Losing a Battle Does Not Mean Losing the War
December 4, 2009
"It is well this [war] is so terrible," said Confederate General Robert E. Lee; "we should grow too fond of it." He made those remarks on December 13, 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The battle would prove one of Lee's greatest victories and certainly his easiest. In something all too rare in that war or any war, the Union army played right into his hands and fought the battle of his choosing on the ground of his choosing.
Since their previous major combat, at Antietam in western Maryland on September 17, the opposing armies had rested and refitted. They resumed active campaigning in late October just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with much maneuvering but little fighting. Fighting would follow further in the fall, as the Union Army of the Potomac shifted southeastward to Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg in mid-November. If the Bluecoats had crossed the Rappahannock River right then and there, they might well have driven off local Confederate forces and had a straight shot south for the enemy capital, Richmond. Instead, they waited -- and waited and waited -- for their pontoon bridges to arrive. By the time the pontoons finally did arrive, so had Lee's main army, which took up a strong position on high ground just west of Fredericksburg.
The two armies maneuvered up and down the Rappahannock for several weeks. Then on December 11, the Yankees threw six pontoon bridges across the river right at Fredericksburg and just below town. Despite fierce Confederate resistance, the Federals eventually completed the bridges and began crossing to the right bank. Two days later, the Union army commander, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, ordered his forces to assault the Graycoat position. One Northern division, under George G. Meade, the future victor at Gettysburg, actually penetrated a gap in the Southern right. Unsupported, Meade's men could not withstand "Stonewall" Jackson's heavy counterattacks, which eventually restored the Confederate line.
Meantime the main battle raged farther north, as the Unionists emerged from Fredericksburg to charge the Confederate position at Marye's Heights, just west of town. Brigade after brigade, division after division of Yankees assaulted the heights, piecemeal. Brigade after brigade, division after division were repulsed. Altogether, just four Confederate brigades beat off three Union corps. It was while watching his veterans gain this great success that Lee remarked on the terrible fascination of war.
On that bitterly cold night, the Union forces remained on the field, many of them without camp fires. On Sunday the 14th, Burnside wanted to renew the battle by personally leading yet another charge against Marye's Heights. Fortunately for his soldiers and probably for himself, his subordinates dissuaded him from such folly. The two armies glowered at each other all day. Overnight, the battered Yankees withdrew across the Rappahannock and dismantled their pontoon bridges.
Fredericksburg was a terrible defeat for the North, with over 12,000 Union casualties and 5,000 Southern losses. It was also a blow to the morale of the Yankee soldiers and of the Union populace. Yet the defeat would prove only tactical. Yet again, Lee had defeated the Union army but had not destroyed it. Better Federal commanders would restore the soldiers' morale and would continue the fight. President Abraham Lincoln, moreover, remained unshaken in his resolve to win the war: to defeat the Confederacy, to restore the Union, and -- starting on January 1, 1863 -- to begin emancipating slaves. No matter how bleak the battlefront looked for the United States as 1862 ended, the U.S. Army and Armed Forces would surmount these challenges and would, within thirty months, go on to win the war.
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.