Eyewitness 1862: Union's false confidence proves costly in Virginia

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Union Gen. George McClellan never seemed to have enough troops to attack Confederate armies.

His successor, Ambrose Burnside, on the other hand telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 13, 1862, that his numbers were sufficient to mount a strong attack at Fredericksburg.

"Lincoln and [Army General-in-chief Henry] Halleck both seem to feel quite easy, which is interpreted as meaning that they know of something outside of the situation at Fredericksburg to render the position more perfectly satisfactory than it yet seems to the public," the Pittsburgh Gazette reported on Dec. 15. "Burnside ... does not ask for any more men. He says he has all he can use."

Optimism cratered over the next few days, however, as battlefield reports made clear the size of Union losses. Burnside's bold but botched plan to cross the Rappahannock River, take Fredericksburg and then capture nearby Richmond ended with a Northern retreat.

The Gazette on Dec. 18 carried what it described as an eyewitness report on the battle. The writer described multiple advances on the breastworks and rifle pits that the Confederates, commanded by Robert E. Lee, had built on the hills outside Fredericksburg.

The Army of the Potomac's 2nd Division, commanded by Gen. John Gibbon, had momentary success in dislodging Lee's troops. "They pushed determinedly through the brushwood and bushes on to a grove of cedars, and through these up the hills towards the breastworks of the enemy. The works were carried, many prisoners captured and the crest of the hill gained, not, however, without heavy loss." Gibbon was among the wounded, hit in the arm while leading the attack.

The Confederates soon brought in reinforcements, and the Union soldiers were forced to retreat.

Elsewhere on the battlefield, troops under Gen. Abner Doubleday pushed the Confederates back a mile to their defensive lines, where the Union attack stalled under artillery fire. "During three successive advances and checks ... uninterrupted shelling was kept up by rebel batteries upon the bodies of [Union] troops at different points of the plain."

With the early winter darkness, firing slowed around 5:30 and ceased by 6 p.m. "On the left as well as on the right the battle came short of our expectations," the Gazette's on-the-scene observer wrote. "We gained some ground, but failed to realize the main object of the day's work -- namely the dislodgement of the enemy from their entrenched position on the heights overlooking the plain ..."

Initial orders called for renewed attacks the next day, but Burnside ultimately was talked out of making another assault and the Union army withdrew across the Rappahannock on Dec. 15.

"The position of the enemy at Fredericksburg was found to be too strong to be carried," the Gazette concluded, describing the event as "a repulse, not a defeat." The rival Pittsburgh Post, the city's Democratic anti-Lincoln paper, was less charitable, calling the Union assaults on heavily fortified positions "a shocking blunder and disaster."

The Post predicted that Burnside would be sacked and that Lincoln would recall Gen. McClellan to command the Army of the Potomac. The Gazette scoffed, but its rival was proved half right. Burnside soon was replaced, but by Gen. "Fighting Joe" Hooker, not McClellan.

After orchestrating the slaughter at Fredericksburg, Gen. Lee mused aloud about the brutal nature of armed conflict: "It is well that war is so terrible -- otherwise we would grow too fond of it."

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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