Question of the Week: December 2, 2012

Who is to blame for the Union defeat at Fredericksburg: Halleck, Lincoln or Burnside?

Attack on Marye's Hights

Attack on Marye’s Heights

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24 Responses to Question of the Week: December 2, 2012

  1. Eric Hedden says:

    Ambrose Burnside. He was the worst general on either side, and he caused the unnecessary deaths of many brave Americans.

    • Ted says:

      That seems a bit harsh considering the competition. Burnside was out of his depths as an army commander, but he was mostly competent, though not spectacular, with smaller units. He did quite well in North Carolina and Tennessee, for instance.

    • It’s so easy to malign Burnside because he was so spectacularly mediocre. However, he had a solid plan under politically stressful conditions.

  2. Lincoln for putting enough pressure on Burnside to force him to got through with the battle, Franklin for messing up Prospect Hill, and that lovely Fog of War for generally messing things up.

  3. mende says:


  4. Robert E. Lee

    • Meg Thompson says:

      You beat me to it–yep–he was the person to blame. His strategy was superior, his choice of ground was better, and he fought his army superbly.

      • Eric Hedden says:

        That’s not fair! You might as well blame Lee for Grant sending all those men to their death at Cold Harbor.

      • mende says:

        I do agree

      • Ted says:

        I don’t know how much credit Lee deserves for Fredericksburg. He was slow to respond to Burnside’s advance, and failed to coordinate his corps’ arrival – there was a week in between Longstreet and Jackson arriving. If Burnside had been more aggressive, he could have gotten across the river and defeated the AoNV in detail.

        As for Lee’s superior strategy, it doesn’t really take a tactical genius to come up with a plan to dig in behind cover on the high ground and shoot anyone wearing blue.

  5. Amanda Warren says:

    From what I understand, it was a joint creation of all three. Under the principle that the top dog bears the ultimate responsibility, I guess that Lincoln gets the blame.

  6. Eric Hedden says:

    Amanda mentions the principle “top dog gets the blame” – what if there’s a ridiculous, low-budget video involved?

    • Meg Thompson says:

      ummm–Grant chose NOT to send in men earlier, claiming there would be too much loss of life. Then he turns around & commits to a frontal assault at Cold Harbor (Cool Arbor!). So I have no idea–he could have entrenched . . .

      Links to this video? I will trade for a link to the text from Big Brother–the Civil War Episodes.

  7. severalfourmany says:

    I always thought Hardie, Franklin and Burnside should all share the blame. If the three of them could have worked out their communication problems it just might have worked.

  8. Ted says:

    Burnside. Even he knew that he shouldn’t lead an army, but he attempted to do so anyways. He failed to ensure that the pontoon bridges would be in place; once they finally arrived, Burnside took his time putting them in place, giving Lee more than enough time to dig in. To compound the error, Burnside ordered piecemeal attacks spread out over the line rather than one strong thrust that might have overwhelmed defenses. He failed to coordinate the attacks adequately, and generally proved himself correct in saying that he was incompetent to command an army.

  9. Halleck. Hands down. That’s not to say Burnside might have gotten to Richmond so easily. I think he’d have zipped through Fredericksburg had his pontoons been there–but then he might just as easily lost a battle somewhere else (like the North Anna, for instance, where he seemed to have trouble enough a year and a half later, anyway).

    • This was Franklin’s take on the campaign. “The moral I wish to draw from Halleck’s prevarication is, that the administration intended that Burnside should move forward at any cost, and did not care how many lives were lost, or what good were done only so that there was a fight. In other words it was determined to pander to the radical thirst for blood which has lately been so rife.”

  10. Phil Ridderhof says:

    Isn’t the fascinating thing about war is that you can’t assign blame or credit to one side? A decision or action can only be considered a mistake when the enemy’s action renders it a mistake.
    I’ve read Frank O’Reilly’s excellent history some years ago, but leading up to the sesquicentennial, I finally picked up a short book I inherited, “Fiasco at Fredericksburg” by Vorin Whan (1961). What this book seemed to highlight was how certain decisions, or combinations of decisions, either opened options, or closed them. Lincoln and Halleck’s actions seemed to close off options for Burnside, while his subsequent decisions proceeded to close off options until he was left with either a brutal frontal attack or admitting failure and withdrawal. Lee, on the other side, was able to keep options open, almost throughout the campaign.
    Looking forward to picking up “Simply Murder”.

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