The Army of the Potomac Retreats Across the River

December 15, 1862 (Monday)

Fredericksburg from the Union side of the river.

As he peered through his telescope on this relatively mild dawn, General Ambrose Burnside must have known it was over. The first rays of sun shown the greatly improved Rebel works all along their five mile line above Fredericksburg. It was more than over. He was to blame and, decided the general, he would resign.

When he arrived at this conclusion, he told his second-in-command, Edwin Sumner, who believed him to be wildly overreacting.

Meanwhile, the new light brought new skirmishing, as Confederates tucked behind their works, and took pot shots at anything that moved upon the slope in front of them. The Federal soldiers had passed a macabre night huddled amongst their fallen comrades, even positioning the corpses to act as shields against enemy bullets. All the while, the wails and begging of the wounded was the stuff of nightmares come to life.

As the temperatures climbed into the unseasonably warm mid-60s, ambulances and stretcher bearers from both sides collected the bodies and aided the wounded. Others gathered dead horses and brought them to the site of a huge bonfire – a funeral pyre for the animals that unwittingly gave their own last full measure.

By the time dinner was served, General Burnside was noticeably distraught. He had spent much of the day talking with Generals and Colonels, trying to decide his next move. To a man, nobody was in favor of renewing the attack. With his Grand Division commanders all present, he informed those assembled that the Union army would recross the Rappahannock River and assume their positions previous to the battle.

Baptist Church, Fredericksburg

When the dinner broke up, Generals Joe Hooker and William Franklin left to oversee the recrossing. As preparations were being made, Burnside received a message from General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington.

News of the battle had arrived at the capital shortly after the fighting commenced. News of the defeat took a bit longer. By this time, however, President Lincoln and Henry Halleck had been stewing for long enough.

Halleck was very unhappy that Burnside was so easily withdrawing from Fredericksburg. What he wanted was another attack. He cautioned against any recrossing at all, but wanted him to at least leave enough troops to entrench the bridgeheads and hold the town.

A short while later, as more news came into the War Department, Halleck changed his tune. He no longer demanded an attack, but allowed Burnside to use his discretion. The General was already a few steps ahead of him, but still decided to hold, at least, the bridgeheads and perhaps the town itself.

As darkness retook the field, the Army of the Potomac began their withdrawal. First, the artillery filed to the lower crossings, as Hooker replaced the volunteer infantry holding Fredericksburg with Regular Army. In all, everyone kept calm.

Around 10pm, Hooker realized that the town and the bridgeheads could not both be held, and requested more men. Burnside skirted the issue and offered some vague suggestions, but refused to either reinforce Hooker or withdrawal the entire army.

The rousing of troops for a retreat in the face of the foe, even in darkness, creates enough noise to alert even the sleepiest of enemy pickets. But a strong wind and pounding rain had kicked up, blowing east all sound that might have otherwise told the tail.

Burying the Fredericksburg dead, December 15, 1862.

At 1am, Burnside finally agreed to give up the entire shore to the Rebels. Hooker wasted no time. Before dawn of the next day, all of Burnside’s men were across the Rappahannock. With the first light, the ropes anchoring the pontoon bridges to the Fredericksburg side of the river were severed and the battle, but for stray shots taken from across the water, was assuredly over.

General Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate army, was disappointed that Burnside didn’t try again. Believing the battle, a very obvious Rebel victory, to be only half won, he had been holding back, hoping to decimate the Union army when they again tried to storm up Marye’s Heights. But it was not to be. Both armies would survive to fight again.1

  1. Sources: The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert; Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable. []
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One thought on “The Army of the Potomac Retreats Across the River

  1. It was well for the civilians at Fredericksburg that Burnside chose this point to retire. The Potomac River Flotilla was laying off down below Port Royal and had volunteered to sail upriver and destroy the town. It was only when they found out Burnside was back across the river that the plan to run the battery at Pratt’s Bluff and head upstream was cancelled.

    I haven’t read much as to obstructions in the river closer to Fredericksburg, but I can imagine there must have been some. And it probably was not nearly so easy to get up the bends in the river and past whatever snipers and batteries the Confederates could have moved up to slow them down. But it is interesting to consider what a scrap it could have turned into (not even accounting for Confederate artillery within range of the river).

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