Fredricksburg Shortened Battle Analysis of Fredericksburg

Red Raider

Jan 27, 2021
Lost in Books
Hello everyone,

I wanted to share a battle analysis I did for my "Civil War: Seminal Event in American History" (HIST552) class for my M.A. last August. Not perfect by any means, but it helps make the battle a little easier to understand. These are the main highlights of the battle and much more detail can be used at a greater depth when needed.

I have chosen to do a battle analysis of Fredericksburg. There are two key takeaways from this battle that lead to the doctrine being written and still used today. They will be covered further down in the analysis as well.

  • River crossings (Amphibious Assaults)
  • House to house fighting (Urban Combat)

1. Factors That Led To The Battle

In early November of 1862, General Ambrose Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac. With forces nearing 120,000 troops for the Union Army, Burnside moved into a position to strike at the heart of the Confederacy: Richmond, Virginia. In order to do this, Burnside would need to move his entire army across the Rappahannock River before General Robert E. Lee would have time to maneuver his army to intercept them. To get to Richmond, Burnside had to go through Lee and a small river-port town known as Fredericksburg.

2. Strengths and Weaknesses

General Burnside was able to amass his entire army near Falmouth and begin preparations to conduct the river crossing into Fredericksburg. As the Union troops moved into positions, the Confederate Army stationed at Fredericksburg fled.[1] With no enemy troops on the far bank, Sumner requested Burnside’s permission to establish a bridgehead and hold that position until the pontoon bridge could be brought forward. The pontoons were already late, lost in red tape and logistical issues, and there was no telling when they would arrive. Burnside gave Sumner the order to “wait for the pontoons.”[2] Had Sumner been given permission, his forces could have moved into the town and entrenched Marye’s Heights. General Lee was completely outnumbered at Fredericksburg. There is no exact troop strength in the town before the battle, but conflicting reports estimate between 100 and 500 troops. Hearing that the Union Army had staged at Falmouth and was moving toward Fredericksburg, Lee recalled his entire army. The delay in the pontoons being delivered to Burnside allowed Lee to entrench Marye’s Heights, Prospect Hill, and Hamilton’s Crossing on a nearly four-mile stretch of river. Burnside failed to act quickly once the pontoons arrived on November 25, for his attack would not commence until December 11.

3. The Battle

On the morning of December 11, 1862, Engineers began assembling the pontoons to cross the Rappahannock. Confederate Sharpshooters would have none of this and used harassing fires to limit their ability to move at a steady pace. Burnside ordered an Artillery barrage, and for nearly four hours, 150 Artillery pieces rained shells down from Stafford Heights, destroying buildings and driving the defenders and civilians from their fortifications. The Engineers continued to build the pontoons, and the Sharpshooters kept harassing them. At this time, Burnside finally approved a landing party to establish a bridgehead. Under covering fires, the landing party made their way across to Fredericksburg as the Confederate Sharpshooters slowly withdrew back to the main line. During the landing, the Union troops had to push through a small section of the city to clear out pockets of resistance. House to house fighting would ensue as the Union troops pushed the remainder of the Confederates out. On December 12, the remainder of Burnsides command would cross the river and advance towards Lees awaiting army. For the next three days, 200,000 men would face off with one another in some of the fiercest fighting to date on American soil.

4. Decisive Moments and Decisions

Marye’s Heights is one of the most prominent positions on the battlefield. General Longstreet positioned his troops behind a large stone wall with a “sunken road” in front of him. Longstreet positioned close to three ranks of Infantry inside the sunken road, with more positioned behind the stone wall. Based on the reports and photos of the “sunken road” (see below), it is hard to imagine three ranks of Infantry stacked there. It would have been packed tightly with a large volume of fire emanating from that point. The Confederate Artillery is positioned on his left flank. Longstreet maintained this impenetrable position as seven different Union Division made a frontal attack on him with devastating effects. Burnside’s mistake was that the attack against Longstreet was to be the diversion for the main assault against Prospect Hill and General “Stonewall” Jackson. General Meade commanded the forces that attacked Jackson and pushed the Confederate Army back. However, a strong counterattack and Confederate reinforcements drove Meade back when he could not bring his reserves or reinforcements forward.

*Photo of the “Sunken Road” at Marye’s Heights.[3]

Here is a list of some of the highlights of the battle:

  • Union logistics delayed the delivery of pontoon bridges.
  • Burnside failed to send a landing party across when no enemy was present.
  • Lee held the advantage of time and recalled his entire army and entrench them in the high ground.
  • Confederate Artillery had a commanding view of the entire battlefield and had time to register their guns and mark known distance targets.
  • This was the first time in history that a river crossing was done under fire. It is also the first time that full-scale house to house fighting has occurred.
  • Burnside decided to split his force in two to attack both flanks of Lees army.
  • Reserves and reinforcements for the Union were still on “their side” of the river and took longer to organize and deploy forward, halting the main forces advancements and their ability to hold the trenches and fortifications.
  • The 150 Artillery pieces at Stafford Heights was nearly useless once the attacks began. The limited fields of fire and the approach leading up to the Confederate positions made it nearly impossible for effective fires. Burnside would not move his guns into a position to support his Infantry.
After the battle ended on December 15, close to 20,000 men, lay dead. Nearly ¾ of those dead were Union Infantry who valiantly charged across the open ground into Longstreet’s entrenched Rebels. The Union Army would retreat from the battlefield, having gained no ground and no tactical advantage over the Confederates. Before the retreat from Fredericksburg, Burnside is seen breaking down into tears and cried, “Oh those men! Those men over there!” and talked hysterically about sending his old corps on suicidal attacks against the impregnable Confederate positions.[4] Six weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside is replaced.

History would repeat itself, however. Less than a year later, the men at Marye’s Heights would find themselves in opposite roles in a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.

As I mentioned, this was an old assignment. I hope some of the information that was provided is useful.


[1] Otto Eisenschiml and Ralph Newman, The Civil War: An American Iliad (New York: Mallard Press, 1991), 319.
[2] Ibid, 319.
[3] “Fredericksburg,” American Battlefield Trust, January 14, 2009,
[4] Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1st HarperPerennial ed (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994), 327.
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