In December of 1862, the US Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and faced the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. With a defensive line encircling Fredericksburg, the Confederates pushed the Federals back across the river in a devastating defeat for the US Army.
Why did the US Army commit to a battle when the odds seemed so stacked against them? Just weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Fredericksburg took place at a critical juncture in the war. From this point on, either the Union would be one where slavery was a thing of the past, or the Union would fall.
Each place below is a stop of the park driving tour. The tour follows the route indicted by the numbered stops on the circular battlefield tour signs on the park map and out in the landscape.
The battlefield includes shared public roads that may move at high speeds. Drive carefully. This route and audio tour is also available via the National Park Service app (available at the Apple Store and on Google Play).
The Sunken Road was an important commercial road in Fredericksburg before it became a bloody symbol of war in December 1862.
On December 13, 1862, United States forces under General Ambrose Burnside attacked the stone wall along the Sunken Road. Wave after wave of US soldiers marched towards the Confederate line; none made it closer than 50 yards. Confederate troops behind the stone wall and atop Marye's Heights held the high ground with their well-defended line. The Federal soldiers' assaults across Fredericksburg's open fairgrounds proved futile and left the soldiers exhausted and demoralized. They would not forget the loss they experienced at the Sunken Road.
Casualties on this side of the battlefield were dramatically lopsided. By the end of December 13, 1862, there were around 1,500 Confederate casualties and 8,000 Federal casualties.
After the battle, a question haunted these soldiers: how did this happen? In this tour we will learn about the events of December 1862, the circumstances that led to battle here, and how the country was forever changed after of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Fredericksburg Driving Tour, #1, The Sunken Road
Welcome to the Fredericksburg Battlefield Driving Tour! The tour begins at the Sunken Road next to the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. This first part of the audio tour introduces the context during which the Battle of Fredericksburg took place. Why was the US Army of the Potomac on the move in December of 1862? Why Fredericksburg?
“We gain the second fence, within sixty yards of the enemy’s batteries, and are met by a most disastrous enfilade and direct fire from the rebel artillery and infantry. We have not a single piece of artillery to support us, and yet we stand against shot and shell, grape and canister, Minnie and conical balls, to fight a formidable enemy, artillery and infantry posted behind stone walls and fortifications, with buck and ball fired from Harper’s Ferry muskets. It was impossible for human nature to withstand this, and yet we were left here all the afternoon unrelieved. No order to fall back came, and no order to do was assumed; the Irish Brigade was left to be sacrificed between the fire of the enemy from the front and flanks and the fire of our own troops, afraid to advance from the rear.” Captain John Donovan, 69th New York, Meagher’s Irish Brigade Marye’s Heights, the high ground rising over the present-day Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center and the current location of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, in December 1862, was a salient jutting out in front of a Confederate line that encircled the small Southern city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Between 11:00 am and 6:30 pm, US Army of the Potomac Commander Ambrose Burnside hurled 7 divisions, roughly 35,000 men against the Sunken Road at the base of Marye’s Heights. None got closer than 50 yards. The attacks resulted in exhausted troops and 8,000 casualties, killed, wounded, and missing, a stark imbalance from the 1,500 Confederate casualties on the other side of the stone wall. After all of this carnage, one question hovered in the minds of soldiers and civilians alike: How did this happen? In 1862, on the eve of the Battle of Fredericksburg, this area, the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights, was on the outskirts of town. Only a few residences and structures dotted the landscape. A 10-acre square directly in front of the Sunken Road was the town fairgrounds. There was a canal ditch between the edges of town and the Sunken Road, an obstacle that would cause bottlenecks of soldiers entering and retreating from the battlefield. Behind the stone wall was General Thomas Cobb's infantry brigade of 1,500 Georgians, supported by another 4,000 Confederates behind the hill. Nine cannons of the Washington Artillery from New Orleans were perched on Marye's Heights, plus additional supporting batteries on the adjacent hills. Captain John Donovan’s journey to the stone wall stopped when a shot took him down. He recalled events afterward: “When sensibility returned, the battle appeared to me like a dream, until a shell bursted close by, tearing up the earth and covering me with mud, fairly awaking me to a sense of reality. I looked up only to see the sun go down behind the rebel breastworks on the hill, upon no pleasing shouts of victory, no flank of the enemy turned by Sigel, no Banks,-nor, from the firing on the left, no ground gained by Franklin- nothing of any good obtained, while night was soon to cast its shadow upon a field of carnage and slaughter, the most frightful and terrible ever experienced, and still the bloody fight goes on…I now involuntarily did what before at any time I never could do- shed tears of gratitude for my own deliverance from instant death, and of sorrow for the many thousands of brave young fellows and comrades who fell that day, not martyrs to a cause, but victims to a grand blunder, and whom I shall never see again…I hope, sir, that I shall survive my wounds and injuries, and be able to fight again; but I trust in heaven, in the spirit of honesty and patriotism of the President, the army and the people; that the next battle will be fought for the Union, and not for the purpose of unmaking and making Generals.” Captain Donovan did not lose hope in his country or cause, but like many soldiers, he was aware that the army was a political pawn, and that the success of the army as a whole often hinged on the decisions of a few men at the top, whose motives were sometimes noble, sometimes entirely their own. The last time the US Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fought a large battle was at Antietam in September. The Army of the Potomac repelled the Confederate’s attempted invasion of the North, but at a great cost. Five days after the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, set to go into effect on January 1, 1863. This presented the Confederate states with an ultimatum: either return to the Union and allow the country’s debates over the institution of slavery to be resolved through the democratic, legislative avenues laid forth in the United States Constitution or accept that in a Union victory, the emergent United States would be a country without slavery. On November 7th, 1862, Lincoln gave General Ambrose E. Burnside command of the Army of the Potomac and tasked him with dealing a blow to the Confederacy, hoping that military defeat in conjunction with the January 1st Emancipation Proclamation deadline would encourage support within the Confederacy for reunification. Burnside’s plan was to move quickly south and threaten the Confederate capital, Richmond…Instead, he was waylaid halfway between the two capitals, at Fredericksburg.
Driving Directions to Chatham Manor, Stop #2
On exiting the parking lot, turn left on to Lafayette Blvd. In 0.7 miles turn left at Sophia St. Drive 0.4 miles and turn right at the Chatham Bridge. In 0.4 miles turn left on Chatham Heights Rd. then in 0.3 miles turn left onto Chatham Ln. Following the signs to Chatham Manor. Drive straight for 0.1 miles to the Chatham parking lot. *Accessible parking is available by turning left once you pass through the Chatham gates, all other parking is to the right.*
Chatham Manor sits atop Stafford Heights opposite Fredericksburg. The US Army of the Potomac began arriving on this side of the river in November, awaiting the orders to cross the Rappahannock River and face the Confederate Army of Norhtern Virginia's defenses encircling the town.
Both physically and chronologically, the Battle of Fredericksburg started at Chatham. Originally established as a slave plantation, Chatham embodies the main cause of the Civil War: the desire of white Southerners to maintain and protect the institution of slavery and the resulting material wealth that slavery produced for them.
On December 11, 1862, the Army of the Potomac commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside, crossed the Rappahannock River below Chatham Manor. The engineers had only managed to build the bridge halfway across the river when shots rang out and the Battle of Fredericksburg began.
Fredericksburg Driving Tour, #2, Chatham Manor
Part 2 of the Fredericksburg Driving Tour covers the stately Chatham Manor, a slave plantation that dates from 1771. It was from these heights that the US Army of the Potomac began building the bridges to cross into Fredericksburg. During the Battle of Fredericksburg Chatham served as a headquarters and hospital, but Chatham's history expands long before and well after the Civil War.
Welcome to Chatham Manor. It is best to explore this stop with a short walk around the grounds. Feel free to take your time wandering the elaborate 1920s-era gardens that lay between the parking lot and the house. On the opposite side of the house from the parking lot is a view of the Rappahannock River and Fredericksburg. When travelling around Chatham, take a moment to pause, look, and listen. Both sides of the house are great places to be present: to connect with nature as well as the complicated and layered history of this place. The history of Chatham, the house and grounds, dates long before the Civil War, and continues into the 1900s. Enslaved laborers and craftsmen built Chatham Manor in 1771 at the direction and financing of William Fitzhugh. In addition to owning hundreds of thousands of acres and at least one hundred enslaved people, the Fitzhughs were related to and good friends with other well-known Virginians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason. But friends could be costly in the late 1700s. The non-stop social requirement of hosting friends and relations drained Fitzhugh's purse. As a result, Fitzhugh sold Chatham 35 years after moving in. By the time Virginia seceded from the United States in May 1861, Chatham was owned by secessionist J. Horace Lacy. After war broke out, Lacy volunteered to serve as an aide de camp in the Confederate Army while his wife, Betty, packed up the family and moved out of Chatham for the rest of the war. This left the large, stately manor empty and available for the United States Army to use by the fall of 1862. To succeed in his recently-appointed position, Burnside needed to quickly cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg and continue the fifty-mile journey to Richmond. Prior to the war, bridges crossed the river for easy travel, but they had been destroyed earlier that year. Aware of this, Burnside submitted a request for pontoon bridging materials to be delivered to the Fredericksburg area. Expecting the bridges to meet him at Chatham, Burnside moved the army from their camps around Warrenton, Virginia. On November 17th, General Burnside and the Union forces began to arrive on Stafford Heights, opposite Fredericksburg, but the pontoons had not arrived yet. This delay gave Confederate General Robert E. Lee the opportunity to move his forces to the western edge of Fredericksburg. Lee wasn’t entirely sure what Burnside’s objective was, but he didn’t want the US army to get close to Richmond. Burnside delayed as he pondered his options for getting his army across the Rappahannock River safely. He did not start moving until December 11th, by which time Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was in position. Around 3am on December 11th, 1862, Federal engineers set out to build the pontoon bridges. However, there were Confederates hiding in the buildings along the river and when the engineers were halfway across, the snipers open fired on the weaponless bridge builders. The engineers had no choice but to retreat to safety. With few options left, Burnside ordered the cannons on Stafford Heights to fire on Fredericksburg in an attempt to push the Confederate riflemen back and ensure the safety of his engineers. This began a day-long attempt to cross the river with alternating periods of bombardment and bridge building, but without success. At 3pm, soldiers rowed across the river in pontoon boats to establish a bridgehead. They would attempt to force the Confederates in town to retreat, clearing houses, cellars, and streets, one by one. The resulting urban combat finally succeeded and the pontoon bridges were completed by the end of the day. However, Burnside’s plan for a swift crossing to catch the Confederates by surprise had failed. As soon as the first shots were fired, Chatham’s role in the battle changed from solely being a headquarters to also being a hospital. Men wounded during the bridge building were taken to Chatham where doctors and nurses treated them. Eventually, soldiers who were wounded on the other side of the river arrived at Chatham to be treated as well. The entire house was filled with wounded and dying men, many forced to lay outside on the cold ground waiting to be seen. Alongside the official Army doctors, women like Clara Barton and Dr. Mary Walker tended to the wounded men. In the days after the battle, over a hundred soldiers were buried in the yard. The Lacys returned to Chatham after the war but could not maintain their lavish lifestyle as their wealth had been tied to the enslaved people who had since claimed their freedom. Shortly after returning, the Lacy’s sold the house and 1,300 acres. The next eight owners likewise had difficulty keeping up the house and grounds. Chatham’s fortunes changed in 1920, when Helen and Daniel Devore purchased the property. In the years to come the Devores would transform Chatham from a former slave plantation to a showy, country retreat. Much of what you see at Chatham today, the current state of the house, the elegant gardens, the statuary dotting the grounds, is a result of the restorations to the property in the 1920s.
Driving Directions to Lee's Hill, Stop #3
To leave Chatham Manor, continue along Chatham Lane, which turns into a single lane, gravel road, that will take you around the house. Turn left at the exit onto River Road and then immediately right onto Chatham Bridge. Once off the bridge turn left at Sophia St. and drive 0.4 miles, taking a right at Lafayette Blvd. In 0.7 miles you will pass the visitor center. Once you pass the visitor center on Lafayette Blvd, continue for 0.6 miles, past the traffic light at the intersection with Route 3 (Blue and Gray Hwy). At the roundabout in 0.2 miles, stay on the inside lane to take the third exit onto Lee Drive. The parking area for Lee's Hill will be on the right in 0.2 miles.
The view from Lee's Hill is obscured for most of the year, but when the leaves have fallen off the trees in winter, Fredericksburg is visible from here.
On the western side of Fredericksburg, atop a hill once known as Telegraph Hill, Confederate General Robert E. Lee made his headquarters in anticipation of battle. Initially, Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were situated further south. As reports came in that the United States Army was amassing at Fredericksburg, Lee moved his army into position surrounding the town.
When Burnside and the Army of the Potomac arrived at Chatham, Lee was unsure of the Federals' plan. Where would Burnside cross the Rappahannock: right there at town, further upstream, further downstream? Lee was not prepared to face the larger US Army of 125,000 men because he had divided his forces: Jackson was in the Shenandoah Valley and Longstreet was in Culpeper.
From this hill, Lee was able to see both ends of his line: the north end above the stone wall and the south end on Prospect Hill. His vantage point gave him the opportunity to know what was happening and adapt if necessary.
Fredericksburg Driving Tour, #3, Lee's Hill
How would Confederate General Robert E. Lee respond to the movements of the US Army of the Potomac? Explore the answer to this question in part 3 of the Frederickburg Driving Tour from atop Telegraph Hill the heights from which Lee watched the Battle of Fredericksburg.
In order to visit the location where Confederate General Robert E. Lee watched the battle, you will need to leave your vehicle and walk the short but steep quarter-mile trail to the top of Telegraph Hill, known as Lee’s Hill. If you are visiting in the fall or winter after the leaves have fallen, you will be able to view parts of Fredericksburg from here, but if the leaves are still on the trees, the view will be obscured. After being stymied at Antietam, Confederate General Robert E. Lee went back to Virginia and tried to predict what the Army of the Potomac would do next. What he wasn’t expecting was for President Lincoln to change commanders, replacing George B. McClellan with Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside’s initially fast movements made Lee uncertain of what the Federal Army’s plan was. At the time, Lee’s army was split, putting the Confederates at a disadvantage in the face of the larger US forces. Lee was not convinced that Fredericksburg was the target when the Army of the Potomac began arriving across the Rappahannock River on Stafford Heights in mid-November. For his part, Lee preferred to form his line near the North Anna River, south of Fredericksburg, where he would be better situated to take an offensive position. However, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was concerned about the safety of Richmond and wanted to keep the US Army farther away from the Confederate capitol. Davis ordered Lee to move his defensive line closer to Fredericksburg. While waiting for Burnside to make a move, Lee organized his troops along a stretch of 20 miles to prepare for Burnside’s crossing, no matter where it took place. Once the US engineers began building their bridges and it became clear they would cross at Fredericksburg, Lee reorganized his line into a compact eight-mile defensive position on the hills west of town. The highest point along this line, just south of town, known as Telegraph Hill, became Lee’s lookout. This placed Lee in the middle of his line, giving him a vantage point to observe town and the open field in front of Prospect Hill. From these heights, the Confederate line held a distinct defensive advantage, despite having a smaller army. With their line established, the Confederate Army’s next task was to watch the movements of the US forces and wait in anticipation of the fight to come. They watched as the US engineers established 6 pontoon bridges in 3 locations across the Rappahannock River on December 11, and they watched as the US forces crossed the river and began organizing their formation on December 12. On the foggy morning of December 13, the US Army would test the Confederate line in two locations: at the Sunken Road in the assaults against Marye’s Heights, and at Prospect Hill, the southern section of the line, in a fight that would threaten, and almost break, the Confederate defenses.
Driving Directions to Howison Hill, Stop #4
Continue south along Lee Drive for 0.5 miles to the sign for Tour Stop #4, Howison Hill, and pull into a parking space on your right.
Howison Hill was once an artillery position with a view to Fredericksburg where a group of civilians watched the battle from.
Howison Hill, named for the Howison family that lived nearby, was an artillery position during the battle of Fredericksburg. In this area, Jane Howison Beale and her family watched the battle of Fredericksburg and she recorded her observations, thoughts, and feelings about the scene.
Lee utilized the high hills west of Fredericksburg for his defenses, giving his artillery clear views of the oncoming Federal troops. Citizens also used the heights to observe the battle, hoping that their homes would not be destroyed in the chaos. They watched and waited to see if they would have homes or a town to return to.
Fredericksburg Driving Tour, #4, Howison Hill
What was it like for Fredericksburg's civilians during the Battle of Fredericksburg? In stop 4 of the Fredericksburg Driving Tour, follow the diary of Jane Howison Beale, a local woman who watched the battle from near this spot.
Fredericksburg resident Jane Howison Beale was a widow by the time the Civil War began, having lost her husband in 1850 to a heart attack. Following his death, which left her with nine children to raise on her own, she began to keep a diary. This diary helped her overcome her grief and provides us with a vivid account of the civilian experience in Fredericksburg just before, during, and after the battle. At this stop, we will listen to Jane Beale’s own words. You are welcome to walk to the top of Howison Hill and see the cannons there, but with the trees grown up, there is no longer a view of town. Take this moment to reflect: how you might feel if you were in Jane’s position? November 19th, 1862 Watched with trembling hearts the long line of Yankees pouring over the Chatham hills...they come in countless numbers and our hearts sank within us as we thought of our little Spartan band who hold the fords, [ ] why do they remain to be sacrificed? And to bring destruction upon our town were queries that forced themselves upon us, nor did our wonder cease much when we heard General Lee had telegraphed to Colonel Ball “to hold the passage of the river at Fredericksburg at all hazards.”
December 11th, 1862 Martha, our chamber maid, came in and said in a rather mournful tone, “Miss Jane the Yankees are coming, they have got two pontoons nearly across the river.” Before we were half dressed, the heavy guns of the enemy began to pour their shot and shell upon our ill fated town, and we hastily gathered our remaining garments and rushed into our basement for safety...About 6 o’clock [in the evening] the sound of my dear brother’s voice was heard at the door...”come he said instantly, I have got an Ambulance for you, the enemy is across the river and there is not a moment to lose...”
December 13th, 1862 Again the booming of artillery sounded in our ears and this day there was but little cessation, all the gentlemen and boys left us and hurried to the top of a high hill on my brother’s farm which overlooked nearly the whole length of the battlefield...they seemed deeply impressed with the scene, they had seen Meagher’s Irish Brigade advance from the town, in full close columns and receive a storm of shell and shot from the Batteries stationed on Marye’s Heights which thinned their ranks and caused them to falter, but they returned to the charge with a bravery worth of a better cause and hundreds of them who escaped the fire of the heavy guns fell beneath the shot of the infantry stationed along the stone wall...we knew the enemy had been repulsed, but officers who came to Mr. Temple’s said that but a small portion of our Army had been engaged in the fight, and they supposed that it would certainly be renewed on the morrow as the Yankees had such an immense army that they would be apt to try it again.
December 16th, 1862 Early this morning a note and a messenger came from brother John, the note stated that during the night, the enemy had disappeared from our front and every man of them had gone across the river, every body was immediately in action, Mr. Brent and the boys started off to ascertain the condition of things in town...Bernard Temple went in with Mr. Brent and the boys, and when I saw him returning in the evening, I ran out to hear his report, he told me that the town was in ruins and the streets filled with all sorts of articles which had been dragged from the houses...but it was with strange and glad surprise that I heard that my house was apparently untouched, there were numerous holes in the roofs and sides torn by shells and balls but that the furniture was all in its place...I felt grateful, very grateful for all this and wondered how it had happened, that I should have escaped so much better than any one else. Jane Beale survived the war, living to age 67, but her diary ends here. In 1860, the city of Fredericksburg boasted a population of about 5,020 inhabitants, 3,300 white, 420 free black, and 1,300 enslaved. 34% of Fredericksburg’s households included enslaved people. While Jane’s experiences mirrored that of many white Southerners who feared the Union Army, black residents, free and enslaved, often felt differently. John Washington, an enslaved Fredericksburg man, recorded the following lines about the arrival of the Union Army in the preceding spring: “…every servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the Yankees for their glistening bayonets could easily be Seen. I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt already like I Was certain of My freedom now.” Washington crossed the Rappahannock River shortly after the arrival of the Union Army in the spring of 1862, an act through which he claimed his long-sought freedom. Jane Beale commented on the flight of the enslaved population in June, 1862, writing: “The Federal army has abolished slavery wherever it has gone and certainly if their design was to punish us by subjecting us to every inconvenience and indignity which an entire rupture of our domestic relations was certain to produce they have succeeded.” Fredericksburg’s social order was being unraveled even before the US Army returned to the area in November. On the eve of Battle of Fredericksburg, many remaining civilians fled and only a few hundred people, including Jane Beale, remained in town. Once the battle was over, 10% of the city was destroyed between the US bombardment on December 11, and subsequent Confederate fire on US forces in town over the next few days. It would take decades for the city to fully recover its pre-war population and to build an economy that was not dependent on enslaved labor.
Driving Directions to the Union Breakthrough, Stop #5
Continue south along Lee Drive for 3.5 miles until you see the sign for Tour Stop #5, Union Breakthrough and park at the vehicle pullout.
Trees line both sides of Lee Drive in the location where Meade's Division broke through the Confederate line on December 13, 1862.
Around 1:00pm on December 13, 1862, Union General George Gordon Meade's 4,500-man division crossed an open field under intense artillery fire. Meade aimed for a swampy tract of woods that Confederate General A.P. Hill left undefended, thinking it was impassible. When Meade's troops broke through the Confederate line they surprised unprepared South Carolinians. Soon the Confederates rallied, and without reinforcements nearby, Meade's men could not hold their position against Confederate General Stonewall Jackson's 38,000-man corps.
Fredericksburg Driving Tour, #5, Union Breakthrough
The best chance for a battlefield victory for the US Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg was to exploit a hole that Confederate forces left in their defensive line in the woods near Prospect Hill. While US forces did break through this line, they were unsupported and quickly fell back. Part 5 of the Fredericksburg Driving Tour explores the circumstances and consequences of this lost opportunity.
“The battle has raged fiercely today. The rebels occupy an advantageous position. Our troops are on an open plain, while they occupy a ridge in our front, and are sheltered by dense wood but about 1:30 P.M. one part of the line made a forward movement, our division, as usual, taking the advance. This was a fearful movement. We left the field over which we advanced, thickly strewn with our dead and wounded. We drove the rebels from their position in the rail-road cut at the edge of the wood. On entering the woods our line was thrown into confusion by a misunderstanding of orders, but our men pushed on boldly and reached the summit of the hill. During the confusion I received a shot through both legs, completely disabling me. Our men were soon after attacked by the enemy in heavy force, and being weakened by the great slaughter in our ranks while advancing, and wholly without support they were driven back over me in disorder. All that we gained at so fearful a cost is lost.” Sergeant Jacob Heffelfinger, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves On the afternoon of December 13, 1862, as his division broke through the Confederate line, US Major General George G. Meade sent multiple requests for support. None were answered. Meade was furious; victory was almost in his grasp. What support Meade eventually received was too little, too late. Meade later proclaimed to Major General John F. Reynolds, “My God, General Reynolds, did they think my division could whip Lee’s whole army?” The Union assault on the Confederate right at Prospect Hill, while initially successful, ultimately failed. Afterwards, facing a demoralized army, the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated who was to blame for the US defeat at Fredericksburg. On the morning of the battle Burnside’s orders did not prioritize one front over the other. However, in the aftermath of defeat the committee’s focus quickly shifted away from Major General Edwin Sumner and his Right Grand Division’s the doomed assaults on the Sunken Road, to Major General William Franklin and his Left Grand Division on this end of the battlefield. For his part, Franklin claimed that Burnside’s orders downplayed the importance of his front, instructing him to send “a division at least” and seize the heights “if possible.” Franklin stated during his interrogation by the Committee, “It is my opinion that if, instead of making two real attacks, our whole force had been concentrated on the left – that is, our available force – and the real attack had been made there, and merely a feint made upon the right, we might have carried the heights.” The debate came down to an argument over the orders that Burnside sent Franklin and two questions: 1. What was the intent of Burnside’s orders? and 2. Should Franklin have been more aggressive based on the orders he received? The congressional committee concluded that Franklin was at fault, reporting, “had the attack been made upon the left with all the force which General Franklin could have used for that purpose, the plans of General Burnside would have been completely successful, and our army would have achieved a most brilliant victory.” Politics and the powers of hindsight most certainly played a role in the committee’s decision to place the blame of loss on Franklin. As a result, Franklin’s military career with the Army of the Potomac was over. The question over Burnside’s true intention on the morning of December 13, 1862 is one still debated by historians and strategists to this day and will likely remain a point debate for years to come. The outcome, either due to Burnside’s lack of clarity, Franklin’s poor leadership, or a combination of the two, however, remains the same: the US Army lost its best chance at victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Driving Directions to Prospect Hill, Stop #6
Continue south along Lee Drive until the road ends at Tour Stop #6, Prospect Hill, in 0.5 miles.
The Confederates defended Prospect Hill with artillery placed near the tree line. They ultimately succeeded in holding their line and the US forces retreated back across the Rappahannock River.
When the Army of the Potomac arrived across the Rappahannock, the Army of Northern Virginia had few forces defending Fredericksburg. Robert E. Lee sent word to "Stonewall" Jackson, leading the 2nd Corps, to transition his troops from the Shenandoah Valley and join the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. Jackson's troops were sometimes referred to as a "foot cavalry" because of their ability to move quickly. On November 24, Jackson's troops began the march. They traveled 13 to 17 miles a day and covered almost 175 miles. The 2nd Corps arrived in Fredericksburg on December 3. These Confederate forces formed a defensive line on the southern portion of the battlefield here at Prospect Hill.
Fighting at here was not as lopsided at it was at the Sunken Road, though the casualties were still steep; about 4,000 Confederates and about 5,000 Federals would become casualties at Prospect Hill.
Fredericksburg Driving Tour, #6, Prospect Hill
The Confederate defenses at Prospect Hill, like those at Marye's Height, held up against Union assaults. The Battle of Fredericksburg ended in defeat for the United States and victory for the Confederates. In part 6 of the Fredericksburg Driving Tour, explore the aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg. What changed?...and what comes next?
Today, Prospect Hill is one of the most popular spots in the park to walk and enjoy the peaceful green space where a battle once dominated the surroundings. Observe the rolling hills and tree line in the distance. Think about how the natural features here would have helped or hindered an attacking army. How would you defend these heights? The Confederate 2nd Corps, led by Stonewall Jackson, occupied the defenses on this side of the battlefield. Confederate artillerists positioned cannons within the tree line, close to where the park road is today. The significantly larger artillery force in the United States Army would have difficulty locating and taking out Confederate cannons concealed at the edge of the woods. The same woods that provided protection also limited the ability of Confederate cannons to move. Troops here had to wait for Union soldiers to get close enough so that they could fire with maximum impact, hoping that the damage they inflicted would be worth revealing their position to a superior force. When US General George Gordon Meade’s division broke through a weak spot in the line, chaos and confusion swept over Confederate ranks. Sergeant William A. McClendon serving in the 15th Alabama Infantry, was a part of the Confederate counterattack that turned Meade’s forces back. He wrote, “When everything got right, Hoke ordered us forward, with orders not to fire until we had passed our men in front. We soon came upon them when we halted and was ordered to fire, and immediately we raised the ‘Rebel Yell’ and rushed on to the Yankees with the bayonet. They could not stand. They were not expecting such a deadly volley. They broke and we after them down the hill to the cut in the railroad where we overhauled a goodly number of them crouched down, waving white handkerchiefs to surrender.” Over the next few hours Confederate and Union troops would each cross the open field, trying to gain ground on either side of the railroad tracks, only to be repelled by the force of their opponent’s artillery. As twilight loomed, an uneasy peace overtook the battlefield. Unanswered questions lingered: Was the battle over, or would there be more fighting tomorrow? Despite Jackson's desire to conduct a counterattack, the terrain only worked in his favor so far as his own defenses. In the words of Sergeant William McClendon, “It would have been a suicidal policy for us to have advanced on them in the day time, for they had at least one hundred guns planted on Stafford Heights on the opposite side of the river that commanded the entire battlefield.” Instead, Confederate and Union soldiers waited in anticipation on December 14, 1862. Sporadic gunfire shook the nerves of men recovering from the previous day's ordeal. The dead and wounded stayed where they fell. In isolated incidences, soldiers from both sides made unofficial truces to bury the dead or trade goods. Sometimes they traded insults. Union high command debated whether they should renew attacks. Ultimately, Burnside’s commanders convinced him that the cost would be too high. The Army of the Potomac retreated. It was not until several days later that a burial truce allowed Union parties to revisit the fields to safely gather and bury their dead. With an army on either side of the river, the stage was set for a long winter. The US Army of the Potomac was demoralized and dejected. Many felt that they’d been used by Generals only trying to prove themselves or advance their political agendas. The Confederates, on the other hand, were overjoyed. In the face of a much larger force, they stood their ground and persevered. After the battle in the cold December night, soldiers reported seeing the Northern Lights, an unusual and rare occurrence this far south. Some Confederates viewed the sighting as Divine approval. However, all was not well in the Confederacy. Over the winter food became scare and the army foraged from the surrounding countryside. This intensified a food shortage triggered by inflation, poor transportation networks, and unregulated speculation of the available food supply. Discontented citizens, mostly women, took to the streets and led riots, looting governments food stockpiles and local stores. The war which both sides had expected to win quickly was taking longer than anyone had thought and was about to shift to a much more difficult affair. On January 1st, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. After nearly 2 years of war, President Lincoln officially recognized that the United States would not succeed without acknowledging and defeating, once and for all, the issue at the heart of Southern secession: slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation declared all persons enslaved in rebelling states to be free and authorized the enlistment of black men into US military service. With this proclamation, the war took on new meaning, no longer simply a war to preserve the Union as it was, the United States Army would now be fighting to build a Union without slavery. In 1863, a new phase of the war began, but the bloodshed was far from over. In May, 1863, the two armies that had fought here at Fredericksburg would re-engage 12 miles west of town at the Battle of Chancellorsville.