On the morning of 13 December 1862, the preparations were done and the day of reckoning was at hand. Burnside had decided on taking the nearest hills, but had sent ill-defined orders to his left which resulted in a weak effort to roll up Lee’s right flank.
As the morning progressed, A federal bombardment of the Rebel positions on Prospect Hill preceded the push from Union General Meade. Meade was delayed by the “gallant Pelham,” for a critical half hour. Finally, the main assault was underway and repulsed once, but Meade was determined and found a way to defeat Confederate A.P. Hill through a marshy area. Once Meade was through, he found that the promised left flank movement was far too weak to support his breakthrough. Seeing Meade exposed, Stonewall Jackson threw Jubal Early’s division into counter-attack and drove Meade out. A Union opportunity of great importance had been lost.
Over on Marye’s Heights, it was a turkey shoot as the Confederate’s repelled wave after wave of Union assault. Burnside had been criticized for not being aggressive enough previous to Fredericksburg, so he decided that this would not be the case here. He renewed his attack on Marye’s Heights and on Lee’s right flank. This turned a defeat into a bloodbath. The day was lost to Burnside due to weak orders and dithering in his preparation, not his lack of aggressiveness.
For a motorcycle ride that also takes in the Spotsylvania
battlefield, head west out of Fredericksburg on VA State Route 3, then
head southwest on Virginia State Route 20 at Wilderness and follow VA SR 20 for approximately 50 miles to Charlottesville.
Image Credit – By Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers, Chicago, U.S. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On 12 December 1862 Union General Burnside’s troops had crossed the Rappahannock and secured Fredericksburg and another major crossing down river. Burnside and Lee spent the day riding their lines, but with different tasks. Lee, knowing that he had superior ground, was riding to check his lines and trying to second guess Burnside’s intentions. Would Burnside attack elsewhere due to the South’s superior positioning or was Burnside so confident of his numbers that he would attack Lee’s formidable position?
Burnside also spent the day with his troops. He mainly found them trashing Fredericksburg. However, Burnside was futilely looking for weak points in Lee’s position, but could find none. He finally settled on two hills, Prospect and Marye’s Heights, that had the sole advantage of being close, reducing the ground that would needed to be covered.
The stage was now set and the the 13th would bring battle. Log on tomorrow for part 3.
Check out the ride along Virginia State roads 218 and 205 from Fredricksburg to Colonial Beach.
On 11 December 1862, the long build up to the Battle of Fredricksburg was over and the fighting began in earnest. The week of 11-15 December 1862 was to be a bloody one, especially for the Union forces of Ambrose Burnside. Given the almost limitless time to fortify and prepare positions, the Rebels, under Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson and James Longstreet, were in a superior position and they took full advantage of it.
In the early hours of 11 December, Burnside sent his engineers to erect pontoon bridges over the Rappahannock and Rebel General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade began a hellacious sniper attack from the town. Union forces tried to protect the engineers with heavy artillery fire that left Fredricksburg a smoking pile. By mid afternoon of the 11th, Union forces, in an action of remarkable bravery, were able to cross the Rappahannock on pontoons, but then faced house to house fighting with Barksdale’s, slowly and methodically, retreating brigade. Slowly,
the Yankees cleared the the town. By evening, Barksdale was pulling back to the Rebel lines above the town. Burnside had his crossing, but at a terrible price. Worse was to follow. Tune in tomorrow for more.
The map above of the situation before the December battles shows just how close this fighting was to Washington, D.C. and how tenuous the Union’s hold on the country was at the time.
To get a feel for the great river Rappahannock, take US 17 from Fredericksburg southeast to Gloucester. At Tappahannock, you can get another good view of the river as it widens on its way into Chesapeake Bay. From Gloucester, you can go another 15 miles to cross the York river and into Yorktown.
Image courtesy of the United States Military Academy’s History Department’s Atlas Collection.