December 13, 1862 (Saturday)
The order to attack was late by several hours. General Ambrose Burnside, commanding the Army of the Potomac, poised on the Southern side of the Rappahannock and ready to attack the Rebels above and south of Fredericksburg, had waited too long again.
The previous night, he had been convinced to attack before dawn with his Left Grand Division under William Franklin. But before dawn was the key. To the front of Franklin’s men lay a mile and a half wide open plain. Getting across that deadly space before the Rebels were the wiser was essential to the success of Franklin’s attack. However, it was not to be.
Burnside blamed James Hardie, a general on his staff. Hardie, said Burnside, had stopped for breakfast while en route with the order to Franklin. Hardie, however, said that he had tried twice to hurry Burnside along in issuing the orders and was told to wait.
While this was happening, Franklin was getting cold feet. Like Hardie, Franklin had inquired from Burnside by telegraph just what was going on. Burnside replied that Franklin would get the orders when they were ready. After waiting all night and through the dawn, to a 7:10am sunrise, Franklin was not nearly as enthusiastic as he had been several hours before.
The orders in question were finally issued at 6am, but Hardie, acting as messenger, got stuck in the mud and muck that was everywhere this freezing December morning. When Franklin finally received and read the orders, he found them barely understandable and nothing like they had agreed upon the night before.
Franklin’s Left Grand Division would not receive the promised reinforcements. Burnside seemed to be indicating that he wasn’t to attack with anything more than a division. What’s more, due to incredibly faulty maps, it seemed like Burnside was ordering him to be ready to scurry away from Fredericksburg. None of it made any sense at all.
Rather than asking Hardie or even Burnside for clarification, Franklin went ahead with his interpretation of the orders – that his Left Grand Division was to mount some sort of diversion for whatever the hell else Burnside was doing on the Union right. He selected John Reynold’s I Corps for the diversion and George Gordon Meade’s Division for the assault itself.
On the right, Burnside told General Edwin Sumner, commander of the Right Grand Division, to wait until Franklin’s attack pulled Rebel troops from Marye’s Heights, the high ground to the front, to reinforce their friends on the Confederate right.
The attack that was to step off before dawn did not begin until noon. This gave Franklin more than enough time to seek clarification from Burnside. He never did. John Reynolds, whose I Corps was to engage the Rebels first, pleaded with Franklin to call off the attack – it was just like Antietam and would turn into a slaughter, sending his command in piecemeal. Franklin, who later admitted to his wife that he never believed the attack would succeed, refused to so much as question Burnside’s orders.
Much of the morning was spent under a pounding artillery exchange. When it finally slackened, Meade and his 4,500 Pennsylvanians stepped off to attack Stonewall Jackson’s 35,000.
Jackson had been ready, as usual, before dawn, dressed in a new and atypically gaudy uniform glistening with gold lace, a hat to match, and even a new sword. When he visited General Robert Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, he proposed attacking – a fairly ludicrous idea that he probably knew would be shot down by his commander.
Lee and Jackson rode the line, with the former approving of Jackson’s defenses. This included a woodlot gap between the brigades of John Archer and James Lane. The woodlot was a thick, swampy marsh that no infantry would ever try to tramp through and thus it was mostly forgotten.
While James Longstreet readied his men atop Marye’s Heights, Jackson saw to the final preparations of his own line. Though his tightly-packed infantry was more than capable, he expected to win the fight with the power of artillery. The field of attack was certainly covered by his seventy-six guns.
Around 11am, perhaps noon, the artillery fire slackened, the fog had risen and Jackson saw a mile and a half line of blue marching towards his two-mile long position. They came in splendid, beautiful order. But that order was soon wrecked by Jackson’s artillery.
Specifically, it was held back, at least at first, by a single cannon, dragged to the Union left flank by Jackson’s artillery chief John Pelham. From his fine vantage point, he lobbed shot after shot into the flank of the advancing enemy line. When he was joined by another gun, Meade’s advance halted.
Federal counter-fire made quick work of the second gun, but it took five full Union batteries – thirty guns in all – to deal with Pelham’s single cannon, which finally retired after it ran out of ammunition.
The Union left, most effected by Pelham’s single gun, was Abner Doubleday’s Division, sent in support of Meade’s main attack. After the Corps began to once again move forward, Doubleday remained where he halted, taking an entire division out of the fight and leaving Meade’s left unsupported.
To support Meade, Franklin brought up artillery, which pounded the Rebel lines. Jackson ordered his artillery not to reply. It was a ruse and it worked. Soon enough, Franklin believed he had silenced the Confederate guns. He was very mistaken.
John Reynolds, commanding the attacking corps, had halted 1,200 yards from Jackson’s lines. Now, with the Rebel guns supposedly silenced, he began anew. As the Yankees drew closer, Jackson’s infantry remained as silent as the artillery. They came closer, and minutes slide sluggish behind them. With the tension electric, they were 800 yards to Jackson’s front.
And it was then that he gave the order. Fifty cannons erupted at once, sending shots and shells bursting through Meade’s Pennsylvanians. As the Union commander tried to pull his men together, another volley tore gashes in his line. But still, he advanced. Under the most deadly of fires, he began drifting to the right – to the small woodlot that seemed to be a gap between two brigades in Jackson’s line.
The attack wasn’t exactly a charge, but it became a race to this woodlot – an unoccupied bit of ground that seemed to cleave Jackson’s line in two.
No organized infantry would ever plan to attack through a swamp. But frantic men in near panic skimmed across the surface like rocks across a still pond. They were soon not only between Archer and Lane, but behind them, where a brigade under the aging Maxcy Gregg had been stationed for support if needed.
Gregg’s Brigade fired a shot and began to retreat. In the frenzy, Gregg went down, mortally wounded, as Yankees seemed to be coming from everywhere. Jackson barely gave it a second thought. His ranks were stacked with more infantry than he needed, and he ordered Jubal Early’s entire division forward to deal with the foe.
Meade clung to his ground for over an hour, as John Gibbon’s Division, which had advanced on his right, joined the sport. But their time was up and Early attacked to drive them back. As he did, Archer’s Brigade reformed and hit Meade’s left – the flank that should have been guarded by Abner Doubleday.
The retreat was orderly, but quite hurried along by Jackson’s artillery. Soon, the fighting on the Confederate left was over.
Around the time that Meade’s line halted before the fire of Pelham’s single cannon, Burnside ordered Edwin Sumner to attack up Marye’s Heights. Thus began the most famous and bloody act in the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Burnside attacked in a nonchalant, piecemeal fashion, up a hill to hit the Rebels tucked neatly behind a stone wall. Had the attack come all at once, it would have pitted 60,000 men against about 10,000 Rebels (of which only 2,000 were on the front line).
Instead, he sent forward a brigade (perhaps 4,000 men), and then another, and another, and still another – all from Darius Couch’s II Corps. Seeing the abject slaughter of pitting a small number of men against a fortified enemy, Couch tossed O.O. Howard’s entire division against the wall. They were soon joined by another division, from Orlando Wilcox’s IX Corps. They stood up and fought for a couple of hours, but gained little ground.
All of this was a massacre delivered to the Rebels’ front door. They had to do nothing at all but fire. There was little room for tactics, little time for plans or maneuvering. There was just killing and wounding and dying. As many as 40,000 Yankees had attacked 3,000 Rebels. 7,000 Federals lay wounded, dead or bleeding out upon the cold ground. Burnside had overseen fourteen individual attacks and repulses on his right.
And just before dusk, he could order no more. The day was an incredibly bloody one. Federal casualties numbered well over 12,000, with 1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded and 1,769 missing. Confederates sustained 595 killed, 4,061 wounded and 653 missing. At the end of the day, the Union and Confederate lines returned to the positions they held that morning. Nothing at all was gained – not even glory.1
- Sources: The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert; Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable. [↩]