Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville


Eastern Theatre of the Civil War

Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (map)

With Lincoln’s dismissal of McClellan after Sharpsburg the post of commander of the Army of the Potomac again became vacant and Lincoln pitched around for a replacement – finally appointing Gen Ambrose Burnside into the position. Born in Indiana, of Scottish ancestry, Burnside had graduated from West Point in 1847 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Artillery. Posted to Veracruz during the closing stages of the Mexican war, he arrived too late to see any action and served only on garrison duty. After the war he was assigned to the western frontier, where he briefly served in the cavalry under Braxton Bragg, then a Captain, protecting  the mail routes to California.

He resigned from the Army in 1853 and, although only a minor figure in his military career,  set up a company to manufacture the product for which he became widely known in military circles before the war – a superior design of cavalry rifle known as the Burnside Carbine. Initially contracted to mass produce the weapon for the army, his business collapsed among accusations that government officials had been bribed by a rival to cancel the contract, even though he had already heavily invested in plant – leading to financial ruin for Burnside. In 1858, he ran for a Congressional seat in Rhode Island for the Democrats, but was heavily defeated and went on instead to secure a senior position with the Illinois Central Railroad, where he met and befriended the company’s Vice President – a certain George Brinton McClellan.  Tall and imposing in stature, and jovial and friendly by nature, Burnside’s most prominent physical features were the huge bushy side whiskers that he wore all his adult life and for which he became famous . Originally known as “burn-sides”, the fashion became popular on both sides of the Atlantic and gives us the modern word “sideburns”.

Burnside had been offered command of the Army of Potomac twice before, the first being after the collapse of Peninsula campaign. However, partly out of loyalty to his close friend McClellan, but mostly through a stark realisation that he was unqualified for so demanding a role, he refused. After the fiasco of Sharpsburg, Lincoln again offered and he again refused, before finally – after an appeal to his patriotism – accepting in Oct 1862. In the late autumn of that year, and under heavy pressure from Lincoln, Burnside hatched a plan for a winter offensive. His army was massed south of Washington, between Manassas Junction and Thoroughfare Gap with Lee’s main force to his south at Culpepper Courthouse, and Stonewall Jackson and the Shenandoah Valley army to his west, south of Winchester. Burnside rejected the favoured plan of Lincoln and the Cabinet – a crossing of the Rappahannock at  Rappahannock Station and a direct assault on Culpepper along the line of the Orange and Alexandria railroad, followed by a thrust towards Richmond. He was afraid that Stonewall would attack his supply lines from the west, just as he had done to Pope in the summer, plus he had – perfectly correct – concerns that the railway would be insufficient to keep his massive army supplied. Instead, he dusted off an old plan of McClellan’s for a rapid march southeast, and cross the river at the small town of Fredericksburg, 25 miles away, outflanking Lee and opening the way for a descent on Richmond along the line of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad. The plan, while bold, was also risky since it relied on a critical dependency – the bridge at Fredericksburg was inadequate for the passage of a large force, and at any rate led directly into the town on the south bank creating a single choke point. This was to be surmounted by the deployment of pontoon bridges at various points, to allow a speedy crossing.

Burnside set out on 15th Nov and his leading elements reached Falmouth, a mile upstream of Fredericksburg on the north bank 2 days later, finding only 500 Confederate troops guarding the town on the south bank. The first part of the plan worked – when Lee realised what Burnside was doing he thought that the Federal troops would certainly cross immediately, and so deployed his army 20 miles to the south along the banks of the North Anna river, the next realistic defensive line. From that point on however, Burnside’s plan began to unravel. Due to a catalogue of administrative errors the pontoons failed to arrive on the 17th. The officer commanding the lead elements, Gen Edwin Sumner, begged to be allowed to attempt a crossing immediately using the existing bridge and nearby fords – arguing that this was their only chance to take the town while it was lightly held and then push on to occupy a ridge to the west of the town called Marye’s heights before Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia arrived. Burnside refused, believing that the heavy autumn rains would render the fords impassable and leave Sumner stranded on the south bank. This decision was to have catastrophic consequences for the Union when battle was finally joined.

The pontoons finally arrived, two weeks late, on 30th of Nov, by which time both armies had had ample time to assemble; 114,000 men of the Army of the Potomac on the north bank, and 73,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia on the south, by now well dug in on Marye’s heights overlooking the town. It wasn’t until 11th of December that Union engineers constructed the first pontoons, on either side of the town and under a murderous fire from Confederate snipers. Attempts to suppress the sniper fire by Union artillery on the north bank were ineffective as the rebels simply took shelter in the cellars under Fredericksburg until a brigade of Union troops crossed the newly constructed pontoon and fought a street by street battle to clear the snipers from the town, supported by more than 5,000 artillery shells fired from Union batteries on the north bank – the first major incident of urban fighting in the war.

Burnside’s army began to cross in the mid afternoon, and by noon of the following day the main force was on the south bank. Lee had withdrawn from the town and divided his army in two wings. The left under Gen James Longstreet, was dug in along Marye’s heights overlooking the town, whilst the right, led by Stonewall Jackson was massed in woods on Prospect Hill, with a railway line running parallel to the river, a mile south of the town opposite the southern pontoon bridge, as a thick early morning fog carpeted this section of battlefield. Probing attacks by Union troops revealed a gap in the defences where a patch of swampy woodland 600 yards wide extended in front of the railway line, and 5,000 Union men under Gen George Gordon Meade moved forward to exploit it. An artillery duel followed by a hand-to-hand battle rapidly developed around the gap as both sides poured in reinforcements and at one point Meade’s men succeed in breaking through the gap and reaching the main defences on the wooded hill, but failure to adequately support the breakthrough meant that Jackson was able to stabilise his front, albeit at the cost of 3,500 casualties to 5,000 for the attackers. By late afternoon, Jackson was withdrawing to positions south of town as the main focus of the battle moved to Marye’s heights.

The Commander of Lee’s left wing, Longstreet, had his men along a 600 yard long stone wall that ran across Marye’s Heights, deployed three deep with 7,000 reserves behind them as well as his massed artillery batteries. In front of him an open plain sloped down to the town of Fredericksburg, cut by a canal with just three small bridges, meaning that attacking Union troops would have to be funnelled at each of these crossing points, all well within range of Longstreet’s artillery – in short, the Confederates had created a near – impregnable position. Burnside, who had expected the morning action to the south of the town to be the main fight now ordered his subordinate Gen Sumner to assault the ridge, but it was a hopeless endeavour. Under heavy artillery fire as they crossed the plain, and each wave was cut down about 100 yards from the stone wall by repeated rifle volleys. When Sumner’s men failed to carry the defences Burnside sent Gen Joseph Hooker’s corps up from the town to try as well, but with predictable results. In all fourteen charges were made against Longstreet’s men, but all were bloody failures – no Union troops got closer than 40 yards to the stone wall before the attack was called off as darkness fell and Burnside ordered his men to retreat back across the river, having lost 8,000 casualties to only 1,500 Confederate in an action that was originally intended to be a purely diversionary effort to draw the Confederates away from Jackson’s position on Prospect Hill.

That evening a distraught Burnside first tried to blame his subordinates, then declared that he would lead a fresh assault the following morning in person, before being talked out of it by his aides. The night of the 13 – 14th Dec 1862 was bitterly cold, with the aurorae playing in the clear skies above as thousands of wounded lay scattered across the battlefield. The author Louisa May Alcott documented their plight in the 1863 novel Hospital Sketches, based on her experiences as a nurse tending the wounded after Fredericksburg. In total the Army of the Potomac lost 12,000 casualties against only 5,000 Confederate, most of them on Jackson’s front.

The news of the defeat at Fredericksburg was received with consternation in Washington, with  Lincoln writing “If there is a worse place than hell, then I am in it”. Yet such was his desperation to find someone, anyone, to lead the Army of the Potomac, that he initially retained Burnside in his post. Three weeks later, in January 1863, Burnside made an abortive attempt at a further winter offensive by marching back up the north bank of the Rappahannock, intending to force a crossing at US Ford, close to Chancellorsville. The heavy winter rains however turned the roads to mud and, with some of his subordinates openly agitating against him, Lincoln was finally forced to act, and Burnside was stood down, to be re-assigned to the western theatre where, in command of smaller forces in a theatre with less political interference, he enjoyed a measure of success.

There can be little doubt, that of all the commanders of the Army of the Potomac, there can have been few more unfitted to the role than Burnside, indeed it was said of him that he should never have held any commission at all above the rank of Colonel. Yet in general, the judgement of history has been kinder to him than it might have been, for the simple reason that no-one was more aware of his shortcomings than Burnside himself, it was role he never wanted and, had it not been for his sense of patriotism, he never would have accepted it. After the war, he enjoyed a successful career in the railway business, served three terms as governor of Rhode Island, having switched parties to the Republicans, attempted mediation in the Franco – Prussian war whilst on a visit to Europe and served  two terms as Senator for Rhode Island; he was also appointed the inaugural president of the National Rifle Association.

Burnside’s replacement as commander was Gen Joseph Hooker. After graduating from West Point in 1837, he served with distinction in the Seminole wars of the 1840’s and 1850’s and in the Mexican war. After leaving the army in 1853, he worked in farming and made an unsuccessful attempt to enter politics in California. He returned to the army at the outbreak of war with the rank of Brig Gen and again served with distinction during the Peninsula campaign and at Sharpsburg. Like his earlier predecessor as commander of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan, Hooker was an extremely able administrator and a very effective motivator of his men; but where he differed was in his aggressive attitude to combat – his nickname among the troops  was “Fighting Joe”.

After re-organising, reinforcing, re-equipping and restoring the army’s battered morale after the debacle of Fredericksburg, Hooker went on the offensive. In late April 1863, while maintaining his main force before Fredericksburg, he sent 10,000 cavalry under Gen George Stoneman northwest to cross the river at Rappahannock Station, and thrust south to attack Confederate lines of communication back to Richmond. At the same time 40,000 men under Gen John Sedgwick would renew the attack on Fredericksburg while Hooker himself took the bulk of his force, some 70,000 strong back up the north bank of the Rappahannock, then across to the south bank and across the Rapidan river to the south, just west of the confluence to the two rivers, intending catch Lee in a pincer. Hooker took up position with his force around a small hamlet called Chancellorsville, in a broad clearing close to an area of dense woodland known as the Wilderness, a few miles south of the Rapidan, and ten miles west of Fredericksburg.  Although outnumbered two to one, and in a precarious position, Lee – still at Fredericksburg –  wasn’t fooled by the move and defied military convention by dividing his force, leaving just 10,000 men to hold off Sedgwick, while he rushed with his remaining 50,000 to confront Hooker in the woods south of Chancellorsville.

The main action of the battle of Chancellorsville opened on the 1st May with an attack by Hooker to the southeast, where he soon ran into Stonewall Jackson’s men advancing towards him close to an unfinished railway line at Tabernacle Church. Despite early success by his men, Hooker seems to have lost his nerve – perhaps believing after the failed attacks at Fredericksburg that the best way to take advantage of his superiority in numbers was to draw Lee towards a defensive position and wear him down. Whatever the reason, Hooker withdrew from the fight and by nightfall had his men dig breastworks around Chancellorsville and waited for Lee to come on to them.

That night, Lee consulted with his main subordinate Stonewall Jackson and, at his urging, hatched what is remembered as the most audacious manoeuvre of his career. The following morning, Lee split his force yet again and sent Jackson westward with 26,000 men on a broad flanking march along the narrow roads snaking through the dense woodland in front of, and then around, the huge Union army until they reached the extreme western flank of Hooker’s position. In the late afternoon, Hooker’s men were preparing their meal when their pickets reported that an unusual number of animals were bounding out of the forest, first squirrels and foxes then larger creatures such as deer. Within a few minutes the reason for every creature large and small being flushed out of the woodland became horribly apparent as Jackson’s 26,000 rebel infantry began to pour out of the forest at a right angle to Hookers entrenched troops. Pandemonium ensued as the Confederates formed into line of battle and opened fire; within minutes panic began to spread along the Union line, which collapsed like a house of cards. Within a few hours, the Confederates came within range of Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellor House. The confusion in the Union ranks was increased further when a stone pillar against which Hooker was leaning was struck by a canon ball, knocking him temporarily unconscious. Dazed, Hooker refused to relinquish command and, but for the timely arrival of Union reinforcements, his entire army would have disintegrated there and then.

Night fell with the Union troops having retreated two miles before the fighting died down. Lee’s great victory, often called his “perfect battle”, was tinged with tragedy however. That night Stonewall and few aides were returning from a reconnaissance of the Union positions when they were mistaken by Confederate pickets for a Union raiding party and fired at. Jackson was severely wounded and was carried to a field medical station where his arm was amputated. Although transferred to a military hospital the following day, pneumonia set in and eight days later he died; robbing Lee of his most able and talented subordinate. Still to this day, Stonewall Jackson’s sweep around the wing of the Union army at Chancellorsville is studied as the perfect example of how to carry out an outflanking manoeuvre.

Fighting resumed the following day, with the arrival of significant Union reinforcements, and the two armies clashed again at Salem Church and at the second battle of Fredericksburg, but by the end of the 4th of May, Hooker had had enough and withdrew back across the Rappahannock, robbing Lee of the chance to destroy the Army of the Potomac. The Union lost 17,000 casualties at Chancellorsville (out of 133,000 engaged) against 13,000 Confederate (out of 61,000). The two interlinked battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were the high watermark of Confederate fortunes in the eastern theatre. Although both were resounding rebel victories, never again would a numerically superior Union force be beaten so easily in the field.



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