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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg



Stymied again, Burnside realized that he could not now make an uncontested crossing anywhere, so he decided to bridge the river where the enemy would least expect it—right in front of the city. Despite Burnside's warning to evacuate the civilian population, Lee had expressed doubt that he would ever strike there, or that he would try to lay his pontoons anywhere between there and Port Royal because the banks were so difficult. In fact, Lee anticipated the very plan Lincoln had proposed, with Burnside landing at Port Royal under the protection of navy gunboats and marching to cut the Confederates off at Bowling Green while Banks's army (which Lee had learned of) struck up one of the rivers at Lee's back.

Jackson's earthworks at Skinker's Neck convinced Burnside that Lee had divided his army between there and Fredericksburg, and he supposed he might throw down his bridges quickly, step between the two halves, and defeat the enemy in detail. At the least, he could hope to confront Longstreet's corps before Jackson arrived to reinforce him.


Burnside's eldest and most devoted lieutenant, General Sumner, had proposed a radical plan to the commanding general. Citing the firepower the Confederates could converge on the bridgeheads from the city waterfront, Sumner thought the entire army could more easily cross on the plain below town if enough artillery were brought up to support it. Then Burnside could march around Lee's right flank by the main road, abandoning his own line of supply and forcing Lee to fall back and protect his. Fredericksburg might thus be taken with much less loss.

Sumner's design was a good one. He was not the only one to think of it, and Burnside apparently considered it for a time, but eventually he opted for a more complicated strategy that might not only keep Lee off guard but impede his escape. He would divide his forces, crossing Sumner's Right Grand Division into the city and Franklin's Left Grand Division onto the plain downstream, while keeping Hooker's Center Grand Division for a reserve. Franklin would hit the Confederate right at Hamilton's Crossing, and Sumner would assail the heights beyond Fredericksburg, forcing Longstreet to either stand and fight while Franklin flanked him or to retreat in the face of a direct onslaught. Not only would such an approach be more likely to dislodge Longstreet, it might throw his corps into a rout and lead to its capture, either in whole or part.

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Prior to crossing the river, Burnside masses his troops near Fredericksburg. Sumner's grand division is camped closest to town, near Falmouth; Franklin is three miles to the east, at White Oak Church; while Hooker's troops are in reserve, near Stafford Court House. On the Confederate side, Longstreet holds a seven-mile line stretching from the Rappahannock River above Fredericksburg to Hamilton's Crossing, below the town. Jackson's corps is scattered over a wide area between Hamilton's Crossing and Port Royal, while Stuart's cavalry guards the army's flanks.

Burnside issued preliminary orders outlining his plan on December 9, and that evening General Sumner called his corps and division commanders together to familiarize them with the details. Major General Darius N. Couch, in charge of Sumner's Second Corps, said that most of the senior generals doubted the army would be able to cross in front of Fredericksburg; perhaps they shared Sumner's fear that forewarned Confederate infantry and artillery could annihilate any troops who crossed on bridges there.


Across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, on the bluffs overlooking the town, stands Chatham a plantation house built by William Fitzhugh beginning in 1768. At the time of the Civil War the house was owned by J. Horace Lacy, a major in the Confederate army.

Union troops occupied Chatham for the first time in April 1862, when General Irvin McDowell set up headquarters at the house. McDowell brought a corps of 30,000 men to Fredericksburg. He halted his command at Fredericksburg for a month in order to bring up supplies, after which he planned to march on Richmond. President Abraham Lincoln journeyed to Fredericksburg to confer with McDowell about the proposed movement and on May 23 dined with him at Chatham. That very day, Stonewall Jackson's Confederates attacked Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley and briefly threatened Washington, D.C. As a result of Jackson's success, Lincoln ordered McDowell to forgo his march on Richmond and take a portion of his command to the Valley instead. General Rufus King took over command at Fredericksburg in McDowell's absence and moved into Chatham.


The next prominent figure to come to Chatham was General Ambrose Burnside. The War Department summoned Burnside to Virginia in August to reinforce Union troops defending Washington. While waiting for his troops to debark at nearby Belle Plains, the genial, bewhiskered general camped on Chatham's front lawn. While there, he received a visit from his friend General George B. McClellan, whose troops, like Burnside's, were then steaming north on ships to protect the threatened capital.

On September 17 McClellan defeated Lee at Antietam, and the armies again drifted back to Virginia soil. Antietam was McClellan's last battle. Annoyed by the general's hostile attitude and frustrated by his unwillingness to bring Lee to battle, Lincoln ousted McClellan in November 1862 and appointed Burnside to command the Army of the Potomac in his place.

Burnside quickly took action. Within ten days after assuming command, he had his army marching east, toward Fredericksburg—and disaster. Leading the march was General Edwin V. Sumner, the 65-year-old commander of Burnside's Right Grand Division. Sumner reached Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, on November 17, but Burnside forbade him to cross the river without pontoon bridges, which did not arrive for another week. By then, Lee's army occupied the heights behind the town.

For three weeks Burnside delayed, pondering his options. When he finally tried to cross the river at Fredericksburg on December 11, Mississippi riflemen barred the way. Burnside wrathfully shelled the town and in the afternoon ferried troops across the water. The Mississippians held their ground until sunset, then fell back to the main Confederate line at Marye's Heights. By dark, Union engineers had bridged the river in several places with pontoons.

On December 12, Sumner's Right Grand Division filed past Chatham on its way to the bridges. The next day, with his army in place, Burnside attacked. William B. Franklin assailed the southern end of the Confederate line, while Sumner's men gallantly, but unsuccessfully, tried to storm Marye's Heights. Forbidden by Burnside to cross the river, Sumner watched the destruction of his command from Chatham's second-story porch.

By the time the battle had ended, 1,200 Union soldiers were dead and another 9,500 had been injured. Many of the wounded soldiers received care at Chatham. Clara Barton assisted wounded soldiers at the house as did poet Walt Whitman, whose brother George was numbered among the casualties. For surgeons working in Chatham's north wing, amputation was the order of the day. Surgeons tossed mangled limbs out the window, and they landed at the foot of catalpa trees in the front yard. A huge pile of limbs accumulated there—about a load for a one-horse cart, Whitman noted. Patients who survived the ordeal were sent to general hospitals in the North. Those who did not were wrapped in woolen blankets and buried beneath Chatham's cold sod. At least three soldiers remain buried on the grounds to this day; the rest have since been interred at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

The Union army wintered in Stafford County after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Union pickets guarding the river cut down Chatham's trees and piled the wood in the downstairs fireplaces to keep warm. As the trees disappeared, they tore paneling from the building's interior for fuel and scrawled their names on its barren walls.


Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac gained a new leader. In January 1863, Joe Hooker replaced Ambrose Burnside as the army's commander. Hooker led the army across the Rappahannock River above Fredericksburg in May and engaged Lee at Chancellorsville. At the same time, General John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps and John Gibbon's division of the Second Corps crossed the river at Fredericksburg and menaced the Confederates from the coast. Gibbon made his headquarters at Chatham—the last Union general to do so.

Sedgwick successfully attacked the Confederates at Marye's Heights, but later retreated across Scott's Ford when confronted by Confederates at Salem Church. Gibbon (whose division had remained in Fredericksburg) likewise withdrew, taking up the pontoons behind him. Once again Chatham became a scene of cruel suffering, as wounded soldiers—North and South alike—found care and shelter within its walls. When space on the dirty floors gave out, tents were erected on the grounds around the house.

By the time the war ended in 1865, Chatham was in desolation. The house's elegant interior had become a ruin: its beautiful grounds, a graveyard. The property languished until the 1920s when General and Mrs. Daniel Devote restored the house to its former splendor. Chatham's last owner, John Lee Pratt, donated the house to the National Park Service in 1975. Today it is the headquarters for Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County National Military Park.

The next afternoon, December 10, Burnside chaired his own conference at the Lacy mansion, Chatham, with Sumner and the chief officers of the Second, Third, and Ninth corps. He said he planned to begin building the bridges before dawn the following day. Debate over the news rose immediately and lasted for hours. Burnside's subordinates apparently resisted him, challenging the wisdom of bridging the river there. Many of the men on Sumner's staff suspected that any crossing before the city would be attended with great slaughter, but the meeting appears to have ended with everyone agreeing to give the operation his best effort. From there Burnside rode away to brief Hooker and Franklin.

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