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Civil War in Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg, Virginia is a quaint city located 60 miles north of Richmond and 50 miles south of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Antique shops and unique restaurants line the streets of downtown where students from the nearby University of Mary Washington and members of the community spend the day exploring what the city has to offer.

Fredericksburg is more than just a destination for shopping and dining. It has been at the center of American history dating back to the 18th century with both George Washington and his mother, Mary having homes located in the city. However, it was during the Civil War that the history of Fredericksburg took a more infamous turn.*

1888 Fredericksburg Panorama.

Geographical speaking, with its proximity to both the Union and Confederate capital, Fredericksburg was an invaluable strategic city during the Civil War. Whoever controlled the city, controlled an opportune jumping off point for a siege on their opponent’s capital. As a result, it was the host to two major battles: the First Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and the Second Battle of Fredericksburg (May 1863).


In early November 1862, President Lincoln replaced Major General George B. McClellan with General Major Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. This was a result of Lincoln’s frustration with McClellan’s failure to aggressively pursue the Confederates following the Battle of Antietam (Cokeley, 20). Burnside’s plan was both imaginative and ambitious. If everything went to plan, it could have easily shifted the tide of the war in the Union’s favor. His plan was to take a rail line located near Fredericksburg and use this to siege and take Richmond. However, this plan had a problem because of the vast amount of rivers, most notably the Rappahannock, which could stall advancement (Brown, 60). In order to cross the Rappahannock, Burnside called for pontoon bridges to be built in order to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies into the city. However, as a result of a shortage of supply carriages, the delivery of the bridges were delayed (Cokeley, 20).

While Burnside and his troops waited for the bridges to arrive, General Robert E. Lee caught wind of Burnside’s plan and mustered 72,000 troops to Fredericksburg. Lee positioned his artillery on Marye’s Heights, the high ground that overlooked the river crossing and the town. This strategic positioning made the Confederate forces well ready before the Union troops put the pontoon bridge in the water.

On the morning of December 10, concealed Confederate sharpshooters opened fire upon several Union engineers while they attempted to assemble and construct the bridges. Although the element of surprise was no longer in Burnside’s favor, he ordered a bombardment of the city and by nightfall, Union troops cleared, occupied, and looted Fredericksburg.

The following morning, Burnside ordered an assault in an attempt to push back against Lee’s right flank and take Marye’s Heights where Lee stationed 3,000 troops behind a crude stone wall, roughly four feet high, with heavy artillery behind them. Lee clearly had the strategic advantage with this positioning. However, Burnside sent regiment after regiment to their deaths as the Confederate regiment mowed the Union soldiers down by the thousands.

Although Union forces managed to secure the town and disrupt Lee’s flanks, Burnside was forced to withdraw his forces back across the Rappahannock on the 15th. By the end of it, Burnside lost more than 12,600 men either wounded, missing, or killed eclipsing Lee’s loss of only 5,400 (Cokeley, 20).

For our project, this battle is significant because Gordon himself participated in the battle. Although his position as a quartermaster did not place him on the front lines of the battle, he mentions it several times starting on December 11, 1862. 

He was not a part of the first bombardment of the city but later cross a pontoon bridge into the vacinity of the city on Decemeber 12, 1862. It was in this diary entry that he describes the horros of the battle saying that, "One [soldier] was shot in the neck with a shell the other two was shot in the body with rifle balls, the sight of these men made me sicker than anything that i had seen since I had been in the service." He gives insight into the sheer brutality of the battle and the horrors that soldiers from both sides witnessed and experienced. 


Brown, John. "Fredericksburg At 150". Army Magazine 62, no. 12 (December 2012); 58-61. 

Cokeley, Sarah R. “What We Learned... From Fredericksburg, 1862.” Military History 32, no. 3: 20.

Hennessy, John. “The railroad bridges over Potomac Creek–bean poles and trusses.” Mysteries and Conundrums. Accessed April 14, 2016.https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2010/09/11/the-railroad-bridges-over-potomac-creek-bean-poles-and-trusses/.

Hennessy, John. An Umnatched Visual Record: The 1888 Steeple Shots Reveal Some of Fredericksburg’s Lost Buildings.” Mysteries and Conundrums. Accessed April 14, 2016. https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/an-umnatched-visual-record-the-1888-steeple-shots-reveal-some-of-fredericksburgs-lost-building.

Battle of Fredericksburg. Available from: Wikipedia commons, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Fredericksburg-Overview.png (Accessed April 7, 2016).


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