Union Generals Talk Burnside Out of a Disasterous Attack

December 14, 1862 (Sunday)

Ambrose Burnside

The many piecemeal attacks of the previous day had failed – and failed miserably. Fourteen times had Ambrose Burnside’s Federals stormed up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, and fourteen times a much fewer number retreated back down.

After darkness descended over the battlefield, writhing with bloody wounded and near-freezing survivors, Burnside called a council of war. He, along with William Franklin, Edwin Sumner and Joe Hooker, his three Grand Division commanders, discussed what to do next.

For an hour, the talk meandered through various ideas, with Burnside seeming to be dead on his feet. It was through this exhaustion that he called the meeting to a close. In his sleep-depraved mind, he believed he knew how to win the battle. At dawn, he would personally lead his old IX Corps in one grand assault upon Marye’s Heights. The V Corps would give support.

Maybe it was that Burnside understood that as an army commander, he was of no use – but as a corps commander, he still had much to offer. One person who didn’t think so was Joe Hooker, who colorfully protested Burnside’s absurd idea. His language, described an observer, flew past insubordination and teetered on the precipice of unpatriotic.

But Burnside was not swayed. Even when Franklin suggested that they instead attack Stonewall Jackson’s flank, as per the original plans, Burnside ignored it and prepared to attack at dawn.

With the dawn came no attack, but fog and breakfast, over which, several generals (none of whom were at the previous night’s meeting) decided that Burnside’s new plan was even more ludicrous than his old plan. When they broached the subject with Burnside in mid-morning, he was stunned that they thought it a bad idea. It was as if Burnside had not witnessed the pointless carnage of the day before. He took an informal poll of several other generals, and all agreed that another charge would be another massacre.

In mid-afternoon, when it was already too late to attack, Burnside called it off.

Joe Hooker

The Federal soldiers still in position near Marye’s Heights were pinned down by Rebel musket fire. Once in a while, one might stand up to shoot at the Rebels behind the wall, but for the most part, the Federals huddled close to the cold ground, dragging the dead bodies of comrades to serve one final duty for their nation – as breastworks.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, was still unsure of what exactly happened the day before. The attacks seemed so bizarre that he wasn’t convinced that Burnside had truly made his principle assault.

He spent the night procuring ammunition for the battle he believed the dawn to bring – the battle that Burnside, at the head of the IX Corps, had wanted. Both Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet did some minor shifting of troops, but their defensive positions were so good, there was little need.

Confederate rifle pits atop Marye’s Heights, after the battle.

Lee and Jackson waited together through the morning for Burnside to attack. By noon, Lee was beginning to doubt that an attack would come, and by late-afternoon, he was beginning to fear that it wouldn’t.

To complete the victory, which was already great, Lee needed Burnside to attack, so the Confederate army could finally crush its enemy. He even tried to provoke Burnside into attacking by withdrawing John Bell Hood’s Division from the field. With great pomp and obviousness, they disappeared behind the ridge line, leaving a gaping hole that Lee hoped Burnside would jump right into.

By this time, however, Burnside had decided to call off any assault that had been floating around in his weary head. The Federals had been whipped, but the Rebels didn’t know it. Like Lee, many believed that the carnage of the day before was but a prelude to the hellish bloodletting that would come on this day.

Fredericksburg in ruins.

As darkness once again crept over the battlefield, Union soldiers faced another night pressed near freezing against the cold ground. Shortly after the sky fell black, it was illuminated by the aurora borealis. The Northern Lights, flowing much father south than typical, were taken as an ill omen by some, and as glad tidings sent from God by others.

For others, the lights provided enough glow with which to see the contents of haversacks and pockets, plundered from the Union dead. The Confederates had been poorly clothed and many were without shoes. If they could manage, it wasn’t the most difficult task to strip boots off the stiffening Yankee body, but an overcoat might require the assistance of several other “undertakers.”

By the next morning, many bodies, no longer in need of boots, jackets or pants, had been stripped white, but for holes of red here and there.1

  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. []
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