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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg



By now two o'clock had come and gone. It was at about this time that Burnside learned of Franklin's failure, ascribing it to a feeble effort. Convinced the Confederates had been shaken and that they might have shifted some of their strength to Franklin's front, Burnside decided to forgo fancy military tactics and simply hit both wings of Lee's army with everything he had, reverting to his plan of December 11. He directed Franklin to marshal his entire force for a direct assault on Jackson—which Franklin had already made, contrary to Burnside's intentions—and he ordered Hooker to pound Marye's Heights once again.

Franklin was in no mood to assault that wooded ridge again, for David Birney had just finished throwing back Jackson's counterattack. Franklin responded that he would do his best, yet most of his considerable strength remained idle. Hooker rode into Fredericksburg and conferred with Couch, who wanted to make a stab on the far right, where he had originally intended Howard to strike. Couch believed such an assault would work if Hooker used some of the four divisions he had left, but Hooker doubted whether the heights could be carried at all. He sent an aide to Burnside with that opinion, but the commanding general insisted that he cooperate. At that Hooker turned away from Couch and rode personally to general headquarters to persuade Burnside the attack should be called off. Meanwhile, one of his divisions fell into the fight behind the mass of mixed commands on the plain beyond the city.


At 3:40 P.M. two officers on either end of Burnside's line scribbled exaggerated descriptions of the situation before them. On the left, General Hardie jotted down Franklin's pessimistic assessment of his own plight: two of his divisions were broken down, he said, and all the rest (but one) were engaged. Hardie promised that Franklin would make an attack if he could, but his message lacked enthusiasm. At the same instant, on the right, one of Hooker's corps commanders relayed an incorrect report that Couch had carried Marye's Heights and wanted more support. Hooker had found Burnside only a few moments before, and Burnside decided to go for broke. He told Hooker to go back into the city and press his attack, fully expecting that Franklin would do the same.

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