This Day In History: The Battle Of Fredericksburg Began (1862)

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On this day in 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg was fought. It began when the Union General Ambrose Burnside ordered a series of attacks on the Confederate army of General Robert E Lee.  The battle was a victory for the Confederates and is regarded as one of Lee’s great triumphs and was a seen at the time as a great Union defeat. It also dealt a blow to the morale of the Yankee army and many criticized Lincoln and blamed him for the defeat.

Burnside had taken command of the Yankee Army on the Potomac and this was arguably the key theater in the Civil War. He was given command of the army after the failures of George McClellan. McClellan was considered to have been too-cautious and he was widely blamed for not pursuing the Southern Army after the Battle of Antietam. Burnside made some bold claims when he assumed command and he declared to Lincoln that he planned to launch an attack that would capture Richmond, the capital of the South. As part of this plan, Burnside ordered the Army of the Potomac to take up a position near Fredericksburg, Northern Virginia. Here Burnside hoped to bring his army across the Rappahannock River and from there to march on Richmond.

At first, things went well for the Yankees. They advanced quickly to the river but then the problems began. The Union army had problems crossing the river, as a pontoon bridge took much longer to build than anticipated. This was to prove a fateful delay as it allowed Lee to gather his force and to take up defensive positions on Mayne’s Heights just above Fredericksburg. Lee placed his men in a sunken road that was protected by a stone wall. This was an excellent defensive position. The Confederates could fire down the heights from Mayne’s heights and were to an extent protected from Yankee fire.

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General Robert E Lee

Many senior officers did not want Burnside to order an attack on Lee’s position. Nevertheless, the Yankees were ordered to attack. Before the attack, Burnside had bombarded the Confederate positions. After a lethal barrage, Burnside believed that the Confederates would not be able to resist an attack.  The Union soldiers had to charge across 600 yards of open ground. The Confederates allowed them to approach within range of their rifles and then they opened fire. Countless, Union soldiers were mown down. They were unable to break through the Confederates lines and indeed it is estimated that not one Union soldiers got within 50-100 feet of Lee’s men behind the stone wall on Mayne’s Heights.  The Union army suffered appalling casualties and many of the wounded lay on the battlefield all night where many of them froze to death. Even Lee was appalled by the Union loss of life.

The Union army commander Burnside was not to be deterred and the next day he ordered another attack, despite the opposition of his junior officers. Once again the Union army was heavily defeated and their attack was once again heavily repulsed. On the following day, a truce was announced and the Union army collected their dead and wounded. The Yankee army had been dealt a terrible blow and they are estimated to have lost 12500 men, either killed or wounded. The Confederates only suffered 4000 casualties. The following January Burnside was fired as commander of the Army of the Potomac and was replaced by General J Hooker.

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