Appendix – Battle of Fredericksburg (includes Marye’s Heights).’

To give you some lengthier background information to this incident, officially, the first battle of Fredericksburg took place on December 12/13, 1862, but, in reality, the run-up to the battle, according to an official letter, began more than 3 weeks earlier. On November 21, 1862, General Sumner, U.S. Army of the Potomac, wrote to the ‘city’ of Fredericksburg, alleging that the town had been ‘furnishing provisions’ and other materials to ‘armed bodies in rebellion against the Government of the United States.’

After November 26 or 27, it became obvious to observers that Fredericksburg would become the scene of a major battle.

The federal objective was an attack on the capital city of the Confederacy at Richmond, Virginia.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee learned of the intended operation and moved to have his own forces oppose the plan.

Delays to Federal bridge-building over the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg gave Lee more than enough time to assemble combatants numbering some 80,000 forming the Army of Northern Virginia. In opposition was the 115,000-strong federal Army of the Potomac.

While the December 13 battle raged, mostly in favor of the Confederacy, one large confrontation manifested itself on a long slope running from close to the Rappahannock River up toward the crest of a hill called ‘Marye’s Heights.’ (Sound this word as in Marie’s.)

Below the hilltop lay the ‘Sunken Road,’ or Telegraph Road, as it was officially known in the 1860s. A cart track, it had a rough stone wall on the north east side, facing the river, and overlooking the town and the grassy slope.

Any attacking Federal troops from the river, wanting to overrun the Heights with its many Confederate cannons and 2,500 sharpshooters would be forced to first scale the slope and then the wall at Sunken Road. Physically, the wall would not be hard to climb; however, first, one had to dodge hundreds of minie balls (shot through the rifled barrel of the muzzle-loading muskets used by both sides in the conflict).

Cannon fire and the multitudes of riflemen combined to spoil the poorly laid plans of Federal General Ambrose E. Burnside to cross the river and be on his way to Richmond.

It had all started when President Abraham Lincoln appointed Burnside to replace Major-General George B. McClellan who had bungled his leadership of the army too many times for Honest Abe, as Lincoln was often called.

The president handed the reins of power over the Army of the Potomac to Burnside, but it remained to see if General Burnside would fare any better than General McClellan (who would later run unsuccessfully as the Democratic Party’s nominee in the 1864 presidential election.)

Once given command by Lincoln, Burnside became the subject of a great deal of pressure from President Lincoln to make aggressive moves against Lee’s forces.

Lee was a brilliant commander of the rebel armies, while Burnside had already been badly beaten and embarrassed by Lee at the Battle of Antietam. Now as commander of the entire Army of the Potomac, and with the prodding of Abraham Lincoln, he began planning a ‘push’ toward Richmond by way of Fredericksburg.

Lincoln gives his approval of the strategy Burnside has detailed, but Burnside runs into problems.

The general’s strategy includes the use of pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock, but various delays in putting the proposal into action as well as poor coordination of the installation of the bridge sections allowed the Confederates enough time to assess the Federal strategy.

Once General Robert E. Lee became aware of the setup, he brought up enormous numbers of southern troops to the side of the Rappahannock River opposite the Federal forces. Those forces amounted to some 80,000 troops of the Confederacy accompanying an enormous amount of artillery.

Burnside is so long in following through on his strategy that General Lee’s army has now blocked his intended route and he is left with no alternative other than to detour over Marye’s heights; right into the waiting firestorm of the Confederate artillery and thousands of Lee’s sharpshooters. (Remember that many of the southerners came from the rural farm life, where they often had to shoot their dinner, so in order not to waste powder and shot, they learned to shoot accurately and would not often miss the mark.)

General Burnside now makes the fatal error of sending many thousands of his men into a string of wide frontal assaults across a half-mile of open field, culminating in a 350-yard dash up the final slope to the ‘Sunken Road.’

It must have been worse for these men, than for those who took part in the charge of the Light Brigade; although not quite as definite a fate as those who formed the legions of King Sennacherib. (It’s not really surprising that some have named these Federal troops under Burnside as ‘history’s greatest heroes.’)



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