ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia
|The Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia
The monument to Richard Rowland Kirkland,
remembered as the "Angle of Marye's Heights," is a
key landmark of the Fredericksburg battlefield.
Battle of Fredericksburg
The "Sunken Road" was a key
Confederate position during
the battle. Southern troops
stood four ranks deep here.
Built in around 1861 by John
Innis, the house stood by the
Sunken Road and was
riddled with bullet holes.
The Sunken Road
Confederate forces kept up a
continual sheet of fire from
the road while artillery fired
from the heights above.
The Battle of Fredericksburg - Fredericksburg, Virginia
The Fredericksburg Battlefield
|Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.
Resting Place of Union Dead
The Union soldiers killed in
the battle are buried at the
Cemetery. Southern dead are
at City and Confederate
The Fredericksburg battlefield preserves
parts of one of the bloodiest actions of the
Civil War. This was the scene of one of the
Confederacy's greatest triumphs and the
Union's bloodiest defeats.
Fought in and around the town from which it
takes its name, the Battle of Fredericksburg
was one of the most significant victories of
Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The
scene today includes original structures, key
troop positions, monuments and the Sunken
Road from which Southern troops devastated
The road to Fredericksburg was initiated by
President Abraham Lincoln in November of
1862 when he replaced General George B.
McClellan as commander of the Army of the
Potomac with General Ambrose E. Burnside.
McClellan had favored a slow, methodical
approach in dealing with Lee and the
frustrated U.S. President finally turned to
Burnside in hopes the new commander
would move with more rapidity. The goal was
to overwhelm Lee with superior forces and
take Richmond, hopefully bringing the bloody
war to a close.
Burnside (whose name and whiskers
inspired the term "sideburns") initially moved
with great speed. Launching his campaign
on November 15, 1862, he pushed his army
over 40 miles of muddy roads and his lead
elements reached the heights overlooking
Fredericksburg just two days later.
The move took Lee by surprise. He had
divided his Army of Northern Virginia and
Burnside's sudden push for Fredericksburg
targeted the weakest point in Lee's scheme
of defense. If the Union army quickly crossed
the Rappahannock River there, it would catch
Lee's army still divided and quite possibly
win the war.
The Confederate general immediately
ordered the divided wings of his army to unite
at Fredericksburg, but knew it would take
them days to do so. At this critical moment,
however, Burnside's army came to a halt on
the heights overlooking Fredericksburg.
The Rappahannock River was running high
and the bridges that crossed the stream into
Fredericksburg had been destroyed earlier in
the war. The Union army, in a lapse of
planning that seems unfathomable today,
had failed to take pontoon bridges to use in
crossing the river. With no pontoons and
without making any effort to bridge the river
using local materials, Burnside settled in
and waited. It took a week for the pontoons to
arrive and by the time they did, Lee's Army of
Northern Virginia was looking down on
Fredericksburg from the heights behind the
Even knowing that some of Lee's best troops
- those commanded by General James
Longstreet - held Marye's Heights behind
Fredericksburg and that the famed Stonewall
Jackson anchored Longstreet's right flank,
Burnside decided to attack. He believed, he
told his officers, that his 120,000 man army
could smash through Longstreet's lines,
flank Jackson out of his position and send
Lee in rapid retreat for Richmond. His
officers were not so certain.
The Army of the Potomac started building
three bridges across the Rappahannock on
December 11, 1862. The project immediately
ran into trouble. Lee had sent General
William Barksdale's Mississippians to
occupy Fredericksburg and they opened a
withering fire on Burnside's engineers.
Nine time the Federals tried to build their
bridge into the town and nine times the
Confederates drove them back. Frustrated,
Burnside finally ordered the bombardment of
Fredericksburg, even though he knew full
well it still sheltered many civilians. Union
cannon blasted the city for two hours, raining
8,000 shells on its houses and stores.
Convinced that the Mississippians could not
have withstood such a barrage, Burnside
ordered the crossing to resume. Barksdale's
men, however, picked up where they had left
off and rained fire on the bridge builders.
The frustrated Federals now resorted to an
amphibious attack to clear the way for the
engineers. Hundreds of volunteers used
pontoons as landing craft to swarm across
the river. Barksdale's outnumbered men
resisted, slowly falling back in desperate
house to house fighting. They held on until
nightfall when, pursuant to orders, they
withdrew from the town.
Burnside's bridge builders finally completed
their task, but it had taken them an entire day
to do so. The fight waged by Barksdale's
men became one of the legends of the War
Between the States.
The morning of December 12, 1862, dawned
foggy and cold. Federal troops poured into
Fredericksburg, but instead of forming to
attack spent hours looting and vandalizing
the city. Horror stories were later related as to
the extent and viciousness of the damage.
It would take another day for the Union army
to get into position for its attack. Lee and his
men took advantage of the time to continue
strengthening their lines. It was the morning
of December 13th before the Army of the
Potomac was ready for battle.
Burnside's plan called for General William B.
Franklin's left Grand Division of 60,000 men
to storm the low heights on the Confederate
right held by Stonewall Jackson's men.
Once this attack was fully underway, General
Edwin Sumner's Right Grand Division would
assault Marye's Heights.
Burnside's orders, however, were
misunderstood by Franklin. Instead of the
entire Grand Division attacking, Franklin sent
forward only General George Gordon
Meade's Division of 4,500 men.
As Meade tried to move forward, his division
immediately came under fire from two pieces
of horse artillery (small cannon) commanded
by Major John Pelham of Alabama. For more
than one hour and from a dangerously
advanced position, Pelham blasted Meade's
ranks. General Lee watched the 24 year old
officer's fight from the nearby heights,
marveling at Pelham's "glorious" display of
The "gallant Pelham" finally ran low on
ammunition and withdrew, clearing the way
for Meade's assault. The Union general
formed his men and pushed forward. Purely
by accident, Meade's division hit a 600-yard
gap in the Confederate lines.
Jackson reacted to the crisis, hurling troops
forward to close the breach and Meade was
forced to withdraw after suffering galling
casualties. Had the attack been made by
Franklin's full Grand Division, Burnside might
well have won the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Realizing that the attack on the Confederate
right had failed, General Burnside now
ordered forward his Right Grand Division.
Commanded by General E.V. Sumner, this
force was ordered to attack directly across
open fields and drive Longstreet from the
high ridge known as Marye's Heights.
At the base of the heights ran a sunken road
with a stone retaining wall. This position
offered a ready-made fortification and the
Georgia brigade of General T.R.R. Cobb was
ordered to hold it.
Cobb's brigade was part of five divisions of
infantry that Longstreet positioned to hold
Marye's Heights. Above their heads, on the
crest, Confederate artillery was arrayed to
sweep the open ground below. So good was
the field of fire that a Southern officer
remarked "chicken could not live on that field."
Sumner's attack began at noon. The
Confederate cannon opened fire as the blue
ranks moved into the open and then, as the
Federals came within range, Cobb's men in
the Sunken Road unleashed a sheet of
flame on them. More than 3,000 Union
soldiers fell in just one hour.
Despite the bloody repulse, the Union attack
continued. Confederate reinforcements
flooded into the Sunken Road until finally the
Southern soldiers there were standing four
ranks deep, unleashing a continual fire on
the exposed Union soldiers trying to cross
the open ground.
Despite horrendous losses and with virtually
no chance of success, the Union attacks
continued. Looking out on the scene of fire
and carnage, Robert E. Lee remarked, "It is
well that war is so terrible. We should grow
too fond of it."
By nightfall, fifteen Union commands had
attacked the Sunken Road. Not a single one
got closer than 75 feet.
Darkness finally descended on one of the
bloodiest defeats the Union army would
suffer during the entire Civil War. Total
Federal casualties in the Battle of
Fredericksburg were 12,600 killed, wounded
or missing in action. Most fell in the effort to
take the stone wall and Sunken Road.
Confederate losses were 5,300.
Now part of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania
County Battlefields Memorial National Military
Park, the battlefield is open to the public
daily. The Fredericksburg Visitor Center at
1013 Lafayette Boulevard is open daily from
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is a $2 fee to view the
film, but entry into the park is free.
Please click here to visit the official park
service website for more information.
Monument to General Cobb
A brave Confederate general,
T.R.R. Cobb fell in the Sunken
Road but his brigade held the
position against fifteen Union
Angel of Marye's Heights
19-year-old Sgt. Richard
Kirkland risked his life on the
day after the main assaults to
help wounded Union soldiers
crying for help.
5th Corps Monument
A column on Marye's Heights
commemorates the role of
Butterfield's 5th Corps in the
Battle of Fredericksburg.