The Background of the Fredericksburg Campaign

This entry is part of 1 in the series The FRedericksburg Campaign
  • The Background of the Fredericksburg Campaign
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Initial movements to FredericksburgThe Fredericksburg campaign was one of the first campaigns to be fought in the winter. Now, Stonewall Jackson had maneuvered in the Shenandoah Valley during the winter but up to this point in the war no one had fought a full-fledged battle yet. The campaign took place from December 11 to December 15th 1862.

The Union Army was a massive force of some 114,000 men. They were positioned on the north side of the Rappahannock around the town of Falmouth. The army was commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, who had succeeded Maj. Gen. George McClellan. He had been removed by President Lincoln after failing to aggressively pursue the defeated Confederates after the bloody Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.

Burnside’s force was divided into three Grand Divisions plus a Reserve. The Army of the Potomac was comprised of 120,000 men, of whom 114,000 would be engaged in the coming battle:

Opposing the Union Army of the Potomac was the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert Robert E. Lee. His army had nearly 85,000 men, with 72,500 engaged. His organization of the army into corps was approved by an act of the Confederate Congress on November 6, 1862.

The two armies at Fredericksburg represented the largest number of armed men that ever confronted each other for combat during the Civil War.

Burnside’s plan called a crossing of the river using pontoon bridges. His original plan called for a crossing in mid-November but because of bureaucratic bungling the bridges didn’t arrive according to his plan. On November 14, the 50th New York Engineers reported the pontoons were ready to move, except for a lack of the 270 horses needed to move them. Unknown to Burnside, most of the bridging was still on the upper Potomac. Communications between Burnside’s staff engineer Cyrus B. Comstock and the Engineer Brigade commander Daniel P. Woodbury indicate that Burnside had assumed the bridging was en route to Washington based on orders given on November 6.

Meanwhile General Sumner strongly urged an immediate crossing of the river to scatter the token Confederate force of 500 men in the town and occupying the commanding heights to the west. Burnside became anxious, concerned that the increasing autumn rains would make the fording points unusable and that Sumner might be cut off and destroyed, ordering Sumner to wait in Falmouth.

Robert E. Lee in March 1861Meanwhile, the Confederate defenders arrived in force and fortified key positions above and around the town. By November 23, all of Longstreet’s corps had arrived and Lee placed them on the ridge known as Marye’s Heights to the west of town, with Anderson’s division on the far left, McLaws’s directly behind the town, and Pickett’s and Hood’s to the right.

He sent for Jackson on November 26, but his Second Corps commander had anticipated the need and began forced-marching his troops from Winchester on November 22, covering as many as 20 miles a day. Jackson arrived at Lee’s headquarters on November 29 and his divisions were deployed to prevent Burnside crossing downstream from Fredericksburg: D.H. Hill’s division moved to Port Royal, 18 miles down river; Early’s 12 miles down river at Skinker’s Neck; A.P. Hill’s at Thomas Yerby’s house, “Belvoir”, about 6 miles southeast of town; and Taliaferro’s along the RF&P Railroad, 4 miles south at Guinea Station.

The pontoons did not arrive until November 25th, much too late to steal a march on the Confederates. However, Burnside was only facing half of Lee’s army. He might have been able to attack Longstreet and defeat him before Jackson arrived. Once again he squandered his opportunity. The full complement of bridges arrived at the end of the month, but by this time Jackson was present and Longstreet was preparing strong defenses.

Thus, the stage was set for for a bloody winter battle.

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