Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wandering Mystic Meditation From Fredericksburg

It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise we should grow too fond of it. 

~ General Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862

The late Shelby Foote, a Southerner, authored a definitive narrative of the American Civil War in three volumes. He wrote this from the fifties to the seventies. During that period, the centennial of the war was celebrated, but he felt it should be a time of commemoration or even mourning rather than celebration. From 1861-1865, the Civil War tore apart families, friendships and a country, pitting neighbours with a common history against each other. This was the first truly modern war, where old tactics met newer, more-deadly weaponry. The result was bloodshed on a scale that foreboded what war would become. Numerous large-scale battles were engaged along a front spanning half the country and countless smaller engagements and skirmishes took place further afield.

We are now in a period that marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. This month is the anniversary of a major battle situated along the Rappahannock River in Virginia. Fredericksburg was one of the decisive conflicts of the war, a one-sided victory and an example of how plans can often go horribly awry. Let me tell the story.

Late 1862 saw yet another change of command for the Army of the Potomac, which was the Union’s primary deployment in the eastern theatre. A succession of generals had failed to gain an advantage against the Army of Northern Virginia's Confederate forces, plus even a small victory at Antietam failed to provide momentum to the Union. President Lincoln appointed Ambrose Burnside, the latest of many ineffective commanders, to lead the army into battle. His forces outnumbered the Confederate Army, as they always had, but the rebels had outstanding leadership.

Opposing Burnside was General Robert E. Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. His two corps commanders James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson were among the best generals ever to take the field. This three-officer combination remains one of history's most formidable command teams. The men they led were a rough lot, not nearly as well fed or equipped as their Union counterparts. Still, they had spirit and satisfaction from manhandling the Union army over and over again.

Burnside had a plan approved by Lincoln to break the impasse. He hoped to cross the Rappahannock river at Fredericksburg, while deceiving Lee into thinking he would cross elsewhere, then deploy quickly in a drive South to Richmond. Lincoln stressed that the operation must be rapid, as a deception could only keep Lee occupied for so long.

The plan ran into trouble early, with the pontoon boats for transporting the troops across the river being delayed. Burnside waited over two weeks for the pontoons to reach his army. In that time, Lee had moved his own forces to seize the heights overlooking the town and was well prepared to meet the oncoming attack. Longstreet’s corps formed the left side of the rebel line, while Jackson’s troops made up the right flank. By the time Burnside started across the river, the rebels were well entrenched and waiting.

The battle broke out on December 11th. Union engineers set up river crossings under harassing fire from Confederate soldiers. The town itself was shelled by Union artillery, which only further enraged the Southern troops on the heights, as did the looting and vandalizing in the town by Union infantry. On the morning of the 13th, Confederate infantry set out from the town onto the plains below Marye’s Heights, beneath the guns of the rebel positions. Burnside sent corps after corps across the river, attacking both Jackson and Longstreet. Confederate artillery and infantry were well positioned. Every approach to the heights was covered, and the result was slaughter. Wave after wave of Northern infantry ended up cut down by Southern fire. Any attempt to advance was driven back.

Burnside’s gambit astonished Lee, who figured no one would be foolish enough to attack Marye’s Heights. It also infuriated some senior Union commanders, who had warned Burnside about that part of the field. In the end, every assault on the rebel line resulted in disaster. Union troops were pinned down before the heights among the dead and wounded throughout the night. They heard the sounds of those dying around them and hoped merely to get back across the river alive.

Burnside himself was talked out of leading a final charge by his commanders. Instead, he ordered a withdrawal, settling on Stafford Heights for the winter to wait for spring. He had lost over twelve thousand men in the attack, compared to rebel losses of around five thousand.

Burnside would soon find himself replaced. His reputation subsequently faded, until he is now mostly remembered for the dismal failure at Fredericksburg and the style of facial hair called sideburns. Lee would go on to much glory in the war, though his path ultimately led to defeat. 

Lee had achieved a great victory, but he had less men and resources to replace the fallen than the Union had. For the Rebel troops, it was another victory to take pride in. For the Union forces, who had bravely marched into a hail of fire and survived, it was a lesson learned. The memory was still with them the following summer, when they held the top of a ridge near a quiet crossroads at Gettysburg Pennsylvania.

Today, Fredericksburg is a historic site under the National Parks Service. As Foote wrote, there was no instance of greater bravery shown in the war than by the Northern troops below the heights. This is a hard lesson for military commanders: war is a highly fluid endeavor and adapting to changing circumstances is an absolute must. Sticking to a brilliant plan that you devised merely because you think it is brilliant is a time-honored recipe for disaster. Same goes for fighting the good fight in the uphill battle of life.

William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.


  1. It still amazes me that William knows more about my country's history than I do....

  2. I can tell you did a lot of research for this article. Interesting highlights too. Very impressive.

  3. Tweeted and FB'd this.

    Hugs and chocolate,