Fredericksburg

General Ambrose Burnside replaced George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac on 7th November, 1862. After complaints that had been made by President Abraham Lincoln and the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, about the inaction of the Union Army, Burnside was determined to immediately launch an attack on the Confederate Army.

With a force of 122,000, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, Edwin Sumner, William Franklin attacked General Robert E. Lee and his army of 78,500 men, at Fredricksburg, Virginia, on 13th December. Sharpshooters based in Fredericksburg initially delayed the Union Army from building a bridge across the Rappahnnock River.

After clearing out the snipers the federal forces had the problem of mounting frontal assaults against troops commanded by James Longstreet and Thomas Stonewall Jackson. At the end of the day the Union Army had 12,700 men killed or wounded. The well protected Confederate Army suffered losses of 5,300. Ambrose Burnside wanted to renew the attack the following morning but was talked out of it by his commanders.

Timothy O'Sullivan, Dead Boy at Fredericksburg (December, 1862)
Timothy O'Sullivan, Dead Boy at Fredericksburg (December, 1862)
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Reverend George F. Noyes, was a supporter of the Radical Republicans and on 4th July, 1862, preached a sermon to the Union Army based at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

When a man puts a knife at my throat, and I succeed in conquering and hand-cuffing him, shall I be so foolish as at once to restore him to his former position, knife and all? Let every man's own common sense answer this question. The idea with some even at the North is, that the South is to be acknowledged as an equal nation if triumphant, while, if she is subdued after the great and fearful struggle, she is at once to be invited into a front seat, and at once admitted to all her old privileges.

(2) Captain Weymouth, a member of the Union Army at Fredericksburg, later recalled attempts to build a bridge across the Rappahnnock River.

On our arrival at the river at daylight, we found a small section of the bridge laid, in consequence of the commanding position which the enemy held on the right bank of the river secreted as they were behind fences made musket-proof by piling cord-wood and other materials against them. After a fruitless attempt of eight hours duration to lay the bridge where the enemy had absolute control of the river front, the idea was abandoned, and notice was sent down to us at the river that the enemy would be shelled again from the heights, with orders to take to the pontoon-boats and cross and dislodge the enemy in order to enable the engineers to complete the bridge.

(3) Carl Schurz served under Ambrose Burnside during the American Civil War. He wrote about his commander and the battle of Fredericksburg in his autobiography published in 1906.

When McClellan at last had crossed the Potomac and Richmond, the President removed him from his command and put General Burnside in his place. The selection of Burnside for so great a responsibility was not a happy one. He was a very patriotic man whose heart was in his work, and his sincerity, frankness, and amiability of manner made everybody like him. But he was not a great general, and he felt, himself, that the task to which he had been assigned was too heavy for his shoulders. The complaint against McClellan having been his slowness to act. Burnside resolved to act at once. The plan of campaign he conceived was to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, and thence to operate upon Richmond.

The battle began on December 13th, 1862, soon after sunrise, under a gray wintry sky. Standing inactive in reserve, we eagerly listened to the booming of the guns, hoping that we should hear the main attack move forward. At eleven o'clock Burnside ordered the assault from Fredericksburg upon Marye's Heights, Lee's fortified position. Our men advanced with enthusiasm. A fearful fire of artillery and musketry greeted them. Now they would stop a moment, then plunger forward again.

Through our glasses we saw them fall by hundreds, and their bodies dot the ground. As they approached Lee's entrenched position, sheet after sheet of flame shot forth from the heights, tearing fearful gaps in our lines. There was no running back of our men. They would sometimes stop or recoil only a little distance, but then doggedly resume the advance. A column rushing forward with charged bayonets almost seemed to reach the enemy's ramparts, but then to melt away.

Here and there large numbers of our men, within easy range of the enemy's musketry, would suddenly drop like tall grass swept down with a scythe. They had thrown themselves upon the ground to let the leaden hail pass over them, and under it to advance, crawling. It was all in vain. The enemy's line was so well posted and protected by a canal and a sunken road and stone walls and entrenchments skillfully thrown up, and so well defended, that it could not be carried by a front assault.

The early coming of night was most welcome. A longer day would have been only a prolonged butchery. And we, of the reserve, stood there while daylight lasted, seeing it all, burning to go to the aid of our brave comrades, but knowing also that it would be useless. Hot tears of rage and of pitying sympathy ran down many a weather-beaten cheek. No more horrible and torturing spectacle could have been imagined.

General Burnside bore himself like an honorable man. During the battle he had proposed to put himself personally at the head of his old corps, the Ninth, and to lead it in the assault. Reluctantly he desisted, yielding to the earnest protests of his generals. After the defeat he unhesitatingly shouldered the whole responsibility for the disaster. He not only did not accuse the troops of any shortcomings, but in the highest terms he praised their courage and extreme gallantry. He blamed only himself.

(4) General Oliver Howard fought at Fredericksburg in December, 1862. He later wrote about how General Ambrose Burnside reacted to the defeat.

At first, Burnside, saddened by the repulse of his attacks in every part of his lines, planned another battle for the 14th. His heart naturally went out to the old Ninth Corps that he had but lately commanded.

On the 14th, while matters were in suspense, I went up into a church tower with Couch, my corps commander, and had a plain view of all the slope where the severest losses of the preceding day had occurred. We looked clear up the suburban street or deep roadway and saw the ground literally strewn with the blue uniforms of our dead.

Burnside closed this remarkable tragedy by deciding to move the night of December 15, 1862, his brave but beaten army to the north side of the Rappahannock. That work of removal was accomplished without further loss of men or material.

(5) General Robert E. Lee, report on the battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862.

To Longstreet and Jackson great praise is due for the disposition and management of their respective corps. Their quick perception enabled them to discover the projected assaults on their positions, and their ready skill to devise the best means to resist them. Besides their services in the field - which every battle of the campaign from Richmond to Fredericksburg has served to illustrate - I am also indebted to them for valuable counsel, both as regards the general operations of the army and the particular measures adopted.

(6) Walt Whitman worked in a Union Army camp hospital during the battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862.

21st December, 1862: Spend a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital since the battle - seems to have received only the worst cases. Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc., a full load for one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt.

23 December, 1862: The results of the late battle are exhibited everywhere about here in thousands of cases. Hundreds die every day, in the camp, brigade and division hospitals. These are merely tents, and sometimes very poor ones, the wounded lying on the ground, lucky if the blankets are spread on layers of pine or hemlock twigs, or small leaves. No cots; seldom even a mattress. Once in a while some youngster holds on to me convulsively, and I do what I can for him; at any rate, stop with him and sit near him for hours, if he wishes it.

(7) Jane Swisshelm worked at the Old Theater Hospital in Fredericksburg during the later stages of the American Civil War. She wrote about her experiences in her autobiography, Half a Century (1880)

This building was on Princess Ann street. The basement floor was level with the sidewalk, but the ground sloped upward at the back; so that the yard was higher than the floor.

The mud was running in from the yard. Opposite the door, in a small room, was a pile of knapsacks and blankets; and on them lay two men smoking. To get into the large room, I must step out of the hall mud over one man, and be careful not to step on another. I think it was six rows of men that lay close on the floor, with just room to pass between the feet of each row; they so close in the rows that in most places I must slide one foot before the other to get to their heads.

The floor was very muddy and strewn with debris, principally of crackers. There was one hundred and eighty-two men in the building, all desperately wounded. They had been there a week. There were two leather water-buckets, two tin basins, and about every third man had saved his tin-cup or canteen; but no other vessel of any sort, size or description on the premises - no sink or cesspool or drain. The nurses were not to be found; the men were growing reckless and despairing, but seemed to catch hope as I began to thread my way among them and talk.

I found some of the nurses - cowards who had run away from battle, and now ran from duty - galvanized them into activity, invented substitutes for things that were wanting - making good use of an old knapsack and pocket-knife - and had tears of gratitude for pay.

One man lay near the front door, in a scant flannel shirt and cotton drawers, his left thigh cut off in the middle and the stump supported on the only pillow in the house. It was six by ten inches, stuffed with straw. His head was supported by two bits of board and a pair of very muddy boots. He called me, clutched my dress, and plead:

"Mother, can't you get me a blanket, I'm so cold; I could live if I could get any care!"

I went to the room where the men lay smoking on the blankets; but one of them wearing a surgeon's shoulder straps, and speaking in a German accent, claimed them as his private property, and positively refused to yield one.

The other man was his orderly, and words were useless - they kept their blankets.

After I returned to the large room, I took notice about clothing, and found that most of the men had on their - ordinary uniform; some had two blankets, more had one; but full one-third were without any. There was no shadow or pretense of a bed or pillow, not even a handful of straw or hay!

I spoke the first night to Dr. Porter about blankets and straw, or hay for beds, but was assured that none were to be had. Supplies could not reach them since being cut off from their base, and the Provost Marshal, Gen. Patrick, would not permit anything to be taken out of the houses, though many of them were unoccupied, and well supplied with bedding and other necessaries. I thought we ought to get two blankets for those two naked men, if the Government should pay their weight in gold for them; and suggested that the surgeons take what was necessary for the comfort of the men, and give vouchers to the owners. I knew such claims would be honored; would see that they should be; but he said the matter had been settled by the Provost, and nothing more could be done.

On Monday morning I sent for Dr. Porter, and stated the trouble about nurses shirking. He had them all summoned in the front end of the large room, and in presence of the patience, said to them:

"You see this lady? Well, you are, to report to her for duty; and if she has any fault to find with you she will report you to the Provost-Marshal!"

I have never seen a set of men look more thoroughly subdued. There were eleven of them, and they all gave me the military salute. The doctor went off, and I set them to work.

When there was so much to be done, I would do the most needful thing first, and this was ridding the wounds of worms and gangrene, supporting the strength of the men by proper food, and keeping the air as pure as possible. I got our beef into the way of being boiled, and would have some good substantial broth made around it. I went on a foraging expedition - found a coal-scuttle which would do for a slop-pail, and confiscated it, got two bits of board, by which it could be converted into a stool, and so bring the great rest of a change of position to such men as could sit up; had a little drain made with a bit of board for a shovel, and so kept the mud from running in at the side door; melted the tops off some tin cans, and made them into drinking cups; had two of my men confiscate a large tub from a brewery, set it in the vestibule to wash rags for outside covers to wounds, to keep off chill, and had others bring bricks and rubbish mortar from a ruin across the street, to make substitutes for pillows.

I dressed wounds! dressed wounds, and made thorough work of it. In the church was a dispensary, where I could get any washes or medicines I wished, and I do not think I left a worm. Some of them were over half an inch long, with black heads and many feet, but most were maggots. They were often deeply seated, but my syringe would drive them out, and twice a day I followed them up. The black and green places grew smaller and better colored with every dressing. The men grew stronger with plenty of beef and broth and canned milk. I put citric acid and sugar in their apple sauce as a substitute for lemons. I forget how many thigh stumps I had, but I think as many as twelve.