The Sunken Road
December 11-15 marks the anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. This is one of my favorite battlefields to study in Virginia (topped only by Chancellorsville and Manassas). Fredericksburg is one of those battles that sticks in your mind that makes you contemplate some of the battles of the Great War fifty-two years later. Both this battle and the Great War share in what was seen as the senseless slaughter of honorable men for little gains. While I write a lot of Great War history books, one of my less-than-secret loves is study of the American Civil War.
General Ambrose Burnside, often maligned for his handling of the battle, was north of Warrenton when he got the word that Major General George B. McClellan was relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln wanted action and General wanted to oblige. His plan, rather than continue the plodding march that eventually Ulysses S. Grant would take, Burnside opted for something that seemed audacious at the time. He would shift the massive Army of the Potomac to Fredericksburg. From there, in Lee’s proverbial rear, he could force a crossing of the Rappahannock River, and take a shorter route south to Richmond.
The Fredericksburg Campaign on paper was a battle that could have been successful if not for logistical issues. The Army of the Potomac made the move quickly but was stalled waiting for the bridging equipment. The bridges at Fredericksburg and Falmouth had been destroyed, so bridging equipment, pontoons, were needed to cross the river. Burnside was promised the pontoons quickly, but bureaucratic hang-ups, bad weather, and a lack of urgency delayed them. This delay sealed the battle before any shot was fired by either side.
Lee, even in his own after-action reports, admits that he was caught off-guard by the Federal Army’s deployment. He tossed Longstreet’s Corps to Fredericksburg and ordered Stonewall Jackson’s Corps back from the Shenandoah Valley.
On December 11 the Army of the Potomac made its move. They tried to build their bridges but fell under fire by a brigade of Mississippi sharpshooters in the city of Fredericksburg. Moving like modern day snipers, they riddled the bridging efforts, buying the Confederate forces more time. The Federal Army’s response was to shell the town, damaging almost every structure in their bombardment. The Union forces finally made their way across, but their fighting was just beginning.
On December 12-13 General Burnside pushed his force forward to cross the river piecemeal, rather than a cohesive and coordinated assault. Stonewall Jackson’s force arrived on the Confederate right flank, securing high ground. General Longstreet’s Corps was arrayed on the Confederate left, with the best position being at Marye’s Heights. Near the top of the hill, running its length was a roadway with a retaining wall cut into the hillside providing a perfect line with full cover for the Confederates. Longstreet had ringed the hilltops in his sector with artillery. Having visited the battlefield several times I can assure you, it’s hard to see clearly given the current city buildings – but the hillside was clear fields of fire to where the city was along the waterfront. Adding to this was a canal that bisected the advancing Federal lines, further breaking up their formations and slowing them while under this horrific fire.
The battle was brutal. On Jackson’s front, General Meade rushed the open ground and tried to climb the hills to get to him. Twenty-four year old artillerist John Pelham, “The Gallant Pelham,” took his pieces onto a position that allowed him to fire down the length of Meade’s lines.
I did some civil war relic hunting (with permission on private property) on the ground where Meade’s men rushed towards Jackson’s position. When you stand there you realize how much the land offers no cover other than the shallow railroad embankment, and how Confederate fire enfiladed Meade’s Pennsylvanians. Eventually the Federals recoiled on his front, but made it so far as to engage some of Jackson’s troops in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Little did General Burnside realize at the moment that this thrust was the closest that he would come to a possible victory in the fighting.
Matters were worse for the Army of the Potomac’s main thrust at Marye’s Heights. Longstreet’s artillery had overlapping fields of fire from elevated positions. One Confederate summed it up… A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.” Those that survived the carnage of shrapnel and hot iron/lead, faced a highly protected force in the sunken road. Wave after wave of troops were fed piecemeal into this meat-grinder, only to be mowed down and forced to fall back into what was left of Fredericksburg. As General Robert E. Less summed it up to General Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”
Despite his horrific losses, General Burnside went so far as to draw up orders for another final assault on December 14. He planned on leading the attack himself. His staff convinced him that any such assault on the hill littered with Federal dead would result in his suicide and the loss of more lives. Burnside consented and withdrew to Stafford Heights. The Confederates inflicted more than two-to-one losses against as numerically superior enemy. More than 2/3 of those that died did so attempting to seize the stone wall at the sunken road.
Fredericksburg did not mark the end of Burnside’s leadership of the army, contrary to popular belief. Most people don’t factor in that during the winter months, the armies went to winter camp and campaigning ended. Burnside tried again in the spring to outflank Lee heading back towards Culpeper from Falmouth, but the muddy Virginia roads literally consumed his army. The campaign which ended ingloriously was known as the Mud March. Burnside, while he carried a mark of shame, had been thrust into command of the Army of the Potomac. Unlike Hooker, who waged politics and backstabbing to get control of the same force. Hooker’s campaign was nearly identical to the Mud March, sans the mud, and he nearly would have succeeded if not for his many errors at Chancellorsville. While as a historian I would not argue that Ambrose Burnside was a good general, but he was not entirely in command of his circumstances. That, and he opposed the Confederate Army near its zenith under the command of Robert E. Lee.
Aside from its commander, Fredericksburg became a scar on the Army of the Potomac. Not until Gettysburg would this wound heal. When Pickett’s Charge was shattered in a similar assault, the Federal forces would chant, “Fredericksburg!” at their mauled foes.