Commentary from the Bookshelves: Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Mark Harnitchek….

George Rable opens Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! with a vignette illustrating the often-vast distinction between history and memory.  At Gettysburg, Union troops screamed “Fredericksburg!” as they blasted attacking Confederates during Pickett’s Charge.  For these soldiers, Fredericksburg was an ever-present and vivid memory of the battle they fought the previous December. Historians, on the other hand, Rable argues, have given the scholarship on Fredericksburg short-shrift. Viewed as either a postscript to Antietam or the preamble to Lee’s signature victory at Chancellorsville, Rable suggests that historians have relegated Fredericksburg to the category of “a large, costly, but not particularly important battle.” Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! fills this historiographical “hole” with a big, exhaustively researched book.  

Rable organizes his work around the idea of portraying military events not in isolation, but in their larger societal, economic, cultural and political context.   The book, therefore, is much more than just the succession of operational and tactical military events that culminated in a December 1862 battle.  Describing his work as a composite of both “old” and “new” military history, the author blends material and operational military details with the social and cultural experiences of generals, junior officers, privates, politicians and civilians.   Here, Rable breaks with traditional battle narratives and argues that gaining a complete understanding of a battle, any battle, requires “looking at (and mixing) both sides of the equation (and) blending the everyday, the spectacular, the mundane and the sublime.” 

This approach allows Rable to recount not only the traditional “what happened” but also the more expansive, less prescriptive, and more relevant analysis of “why it happened.”  Here the reader is treated to understanding what motivated soldiers to fight; what role religion played; how did Civil War armies sustain themselves — food, uniforms, mail, medical care, et al — and, how did politics and public opinion shape the course of events.   Rable’s “old” and “new” military history provides important insights about the Civil War beyond the deeds of the great battle captains and the armies they commanded.  

In his opening chapter, Rable sets the conditions for the battle with the political and military events in the late fall of 1862.  President Lincoln, habitually unsatisfied with his current war chief, General George McClellan, and stung by key Republican election losses, replaced McClellan with a reluctant Major General Ambrose Burnside.  The author also introduces two important notions.  The first is that military campaigns were neither conceived nor executed without powerful political impetus and public pressure.  For example, one Republican weekly loudly applauded Lincoln’s decision and proclaimed that while McClellan would “dig and wait,” Burnside would “fight and win.”  Burnside would feel this pressure throughout the campaign.

The second notion was that the Army of the Potomac was both a military and political institution, and its general officers – previously Burnside’s peers and seniors – each brought a unique set of biases, military know-how and varying degrees of loyalty to their new commanding general.   Political pressure and the actions of these senior officers during and after the battle played a key role in the outcome of the Fredericksburg campaign.

With the stage set, Rable continues the narrative in 24 short chapters that are equal parts campaign chronology, experience of the common soldier, Washington politics, and battle narrative.  These chapters shine as Rable’s vast array of primary sources show how “bloody combat occurred in the context of … generals plans and privates fears … (and) everyday matters such shelter, clothing, food and pay.”    Rable vividly describes the poor state of soldier’s uniforms, the “shoddy” quality or absence of shoes, the lack of food and the chilling cold of an early winter.  The horror of the battle itself – river crossings, urban combat, artillery duels and infantry contests — are equally powerful as Minie` balls and shrapnel killed and maimed thousands on both sides. 

If the book has a misfire, it is the shallow analysis of why the Army of the Potomac’s leadership failed at Fredericksburg.  Burnside is described as being “in a physical and mental fog,” and “deaf to advice.”  Hooker’s equally lackluster performance is dismissed as “ungentlemanly and unpatriotic.”  Finally, Franklin’s glaring failure to exploit a potentially battle winning breakthrough on the Confederate right is attributed to “vague orders” and his lack of “imagination or aggressiveness.”  In a work of this length and depth, the reader might expect a more expansive treatment of the army’s uninspiring leadership. 

However, given the strength of Rable’s fusion of “the mundane, the horrific and the transcendent,” this shortcoming is a minor one in an otherwise brilliantly conceived and powerfully written work about the “nadir of the Army of the Potomac.   His strategy to combine the old with the new has, for this reader, yielded the author’s intended fuller understanding of the battle.  Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! is much needed and welcome addition to the pantheon of the Civil War battle narratives.   

Mark Harnitchek retired from the military after 38 years of service and recently retired again from the aerospace industry.  He is currently a full-time Civil War history buff and just completed his MA in American History at George Mason University.  

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