At the time of the battle Fredericksburg was a town of about 5,000 people. It sat strategically placed along the Rapahannock River & also had a valuable rail line that help supply the Confederates in Northern Virginia. Fredericksburg was located in Spotsylvania County, which until December of 1862 was viewed as virgin territory…the war & its armies had not lay waste to its landscape.
The commanding Union General, Ambrose Burnside took the role as head of the Army of Potomac reluctantly, publicly questioning as to whether he was fit for job at hand. Political pressure was mounting in the North, especially with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which was put forth after Antietam in September 1862. Indeed, the attitude of getting to Richmond…roughly 50 miles south of Fredericksburg was alive & palpable.
Confederate President Davis also was facing political pressure. For Davis, the Union army needed to be stopped at the Rapahannock River. The South could not afford a further threat to Richmond & Union armies trampling the virgin landscape.
Ambrose arrived on the east bank of the river opposite Fredericksburg in late November. His plan was to cross the river on pontoon bridges and take Fredericksburg as well as the strategically important railroad spur to the South of town. The pontoon bridges were delayed, which allowed Lee & his Confederates to dig in on the high ground to the west of town along a Sunken Road at the base of Marye’s Heights. The heights of course were dotted with Confederate artillery.
By noon on Dec. 13, 1862 30,000 Union troops marched out of Fredericksburg toward these heights…nine divisions. The carnage was beyond reality. After 3 hours of frontal assaults and close to 9,000 casualties the Union army halted its attack. The next day Burnside crossed back over the river, evacuating what little remained of his position. Lincoln soon thereafter replaced Burside with Joe Hooker as commander of the Army of Potomac.
The battle of Fredericksburg was a complete Confederate victory and help fuel The belief throughout the South and even in some circles in the North that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was invincible.