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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg



Unlike George McClellan might have, Burnside quickly recovered after the defeat. Political pressure (and General Halleck) called for a winter campaign, despite the obvious impediments it posed for the aggressor. Burnside proposed a flanking maneuver and issued orders for the movement, but on the eve of the offensive General Franklin gave the two senior generals in one of his divisions leave to visit President Lincoln and discourage him about the operation. Though he obviously disapproved of this intrigue, the president did direct Burnside to cancel his orders and the general sailed up to Washington to discuss his obstructionist subordinates. They came to no conclusion, though, and Burnside went back to the army.


For the next three weeks Burnside planned a third campaign, but when his divisions finally started rolling upriver they ran into a three-day deluge that mired them in knee-deep mud. Franklin, Hooker, and the rest now abandoned any pretense of disguising their contempt for Burnside's ability, laughing at his plight. Their headquarters echoed with insubordinate sarcasm: even one officer who had begun to believe the gossip about Burnside thought Franklin's disparaging remarks had demoralized his entire grand division, and he felt Franklin ought to be court-martialed for it.

So did Burnside, who returned to Washington with the draft of an order for the dismissal or relief of eight senior field commanders and staff officers—Hooker, Franklin, and Smith among them. Long ago he had concluded that these men had ruined the army's confidence in him now he told Lincoln either he or they would have to go. After some thought, the president decided Burnside was right and agreed to replace him. On the night of January 25, 1863, Burnside returned to Falmouth from the capital. The following morning he turned the army over to its new commander, Joe Hooker, and went home to await another assignment.

The armies that had clashed on the plain and the heights faced each other across the Rappahannock the rest of that winter. Pickets chatted and traded, but in the spring they renewed the suspended hostilities. Hooker divided his forces for a feint-and-flank maneuver much like Burnside's last plan—and it might have worked, if Hooker had not lost his nerve on the same field where Stonewall Jackson achieved his greatest brilliance—but early in May a defeated Army of the Potomac returned to its Falmouth camp for the second time. A few weeks later Robert E. Lee slipped around the blue host on a march that led him to Gettysburg, where he would find his own stone wall, and the people of Fredericksburg drifted back to their battered homes to begin life anew.


On fame's eternal
  camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And glory guards
  with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.
                    Theodore O'Hara

The Battle of Fredericksburg left thousands of dead and mangled soldiers in its wake. In front of Marye's Heights, Federal bodies lay scattered in such profusion that it seemed to Confederates looking down on the scene that the deadly plain was carpeted in blue. More than 1,500 soldiers died in the battle; exposure and disease during the ensuing winter added hundreds more to that number.


In most instances, soldiers who died on the field of battle were buried near where they fell. On the southern end of the battlefield, Confederate officers agreed to a temporary cease-fire on December 15 to enable Union soldiers to bury their dead. At Marye's Heights, the dead remained on the ground until December 17-18, when, with Robert E. Lee's permission, Union burial parties recrossed the Rappahannock River and laid their fallen comrades to rest.

Soldiers buried the bodies hastily, often in mass graves. Many of those who fell in Meade's assault were buried en masse along the railroad, while at Marye's Heights hundreds of bodies were placed side-by-side in a trench not far from the stone wall, or simply dumped into a nearby icehouse. In some cases, the graves were so shallow that animals rooted up the corpses and devoured them.

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the National Cemetery Act, providing for the proper burial of those who died fighting for the Union. After the war, the United States government purchased twelve acres of land on Marye's Heights to be a national cemetery. Contractors gathered the bodies of soldiers killed at Fredericksburg and other area battlefields and interred them at the new cemetery. By 1869 the work was completed. The remains of fifteen thousand Union soldiers were brought to Fredericksburg, making it one of the largest national cemeteries in the country. Few had identification. As a result, almost 85 percent of those soldiers buried at the cemetery are unknown.


National cemeteries were the exclusive domain of Union dead. Confederate soldiers were buried at private expense in local graveyards throughout the South. At Fredericksburg, an organization known as The Ladies' Memorial Association purchased a plot of land adjacent to the Fredericksburg City Cemetery and brought the remains of more than 3,300 soldiers to it. It later erected a granite monument on the grounds and added a stone marker at each grave. The Ladies' Memorial Association continues to maintain the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery, while the National Park Service now administers the National Cemetery.

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Back cover: Fredericksburg residents return to their shattered homes. Painting by David E. Henderson. (NPS)
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