Why Did the Union Lose the Battle of Fredericksburg?

Clara Barton cared for many wounded Union soldiers after the Fredericksburg battle.
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“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee spoke these words as he observed his troops crushing the Union Army at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The Northern army had not been doing well, so President Abraham Lincoln sought fresh military leadership. The new commander, Ambrose Burnside, failed this first test. His plans and tactics were so spectacularly unsuccessful that he was relieved of command shortly afterward.

1 Setting the Scene

The commander of the Union Army, General Burnside, planned to attack the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burnside hoped to win by attacking the defenders on two sides. It was a huge battle, with about 200,000 officers and soldiers engaged in the fighting. Hostilities started on December 11, 1862 and lasted five days. In the end, the performance of the Confederate Army proved far superior.

2 A Reluctant Leader

By 1862, Abraham Lincoln was completely exasperated with the General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union's Army of the Potomac. Lincoln had already tried to remove McClellan twice. However, when the general refused to chase the Confederates after the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln replaced McClellan with Burnside, who had turned down the appointment before. Burnside felt the position was beyond his abilities, and he supported McClellan. Most of the army stood behind McClellan, so the insecure Burnside had no strong allies. Thus, he had no one close to advise him against combining his army into three massive divisions. These proved to be hard to move and control during the battle.

3 A Bad Start

Burnside planned to have his army cross the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg and advance to Richmond, the Confederate capital, just 35 miles away. The goal was to move quickly and surprise Lee's army. However, the only way for the 120,000 Union soldiers to cross the river was to use pontoon bridges. The Union troops arrived on November 19, but the pontoons were nowhere in sight. This eliminated a surprise attack, and Lee had plenty of time to arrange his army. The pontoons were not in place until December 11. Hundreds of Union soldiers were killed by Confederate fire during the crossing.

4 Inferior Tactics vs. Advanced Tactics

As the Union Army entered Fredericksburg, Confederate soldiers fired from inside houses and behind buildings. Unaccustomed to being bombarded from many sides, the Union Army had trouble organizing. However, Union soldiers did manage to spend a significant amount of time pillaging and destroying much of the town. This delay allowed Lee to move in reinforcements. Finally, on December 13, a Union assault on the Confederate’s right flank was successful, but lack of reinforcements caused the Northern troops to fall back. General Burnside, however, assumed the attack was going well and sent more troops to the left of Confederate line. This was a well-entrenched position on hill and behind a half-mile long stone wall. Confederate artillery and infantry troops easily prevented the Union from making headway. On December 16, when Union Army retreated, over one-tenth of the Union forces had been killed or injured.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.