Very excited for my first history related post, and I thought I would focus on something that was very rare during the American Civil War, a winter battle. The most famous battles ever fought during the conflict are almost exclusively during the spring, summer and fall. Fort Sumter was April, First Bull Run was July, Antietam was fought in September, Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863, the list can go on and on. An overlooked battle though that is mostly forgotten to people that haven't studied much about the war is the December, 1862 battle of Fredericksburg, VA.
What makes the battle of Fredericksburg so interesting are the mistakes and the uselessness of the battle; there are many battles throughout history where it can be argued that, in spite of the carnage, the battle was necessary, but the battle of Fredericksburg was a useless bloodletting. To understand why the Union commander would make such a blunder you need to understand the political climate of late 1862. Abraham Lincoln was livid at the commander of the Army of the Potomac, George B. McClellan because after the tactical draw at Antietam he refused to attack the retreating Confederates as they crossed the Potomac river back into Confederate territory. McClellan was constantly making excuses for not attacking Lee and allowed the massive amount of casualties he took at Antietam to be wasted. After waiting all autumn for McClellan to make a move, Lincoln decided to fire him and place Ambrose Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac.
The problem was Burnside was quite simple, he didn't want the job (he turned it down before) and he was completely in over his head. Lincoln, the press and the American public were pushing for more victories and even though winter was usually a time for an army to camp and wait for campaigning weather, Burnside drew up a battle plan and had it approved by Lincoln. The plan was for the Army of the Potomac to march to the Rappahannock River and attack the town of Fredericksburg, VA. For Burnside's plan to work he had to get Pontoon bridges sent from Washington to get his army across the river from Falmouth, VA. As usual, there was a bungling with the army supply and the bridges were weeks late. You would think this would cause a general to call off or change his plans, but he sat across the river and watched Lee's Army of Northern VA amass a huge defensive force on the heights above the town.
When the pontoons finally arrived, Burnside called for the attack and the union army quite easily entered the town and began looting the place. The Confederate army was angered by this as Confederate General Lee was quite fond of the city because it was the site of his courtship with his wife. The next day, Burnside orders full-frontal attacks on the Confederate positions on Mayre's heights. This shows the limitations not only of Burnside, but an inordinate amount of other Civil War generals. They could not come to grips with the fact that their West Point teachings from 20 and 30 years ago were useless to them now. The technology of war and death had far surpassed the military tactics of the time. Burnside would order charge after charge onto the heights and throw his men through a meat grinder that was disgusting even to the Confederates watching. It was after the carnage at Fredericksburg were victorious General Robert E. Lee would say, "It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it".(1) Think about that for a moment, the carnage that his own army inflicted with cannons literally blowing Union men to bits had so moved the general that he said this remark to his staff nearby. I always found that fascinating because Lee would have been obviously happy with his victory, but he also saw the waste and stupidity in this battle.
Fredericksburg was truly a battle that did not need to be fought, the city was of only slight tactical importance, but once Burnside set his mind to taking the town it was set. This shows a lack of ingenuity, intelligence and adaptability on his part. Burnside would not get a chance to redeem himself, he was fired after a failed march a short while later. The battle of Fredericksburg paints the perfect picture of the colossal waste that the Civil War truly was for this country, men literally lined up in neat, geometric shapes and walked straight into cannon fire, just to be replaced by more men walking straight into death. It is little wonder that 625,000 men died in this four year conflict, I am actually surprised that the number was not quite higher.