“…nothing in war can exceed the horror of that hour.” The Bombardment and Looting of Fredericksburg, Part 1

First in a series

Panorama view of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

For my next post I was planning to discuss the Second Battle of Fredericksburg and its impact on Lee’s decision’s during the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. As I was preparing the material a close friend emailed with a report from Fredericksburg of the damage that was inflicted by the earthquake this week. So instead I changed gears and decided to write on the bombardment, street fighting and looting of Fredericksburg in December 1862. To make it manageable, we will explore these aspects of the battle in five separate posts. This first post is a background on the campaign. The next post will discuss the City of Fredericksburg itself and Burnside’s ill-fated crossing of the Rappahannock River. The third will discuss the bombardment and its impact on the armies, city and the high commands. The fourth will discuss the intense street fighting and its larger impact on the campaign. The fifth and final post will discuss the looting, the impact of the battle as a whole on the city and where the blame for the Union fiasco should fall.

The bombardment and looting of Fredericksburg are often overlooked aspects of the Fredericksburg Campaign. Those most familiar with the battle focus on the action at Marye’s Heights, the vapidity of Major General Ambrose Burnside and the horrific losses inflicted on the Army of the Potomac. This focus normally revolves around December 13, the date of the major action. Unfortunately for the men thrust upon Marye’s Heights, the battle had already been lost in two key places for the Federal Army.

The first key position was along the banks of the Rappahannock River on December 11, 1862. The second key position was at Prospect Hill on the southern end of the battlefield on December 13 (this sector will be covered at a later date, not associated with these current posts). Opportunities and time were lost in both sectors on both days of the battle, costing Burnside and the Union war effort their winter campaign in the east.

The position along the Rappahannock River that we will explore in-depth was a position that should never have been held by the Confederates or even contested at all. According to Burnside’s plan, there was never to be a battle at Fredericksburg. Due to a combination of factors in Washington and on the north and south bank of the Rappahannock River, Confederate infantry were allowed to take position in-force. It is my contention that the actions of all parties involved, Burnside, the Lincoln administration and especially those of the Confederates spelled doom for the small city, and that the blame should not rest squarely on Burnside’s shoulders only, as popular history suggests.


Major General Ambrose Burnside

Campaign Background:

November 7, 1862 brought a transition to the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln removed the beloved and slothful Major General George McClellan of command and replaced McClellan with his close friend Ambrose Burnside.

In November of 1862, the Army of the Potomac was in a better place than the army that had crossed the Potomac into Maryland to fight at Antietam a couple of months earlier. This army was rested, and manpower was swelling due to the influx of 9-month regiments during and following the “crisis of 1862”. Yet McClellan had positioned his army around Warrenton, Virginia, doing little more than keeping a somewhat watchful eye on General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and protecting Washington from an offensive that was not forthcoming.

With the replacement of McClellan with Burnside, Lincoln hoped to breathe new life into the Army of the Potomac with a new and aggressive commander. Burnside was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a veteran of the old army and a failure as an antebellum business man. Burnside had headed a brigade at First Manassas and led aggressive amphibious operations against the North Carolina Coast.  He had commanded, for a time, a wing of McClellan’s army during the Antietam Campaign, but he was best known as the commander of 9th Army Corps.

Lincoln hoped that Burnside possessed a fire that McClellan lacked. Upon assuming command Burnside met with his old friend George McClellan and learned the dispositions of the army. Burnside also learned of supply problems and of a proposed offensive which McClellan had conjured up, but never came to fruition. After three days of meetings and goodbyes, McClellan left the Army of the Potomac for the final time.

Following the departure of his predecessor, Burnside set off for Washington and met with Lincoln and General-in-Chief Major General Henry Halleck. Derisively nicknamed “Old Brains”, Halleck was to cost many an officer his job, and in this case Halleck would help cost Burnside the campaign.

"Old Brains" Major General Henry Halleck

Burnside laid out a simple plan to draw Lee’s army out and into a fight. Speed was the key to the plan for two major reasons. First and foremost, the weather could change from fall to winter at any moment. Second, Lincoln wanted a victory before January 1, 1863. On said date Lincoln intended to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and he desperately needed a victory to earn more northern support and to give the bill some backbone.

To draw Lee into battle Burnside decided to threaten Richmond. The Union commander felt the fastest way to Richmond would be through Fredericksburg. Burnside did not intend to fight at Fredericksburg. What he hoped to do was swing three-quarters of his army south to Fredericksburg, seize the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad (RF&P) as well as both the Telegraph Road (known today as the Sunken Road) and the Richmond Highway (also known as the Bowling Green Road). From Fredericksburg the Army of the Potomac would then move south along these parallel roads towards Richmond, while using the RF&P to supply the army. Fredericksburg could be used as a base of operations, supply post and evacuation point for wounded. The Rappahannock River, if cleared of enemy fortifications, could be used to bring supplies to the city; Aquia Harbor, which was 15 miles north of the city and the northern terminus of the RF&P, could also be used for this purpose.

There was a major problem with Burnside’s plan however. The three bridges spanning the Rappahannock – the Falmouth Bridge, William Street Bridge (also known as the Chatham Bridge) and the Railroad Bridge – had all been destroyed by the Confederates in the spring of 1862.   Burnside was aware of this and even before embarking on the campaign had made preparations with Halleck to have pontoon bridges awaiting the army’s arrival at Fredericksburg.

(As a side note, the use of pontoon bridge dates back to ancient warfare. In the middle 19thcentury pontoon bridges were made from flat bottom, flat nosed buoyant boats, turned sideways in the river and anchored side by side. An engineer team then ran long runners across the boats, then wood planking for the deck, then another set of runners on the top. Everything was roped together and no nails were used. If you had to exit the area quickly you could simply chop the ropes with an axe and float to safety.)

Pontoon boats on wagons.

On November 14 Lincoln gave the green light on the campaign. Halleck urged his subordinate to move quickly, and Burnside did just that. He had his army on the road on November 15. Even though the march towards Fredericksburg was marred by rain showers and muddy roads, the army traversed the 40 or so miles at a fast pace. By November 17th the lead elements of Major General Darius Couch’s 2nd Corps was overlooking the city from the northern and western bank of the Rappahannock River. There were less than 1,000 Confederates in and around the city itself. In reality all that Burnside would have had to do next was construct the pontoon bridges and cross the city, run off the small Confederate force and move toward their next objective, saving the sleepy city from destruction, but this was not to be.

Halleck had not held up his end of the bargain and had neglected to issue the necessary orders to move the bridging materials toward Fredericksburg until November 17, the day Burnside’s men arrived. Moving the bridges from Harpers Ferry, Virginia (modern-day West Virginia) and Berlin, Maryland was a comedy of errors. Not only had Halleck’s orders came far too late, but there were not enough specialized wagons to carry the boats. When they did have the wagons there were the 400 unbroken mules to deal with. Some engineers tried to strap the boats together, in the form of a small barge and float the boats down the Potomac River, but low tide conditions hung the barges up on sandbars.

Not until ten days after the arrival of Burnside’s army did enough of the bridging materials arrive to allow the Union army to cross the Rappahannock. Unfortunately in those ten days Burnside could do little more than scout for possible crossing points while the bulk of his army sat waiting. Halleck and his staff were grossly negligent in getting the commanding general and his army what they needed. This is just one example of a botched campaign that lay at Halleck’s feet. Fortunately for the Southern war effort Halleck remained in a position to bungle and thwart Lincoln’s plans until his power was finally usurped by Grant in 1864.

In the ten days that it took the pontoon bridges to arrive Confederates began to appear in force around Fredericksburg. They had initially looked to defend the North Anna River, 25 miles south of Fredericksburg; the speed and daringness of Burnside caught them off guard. But once Lee realized his foe was stuck he dispatched Lieutenant General James Longstreet with his 40,000 man First Corps from the Culpepper area to Fredericksburg. Longstreet initially hid behind Marye’s Heights, but showed himself in due time. His men held the Telegraph Road and Longstreet’s cannon commanded the city, railroad and Bowling Green Road. Burnside’s most direct route to Richmond was blocked, though he did succeed in drawing Lee out for a fight.

Burnside did not sit idly by as he scouted up and down river for possible crossing points. There were many fordable points up river, but most were picketed by southern horsemen and infantry. Burnside also worried that if he did ford the river before the bridges arrived, that rains would come and the river could rise and strand portions of his army on the Confederate side, making them easy targets for his adversary.

Down river he looked at crossing at Port Royal, Virginia. Crossing here also gave access to roads leading to the Confederate capital. But shifting his army the 30 miles would again put him in mother nature’s hands and force Burnside to shift his base of operations, not to mention that again the crossing points were covered by southern infantry.

Therefore Burnside still felt that crossing at Fredericksburg would be his best option. He felt that it would surprise the enemy as much as crossing anywhere else would. Unfortunately, Lee had a few surprises of his own. © 2011 Emerging Civil War

Authored by Kristopher D White

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Leadership--Federal and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to “…nothing in war can exceed the horror of that hour.” The Bombardment and Looting of Fredericksburg, Part 1

  1. B Mackay says:

    Another excellent post and a great read. Thanks so much for bringing this to life! Allof these posts and all of the research has been outstanding and a real pleasure to read and learn from. I look forward to part 2 and on.

    • Kris says:

      Berry and B,
      Thanks for the great feedback. We are really excited about the blog. We hope to keep it up. I think you will find some of the finer details of the bombardment interesting. I hope to tell some stories that really haven’t seen the light of day in a while. Doesn’t hurt to that my mentor is the expert on the battle. I had the opportunity to learn from the best. He shared some great resources with me over the years. Hope to have my next post up Tuesday or Wed.

  2. Berry Fitzhugh says:

    I am enjoying a fresh, realistic approach to old situations.I do not believe that I have read before Hallack ‘s part in this defeat!
    Berry Fitzhugh

    • Kris says:

      Berry and B,
      Thanks for the great feedback. We are really excited about the blog. We hope to keep it up. I think you will find some of the finer details of the bombardment interesting. I hope to tell some stories that really haven’t seen the light of day in a while. Doesn’t hurt to that my mentor is the expert on the battle. I had the opportunity to learn from the best. He shared some great resources with me over the years.

  3. cc2001 says:

    So fascinating! Will be travelling there in a few weeks on a Civil War road trip and you have given me much food for thought. I look forward to further posts.

  4. Johannes Allert says:

    Kristopher –

    Thank you for providing an aspect to Fredricksburg not previously covered. Up until now, I believed Burnside held the monopoly on the Fredericksburg disaster. Thanks for shedding new light on the complexities of the battle. Keep up the excellent work!

    • That is something that I ran into at the park all of the time. It was very easy to blame the commander alone. Burnside is to blame, but he is not the only one. The fault does not rest solely on his shoulders. He really takes the loss on the chin in many ways. I will explore that in future posts.

      I hope to have the next post up around Wed. Really glad you have enjoyed the first one. The story only gets better as more of the players become involved. There is a breakdown in the Union chain of command, I will talk about in the street fighting. On the Confederate side there is in-fighting. Good stuff to explore, I think.

  5. Knoxtales says:

    Great read and many great posts at the blog so far. I will look forward for next exciting articles. Thanks so much for the efforts, guys!

  6. Pingback: “…nothing in war can exceed the horror of that hour.” The Bombardment and Looting of Fredericksburg, Part 2 | Emerging Civil War

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