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

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Dec. 12 2013 5:42 p.m. MST

Because of Franklin's timidity, Jackson was able to hold, then counterattack. Only powerful Union artillery prevented Jackson from completely pushing the Union left back to the river. It was after this near-run thing that Lee famously stated, “It is well that war is so terrible — we should grow too fond of it.”

The real horror of Dec. 13, however, occurred at the attack's frontal assault on the heights. Just in front of the ridge, mercifully blessing the Confederate soldiers, ran a stone wall, a perfect barricade to protect them against the Union attack. In his book “The Civil War: A History,” historian Harry Hansen wrote:

“Dashing forward in full view of the Confederate batteries, the blue-clad troops rushed forward with hardly a sound. The Confederate guns opened upon them and men dropped right and left from shellfire and musketry. As one attack succeeded another, the men in the following lines moved past hundreds of the fallen comrades, tried desperately to reach the wall and either fell in their tracks or ran wildly to get out of the deadly hail. … As one artillery officer said, a chicken would not have been able to live on that field.”

In all, there were six assaults upon the stone wall, and none was able to reach the Confederate lines before being cut down by the murderous fire.

That evening, with his men still on the field, pinned by Confederate fire and piling their dead comrades around them for protection, Burnside considered leading a final thrust with the IX Corps, his old unit. After consulting with his generals the next day, however, Burnside realized the futility of another charge. Instead, Burnside asked Lee for a truce in which to bury the dead and collect the wounded. The Confederate commander agreed.

After pulling his troops back, Burnside prepared for another attack against Lee in the coming weeks. The January cold and rain proved too much for his men to bear, and no one was eager to repeat the failure of Dec. 13, least of all Burnside. When his men began to grumble at his leadership, he demanded they be court-martialed or Lincoln accept his resignation. Thoroughly unimpressed with Burnside's leadership, Lincoln fired Burnside toward the end of January.

The Battle of Fredericksburg illustrated horribly the futility and savagery of waves of infantry sent against prepared positions with modern weapons. It was a grim foreshadowing of events to come in the war and a lesson never learned by Europe's military leaders prior to the butchery of World War I 50 years later. All told, the Union army lost nearly 13,000 men, while the Confederates suffered only approximately 5,000.

For what occurred at Fredericksburg and in his subsequent service in the war, Ambrose Burnside is considered by many to be among the worst of the Civil War generals. This did not prevent him from a successful post-war political career, however. Burnside served as a Rhode Island senator and governor.

The summer after Fredericksburg, during the desperate fighting at Gettysburg, it was the Confederates' turn to make an infantry assault against prepared positions. When Pickett's charge failed on July 3, 1863, the Union soldiers yelled in defiance, “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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