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Rapid-Fire History: Battle of Fredericksburg


Entrenched on the heights behind the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, consisting of over 70,000 soldiers, held excellent ground to fight a defensive battle against Major General Ambrose Burnside’s 120,000-strong Army of the Potomac. On December 13, 1862, Burnside sent one wing of his army to attack the Confederate right commanded by Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on Prospect Hill and another wing to strike the Rebel left under Lieutenant General James Longstreet on Marye’s Heights. Longstreet’s position offered a sweeping field of fire over a half-mile of open fields that Burnside’s troops would have to cross, leading one of his artillery officers to remark, “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.” Union soldiers fought with tremendous valor, but wave after wave of men in Blue endured a relentless cycle of slaughter in front of Marye’s Heights. Federal troops briefly penetrated Jackson’s position on Prospect Hill, but reinforcements weren’t committed to exploit the potential breakthrough and a Confederate counterattack stemmed the tide. As Lee watched his men repair the breach, he famously said to Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible-we should grow too fond of it!” As darkness fell over the killing grounds, the Army of the Potomac had suffered around 13,000 casualties, most of who fell in front of a stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights. Lee and his troops had shown once again that they were masters of defensive warfare, losing fewer than 5,000 casualties. The Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the worst Union defeats of the Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln learned of the bloody fiasco, he said: “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: 10 Facts: Fredericksburg.

American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Fredericksburg.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.

The Civil War by Bruce Catton.

Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson.

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