The American Civil War: The Battle of Fredericksburg

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EdTech Café

EdTech Cafe
 Standford EdTech (Author)
EdTech Café is a podcast series produced by the educational technology team at Stanford Medicine.
By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

During the late fall and winter of 1862, and at the height of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was looking for a commander of the Potomac Army who could come up with an effective strategy to win in the Eastern Theater. At the time, George B. McClellan did not seem to be up to the task, so he became the first commander to be removed.

The photo shows an old cannon, which was used during the American Civil War, at Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro Tennessee.
President Lincoln was in search of a competent commander for the Potomac Army after the Battle of Antietam. (Image: samray/Shutterstock)

The Reasons for George B. McClellan’s Removal

After George B. McClellan had let down Lincoln several times, Lincoln decided it was time to replace him. The last straw was after the Battle of Antietam when Lincoln realized McClellan was not going to pursue Robert E. Lee and attack the North Virginia Army.

McClellan was a Democrat, who thought emancipation shouldn’t have been done, and the Republicans were not capable of leading the war in the right way. Many Republicans believed that he had to keep his ideas about politics to himself because he was a military man.

But this was not the only reason that drove Lincoln to remove him. Lincoln thought that he had delayed going after Lee one month after the Battle of Antietam, and when he did, he was very slow. While Lee’s army had crossed the Potomac River in one night, McClellan’s army took six days to cross the river. Worried about Democrat voters’ reactions in the elections of 1862, Lincoln waited until after the elections to remove McClellan.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Ambrose Burnside Replaces McClellan

The portrait of Ambrose E. Burnside.
Ambrose E. Burnside replaced George McClellan to command the Potomac Army.(Image: Mathew Brady/Public domain)

On November 7, 1862, Lincoln put Ambrose E. Burnside in charge of the biggest army of the United States. Although Burnside believed he was not capable of taking on such a big responsibility, he accepted it anyway.

He was 38 years old, and a graduate of West Point living in Rhode Island. He had designed a breech-loading rifle called the Burnside rifle widely used during the Civil War. He was a pleasant man with many loyal friends.

After winning several battles off the North Carolina Coast, he had been promoted and revered for his victories. He was one of McClellan’s subordinates who had fought at Antietam.

Learn more about early Union triumphs in the west.

Burnside Takes Charge of the Potomac Army

He was unquestionably a courageous man but lacked the intellectual power to command an army of over 100,000 men. He felt the pressure from his civilian superiors to take immediate action against Robert Lee. So, in a straightforward plan, he decided to move his army, which was near Warrenton on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, toward Fredericksburg, Virginia. Lee’s army was near Culpepper and Shenandoah Valley. He had planned to get to Fredericksburg before Lee and move to Richmond. He thought he would put Lee in a difficult position if he could reach Fredericksburg before him.

He did succeed in beating Lee to Fredericksburg, but, to cross the river, he needed pontoon boats. But due to a logistical mistake by the Union Army, the pontoon boats were not available. They arrived so late that Lee had enough time to react. He put a large portion of his army into very strong positions west of the Rappahannock on a series of hills that paralleled the river.

Burnside’s mistake probably was his failure to adjust his plans when the boats didn’t arrive. He insisted on proceeding with the plan to cross the river at Fredericksburg. When the Union engineers started building bridges, Confederate soldiers fired at them from buildings in Fredericksburg. The Union artillery from the east bank of the Rappahannock responded by shelling the old city of Fredericksburg, and much of Fredericksburg was destroyed in this shelling.

Learn more about the election of 1860.

The Poor Performance of the Potomac Army

The Union engineers finally managed to build the bridge, and the army crossed the river. Finally, the two armies came close to each other. The Confederate Army of 75,000 men was on the high ground on the western part of the river. The Union Army of 120,000 men was on the even higher ground east of the river, on Stafford Heights.  

The portrait of Robert E. Lee.
Robert E. Lee was the commander of the Confederate Army that crushed the Potomac Army in the Battle of Fredericksburg. (Image: Julian Vannerson/Public domain)

With most of his army in position, Burnside hoped to get around Lee’s right side to put the Army of the Potomac between Lee’s right flank and Richmond. On the morning of December 13, Burnside ordered the attacks along the five-mile front.

Although the Federals made a breakthrough on the right flank, William Buell Franklin, the commander on that stretch of the line, failed to support the advance. He wasn’t efficient in carrying out Burnside’s plan to get around Lee’s right flank.

The fight moved to the high ground west of Fredericksburg, Marye’s Heights, which was the strength of the Confederate position. The confederates performed a strong defensive from their sound position. By the end of the day, 12,500 Union soldiers were killed compared to 5,500 Confederate casualties.

Burnside decided to do the assaults again the next morning, but his generals persuaded him not to do that. So, the Army of Potomac, after suffering a grim failure, had to retreat across the Rappahannock River on December 15.

Common Questions about the American Civil War: The Battle of Fredericksburg

Q: What was George McClellan known for?

George McClellan was the commander of the Potomac Army. McClellan was a Democrat, who thought emancipation shouldn’t have been done, and the Republicans were not capable of leading the war in the right way.

Q: Why did Abraham Lincoln remove George McClellan?

As the commander of the Potomac Army, George McClellan had let down Lincoln several times. He failed to pursue Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army commander after the Battle of Antietam.

Q: Who was Ambrose Burnside?

Ambrose Burnside was a graduate of West Point, an engineer, and an army commander. He was put in charge of the Potomac Army by Abraham Lincoln, but he wasn’t successful.

Q: Who won the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862?

The Confederate Army won the Battle of Fredericksburg. It was a crushing defeat for the Potomac Army, with more than 12,500 casualties.

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The American Civil War: The Battle of Fredericksburg
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