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Battle of Fredericksburg


“If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” Like so many others devoted to the Union cause, President Abraham Lincoln was shattered upon receiving news of the Army of the Potomac’s crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Northern spirits and morale among soldiers plummeted in the bitter days that followed. Twenty-one-year-old Captain Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. went so far as to write, “I’ve pretty much made up my mind that the South have achieved their independence.”

On December 13, 1862, Union General Ambrose E. Burnside launched 14 attacks against General Robert E. Lee’s army at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Confederate positions proved to be incredibly strong and wave after wave of Union soldiers endured a relentless cycle of slaughter. The carnage of the futile Federal assaults led General Lee to remark, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.” As darkness fell over the killing grounds, the Army of the Potomac had suffered nearly 12,600 casualties. A massive blow was struck by the Confederacy.

A painting of Confederate troops defending the sunken road on Marye’s Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Nearly two-thirds of the Union casualties on December 13 fell in front of Marye's Heights. (Photo:

The following day, General Burnside considered continuing the attack, but his subordinates urged him not to. On December 15, Burnside called off the offensive and retreated northward under the cover of darkness and rain. His defeat spelled the end of his command. In January, General Joseph Hooker replaced Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

General Ambrose E. Burnside (Left) and General Joseph Hooker (Right)

With nearly 200,000 combatants, the Battle of Fredericksburg featured the largest concentration of troops of any battle during the American Civil War. In the operations lasting from December 11-15, 1862, the Army of the Potomac suffered an estimated 13,353 casualties. Victory came at a more manageable price for the Confederacy. General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia endured approximately 4,576 casualties at Fredericksburg.

Books and Sources

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James McPherson.

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