The Battle of Fredericksburg, fought December 11-15, 1862, was one of the largest and deadliest of the Civil War. It featured the first major opposed river crossing in American military history. Union and Confederate troops fought in the streets of Fredericksburg, the Civil War’s first urban combat. And with nearly 200,000 combatants, no other Civil War battle featured a larger concentration of soldiers.
Burnside’s plan at Fredericksburg was to use the nearly 60,000 men in Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division to crush Lee’s southern flank on Prospect Hill while the rest of his army held Longstreet and the Confederate First Corps in position at Marye’s Heights.
The Union army’s main assault against Stonewall Jackson produced initial success and held the promise of destroying the Confederate right, but lack of reinforcements and Jackson’s powerful counterattack stymied the effort. Both sides suffered heavy losses (totaling 9,000 in killed, wounded and missing) with no real change in the strategic situation.
In the meantime, Burnside’s “diversion” against veteran Confederate soldiers behind a stone wall produced a similar number of casualties but most of these were suffered by the Union troops. Wave after wave of Federal soldiers marched forth to take the heights, but each was met with devastating rifle and artillery fire from the nearly impregnable Confederate positions. Confederate artillerist Edward Porter Alexander’s earlier claim that “a chicken could not live on that field” proved to be entirely prophetic this bloody day.
As darkness fell on a battlefield strewn with dead and wounded, it was abundantly clear that a signal Confederate victory was at hand. The Army of the Potomac had suffered nearly 13,300 casualties, nearly two-thirds of them in front of Mayre’s Heights. By comparison, Lee’s army had suffered some 4,500 losses. Robert E. Lee, watching the great Confederate victory unfolding from his hilltop command post exclaimed, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”
Roughly six weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, President Lincoln removed Burnside from command of the Army of the Potomac.