The Union army suffered several humiliating setbacks at the hands of Robert E. Lee. Lee decided to invade the North, but General George McClellan blunted the strike at Antietam. However, McClellan did not follow up allowing Lee to escape to the South. An enraged President Abraham Lincoln replaced McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside and directed the new commanding officer to annihilate Lee. Burnside attacked a heavily fortified position at Fredericksburg, Virginia in December 1962. The assault resulted in massive Union casualties, a humiliating defeat, and Burnside’s sacking.
General Burnside developed a reputation as an able commander. However, he worried about his ability to run the entire army. Lincoln and his chief-of-staff Henry Halleck directed Burnside to take the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Burnside hoped to confuse Lee with a faint and then dart to Fredericksburg and captured the railroad there. However, Lee had the uncanny ability to read his opponents and Burnside’s plan unraveled almost at the beginning.
The Union force began its march on November 15, but the pontoon bridges he ordered did not arrive due to bureaucratic bungling. Lee correctly guessed Burnside’s movements, but saw how slow the Union moved. As a result, the Confederates moved to Fredericksburg and dug in while the northerners plodded their way to their target.
Burnside finally crossed the Rappahannock River on December 11 and 12. Rebel sharpshooters made the crossing difficult. Union artillery failed to dislodge them, so infantry units were dispatched and eliminated the threat. However, Burnside moved slowly to counter the snipers and the two sides skirmished in the streets. The delays cost Burnside a whole day and his forces finished crossing on the 12th. Confusion and inept leadership hampered the union throughout the day.
Fog appeared on the battlefield on December 13 limiting visibility for both sides. General George Gordon Meade led an assault on the Confederate lines. They unwittingly waltzed into Confederate artillery, but withdrew after running low on ammunition. Union forces began advancing again until they encountered the main rebel batteries on Prospect Hill. Meade began moving after a brief delay and swarmed into a gap in the Confederate line. Confusion spread on the field.
Meade expected reinforcements to route the rebels in the gap. However, General John Gibbon refused to move his troops. The delay cost Meade valuable time. By the time Gibbon arrived, the Union could not exploit the Confederate weakness. The South began a counterattack, but fighting eventually sputtered out for the day. Lee’s men withdrew to the hills just south of Fredericksburg.
Burnside decided to dislodge the Confederates and take the high ground on December 13. He asked his army to march 600 yards uphill over open ground. The Confederates mowed down Union troops on their suicidal march as they moved up hill. General Joseph Hooker begged Burnside to stop the assault, but the commander was undeterred. The North charged Marye’s Heights fourteen times and suffered around 8,000 casualties. Burnside planned to lead his troops personally in the field, but was talked out of it by his subordinates.
Burnside came to his senses and asked Lee for an armistice for the 14th to care for his wounded. Lee granted the Union commander’s request. The Aurora Borealis made an unlikely appearance in Virginia that evening providing an eerie conclusion to the carnage. Burnside withdrew his forces and was fired a month later. The Union lost 1300 killed, 1800 missing or captured, and almost 10,000 wounded. The rebels lost 600 dead, 4100 wounded, and 650 missing or wounded. The Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the great military disasters in American history.
The victory elated the South. Even General Lee seemed ecstatic. Meanwhile, the North mourned the dead and questioned Lincoln’s leadership. The president responded when he appointed General Hooker to Burnside’s old post. Once again, the North searched for an able military leader to extinguish the rebellion while the South continued their string of eastern victories.