In several ways, Marye's Heights offered the Federals their most promising target. Not only did this sector of Lee's defenses lie closest to the shelter of Fredericksburg, but the ground rose less steeply here than on the surrounding hills.
Nevertheless, Union soldiers had to leave the city, descend into a valley bisected by a water-filled canal ditch, and ascend an open slope of 400 yards to reach the base of the heights. Artillery atop Marye's Heights and nearby elevations would thoroughly blanket the Federal approach. "A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it," boasted on Confederate cannoneer.
Sumner's first assault began at noon and set the pattern for a ghastly series of attacks that continued, one after another, until dark. As soon as the Northerners marched out of Fredericksburg, Longstreet's artillery wreaked havoc on the crisp blue formations. The Unionists then encountered a deadly bottleneck at the canal ditch which was spanned by partially-destroyed bridges at only three places. Once across this obstacle, the attackers established shallow battle lines under cover of a slight bluff that shielded them from Rebel eyes.
Orders then rang out for the final advance. The landscape beyond the canal ditch contained a few buildings and fences, but from the military perspective it provided virtually no protection. Dozens of Southern cannon immediately reopened on the easy targets, and when the Federals traversed about half the remaining distance, sheets of flame spewed forth from the Sunken Road. This rifle fire decimated the Northerners. Survivors found refuge behind a small swale in the ground or retreated back to the canal ditch valley.
Quickly a new Federal brigade burst toward Marye's Heights and the "terrible stone wall," then another, and another, until three entire divisions had hurled themselves at the Confederate bastion. In one hour, the Army of the Potomac lost nearly 3,000 men; but the madness continued.
Although General Cobb suffered a mortal wound early in the action, the Southern line remained firm. Kershaw's Brigade joined North Carolinians in reinforcing Cobb's men in the Sunken Road. The Confederates stood four ranks deep, maintaining a ceaseless line of fire while the gray-clad artillerists fired over their heads.More Union units tested the impossible. "We came forward as though breasting a storm of rain and sleet, our faces and bodies being only half- turned to the storm, our shoulders shrugged," remembered one Federal. "Everybody from the smallest drummer boy on up seemed to be shouting to the full extent of his capacity," recalled another. But each blue wave crested short of the goal. Not a single Union soldier laid his hand on the stone wall.
Lee, from his lofty perch on Telegraph Hill, watched Longstreet's almost casual destruction of Burnside's divisions as Jackson's counterattack repulsed Meade. Turning toward Longstreet, Lee confessed, "It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."
Burnside ordered Major General Joseph Hooker's Center Grand Division to join the attack in the afternoon, and late in the day, troops from the Fifth Corps moved forward. Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys led his division through the human debris of the previous assaults. Some of Humphreys' soldiers shook off well-meaning hands that clutched at them to prevent their advance. Part of one brigade sustained its momentum until it drew within 25 yards of the stone wall. There, it too melted away.
The final Union effort began after sunset. Colonel Rush C. Hawkins' brigade, the fifteenth such Federal unit to charge the Sunken Road that day, enjoyed no more success than its predecessors. Darkness shrouded the battlefield and at last the guns fell silent.
The hideous cries of the wounded, "weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear," echoed through the night. Burnside wrote orders to renew the assaults on December 14, wishing to lead them personally, but his subordinates dissuaded him from this suicidal scheme. On the evening of December 15-16, Burnside skillfully withdrew his army to Stafford Heights, dismantling his bridges behind him. The Fredericksburg Campaign had ended.
Grim arithmetic tells only a part of the Fredericksburg story. Lee suffered 5,300 casualties but inflicted more than twice that many losses on his opponent. Of the 12,600 Federal soldiers killed, wounded, or missing, almost two-thirds fell in front of the stone wall.
Despite winning in the most overwhelming tactical sense, however, the Battle of Fredericksburg proved to be a hollow victory for the Confederates. The limitless resources of the North soon rectified Burnside's losses in manpower and materiel. Lee, on the other hand, found it difficult to replenish either missing soldiers or needed supplies. The Battle of Fredericksburg, although profoundly discouraging to Union soldiers and the Northern populace, made no decisive impact on the war. Instead, it merely postponed the next "On to Richmond" campaign until the spring.
Last updated: July 25, 2015