.

Burnside had been a graduate of West Point, though had left the army to pursue a career in weapons manufacturing. Burnside had returned to the army at the beginning of the Civil War and soon rose to various commands. At Antietam, he commanded a corps fielding roughly 20,000 men. He was also known for wearing distinctive facial hair down the sides of his face, and soon after, the style became known as “sideburns.”

Lincoln charged Burnside to do what McClellan had attempted earlier that year but could not: capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. To that end, Burnside began to plan an operation with Henry W. Halleck, general-in-chief of the Union Army. The plan called for the Army of the Potomac to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, then head due south toward Richmond. The operation was planned for mid-November.

Meanwhile, Lee prepared to meet the expected Union blow. Upon hearing the news that McClellan was relieved of his command, the Southern general expressed regret to James Longstreet, one of his corps commanders: “We always understood each other so well. I fear (leaders) may continue to make changes till they find someone whom I don't understand.”

Burnside, who had admitted he was not up to the task of commanding the Army of the Potomac, soon proved himself correct. Though Lincoln had advocated swiftness in the operation, Burnside took his time, waiting for pontoon bridges and other equipment before launching his attack. By the time he was ready, Lee's army had fortified Marye's Heights, a ridge about a half mile to the southwest of the town.

The push into the town of Fredericksburg began on Dec. 11. In his book “Battle Cry of Freedom,” historian James M. McPherson described the crossing:

“In the pre-dawn darkness of Dec. 11, Union engineers began laying three pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg and three more a couple of miles downstream. Covered by artillery, the downstream bridge-builders did their job without trouble. But in Fredericksburg, a brigade of Mississippians firing from buildings and rifle pits picked off the engineers as soon as it became light enough to see.”

Burnside's cannons let loose, and soon much of the city was destroyed. Confederate snipers made use of the rubble, however, and continued to harass the advancing army. The next two days saw Union soldiers clearing the city before the advance against Marye's Heights could begin.

On Dec. 13, the Army of the Potomac advanced against Lee's position on the heights. Lee had done his job well. The ridge was well-fortified, with a lateral road behind the Confederate line. To the south, Lee had deployed Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, arguably his best corps commander, to meet elements of Burnside's army there.

Indeed, Burnside had hoped to turn Lee's right flank to the south while the frontal attack from Fredericksburg pinned him in place. With Gen. William B. Franklin commanding the Union left, the boys in blue hit Jackson's troops.

McPherson again: “These Federals soon assaulted Jackson's position on Prospect Hill. A division of Pennsylvanians commanded by George Gordon Meade (later victor of Gettysburg) found a seam in Jackson's line along a wooded ravine and penetrated the Confederate defenses. Here was a potential breakthrough if supporting troops were thrown in — but Franklin failed to throw them in.”

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