Fredericksburg, Virginia is in the heart of one of the most historic regions in the Old Dominion. Its quaint old town section is ideal for walking. Museums, stores, cozy restaurants and a couple of excellent taverns are within several blocks of each other.
In early December, the town sponsors a Christmas parade. It is one of the most enjoyable and colorful of any I have seen; the streets are tastefully decorated for the season. It is Christmas as it should be.
150 years ago this month there was no Christmas cheer in Fredericksburg as two mighty armies converged on either side of the Rappahannock River and prepared for a battle that would cut through the town itself.
The Union Army of the Potomac commanded by General Ambrose Burnside, numbering 110,000 men, took aim at the Army of Northern Virginia, 70,000 strong, led by General Robert E. Lee, a scion of Virginia. Lee had already succeeded in becoming a legend in the five months since he took command of the largest force the South had in the field. His victories had already forced Lincoln to relieve two of his generals. Burnside should have filled out his retirement papers prior to the battle.
Mismanaged logistics, unclear orders and just generally poor leadership by Burnside delayed the river crossing, allowing Lee time to prepare his line.
On December 13, 1862, after an artillery bombardment and street-to-street fighting in the town the day before, a charge up Marye’s Heights by federal troops was launched against the best defense Lee could organize.
The attack was one of the worst tactical decisions of the war, even bloodier than Pickett’s Charge. Most Union troops never made it near the top.
Thousands of Union casualties lay on the field in the freezing night and through the next day following the attack. It seemed fitting the Aurora Borealis was visible that far south on the night of the 14th creating a ghostly veil over the dead and the wounded, many of whom would also die later beyond the reach of medical assistance. The cries for water from the wounded prompted one private from a South Carolina regiment to crawl past his lines and tend to the thirsty.
Many Union dead were stripped of warm clothing during the night by poorly clad Confederate soldiers. Lines of white, naked corpses could be seen the next day. It may have been the most ghastly scene in a war that had no shortage of ghastly scenes.
Bad weather on December 15th allowed Burnside’s force to retreat back across the river to safety.
General Lee witnessed the slaughter on December 13th from a position on the heights. He remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible; we should grow too fond of it.”
150 years later, many are still too fond of it……and there is no end in sight.