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Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg

   

THE WITHDRAWAL

Retreating across a river in the immediate presence of an enemy is perhaps the most dangerous operation a general can conduct, but Burnside extricated his army unnoticed. Artillery crossed first, beginning at dusk. Behind a thick cordon of pickets the infantry started over next, the echo of their footsteps muffled by a cold, heavy rain. By four o'clock in the morning all of Franklin's men stood safely on the left bank, and engineers began dismantling not only his bridges but two of those in front of Fredericksburg.

THE BATTLE LEFT FEW HOMES IN FREDERICKSBURG UNSCARRED. ONE HOUSE WAS HIT BY NO LESS THAN 132 CANNONBALLS. (USAMHI)

Provost details scoured the city for stragglers, flushing scores of them out of houses and cellars. A brigade of Regulars backpedaled toward the river as rear guard. When that last brigade reached the river bank its nervous officers found their assigned bridge taken up. After some frantic consultation they spotted another one still intact a few blocks away and marched their men toward it just as the gray skies lightened for another dreary day. Last of all came the provost guards, herding platoons of stragglers whom they had to ferry over in loose pontoon boats. By full daylight only the final fragments of the bridges remained.

When the fog burned away the Confederates finally discovered the flight, and a couple of Kershaw's regiments spilled into the city to picket the waterfront. They found a few more lingering looters. At least one returning citizen caught a Pennsylvanian asleep in his cellar, prodding him toward an officer at the point of his own bayonet.

The town lay ruined in some quarters, and nearly every house bore the scars of shell, round shot, or bullets. Three brothers who had grown up in Fredericksburg took leave of their companies long enough to examine the old family home, finding the library rifled. They tracked the course of one shell through the house, and counted the pockmarks on the brick walls. For all the damage, they considered themselves lucky. Had they proceeded to the garret they might have felt more fortunate still, for there lay the body of a Yankee who had been killed while pecking away at the distant Confederate works.

Hundreds of Union dead still lay where they had fallen in front of Marye's Heights. When the sun next emerged, the slope appeared blue with their clothing. Burnside made arrangements for a burial party to cross over the next day and hack mass graves out of the crusty December day. Once assured the Yankees were gone, however, poorly clad Southerners scurried out in the darkness to strip the wool uniforms from bodies that would no longer need them, and when Federal sextons reached the heights on December 17 they found the place gleaming fishbelly-white with naked corpses. Over the next two days they counted 918 bodies, only five of which they could identify as officers. For two days their picks and shovels rang, and many a hero like the New Hampshire major found an anonymous grave.

Of the 12,653 total Union casualties, more than sixty percent had fallen before the stone wall. That was more men than McClellan had lost at Antietam, and Burnside had not even held the field. Lee had suffered fewer than 5400 casualties.

AFTER THE BATTLE UNION BURIAL PARTIES RECROSSED THE RIVER UNDER A FLAG OF TRUCE. MANY OF THE DEAD HAD BEEN STRIPPED OF THEIR CLOTHING BY THE CONFEDERATES AND LAY NAKED ON THE COLD GROUND. (LC)

FIVE WEEKS AFTER THE BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG, BURNSIDE LED THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC UPRIVER IN A WINTER OFFENSIVE KNOWN AS THE "MUD MARCH." BAD WEATHER THWARTED BURNSIDE'S PLANS AND LED TO HIS DISMISSAL AS ARMY COMMANDER. (LC)

The failure and the disproportionate loss demoralized Northern soldiers and civilians alike. After General Sumner dissuaded him from resigning on December 15, Burnside exclaimed, "No man can ever know what this has cost me." At an inspection on Christmas Eve, the decimated Irish Brigade refused to cheer him until. Sumner discreetly ordered them to do so. Newspaper editors criticized the administration for urging a hasty move against the enemy, but Burnside responded directly, publicly assuming all responsibility for the disaster. Many of his subordinate generals—particularly Franklin, who harbored a more personal motive—pounced upon this admission and began slandering their commander openly.

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