A Failure to Adapt: The Nadir of the Army of the Potomac
The Battle of Fredericksburg is among the most lopsided defeats the Union Army of the Potomac faced during the American Civil War, with over 12, 6000 casualties compared to the roughly 5,300 losses suffered by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The battle is infamous for the tactical ineptitude of the Union commanders–especially Gen Burnside and Gen Franklin—who wantonly ordered their men to make repeated assaults across open ground against a heavily entrenched enemy.
The Battle of Fredericksburg contained several tactical engagements which were rare on a Civil War battlefield. Beginning on 11 December, Union engineers building pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters hidden throughout the town. When artillery failed to flush out the Confederates, the Union then mounted an assault across the Rappahannock and eventually forced the Confederates to withdraw in one of the war’s few instances of urban combat. Having successfully held off the Union army in time for reinforcements to arrive, Gen Lee maintained a strong defensive position, with his Northern flank protected by a reinforced stone wall and the hills Marye’s Heights and his Southern flank protected by Prospect Hill. Any Union assault against Confederate positions would have to be made across open ground and against a well-entrenched force commanding the high ground. Beginning on 13 December, the Union assault against the Confederate’s Southern flank had limited success, where a single Union division penetrated a 600 yard gap of swampland in the Confederate lines; however, the Union army failed to exploit this success, and the Confederate position stabilized. Most of the fighting occurred before the hills of Marye’s Heights, where the Army of the Potomac launched over a dozen bloody assaults against Confederate positions—none of which succeeded in penetrating the enemy lines. Failing to make a dent against the Confederate position, Gen Burnside contemplated resuming the assault on the 14th before eventually deciding to withdraw his army back across the Rappahannock River.
Following the Maryland Campaign of 1862, the new commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, Gen Burnside, sought to establish a base of operations from which to rapidly advance his army toward the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Fredericksburg—with rail and riverine access—was a perfect position from which to base supplies and advance upon Richmond. Burnside’s plan involved fainting his army west toward Culpeper before then rapidly advancing east toward Fredericksburg. Necessary to Burnside’s plan was the timely construction of pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg to allow his army to rapidly advance southward. Despite the strategic potential of this plan, the pontoon bridges failed to reach the Rappahannock River in a timely manner largely because of poor communication and bureaucratic ineptitude. However, Burnside failed to adapt his plan and waited for the pontoon bridges while Gen Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia concentrated around strong defensive positions in the heights beyond Fredericksburg. Burnside’s failure to adapt resulted in the needless culling of his army before the well-dug-in Confederate positions. Ultimately, the Battle of Fredericksburg did little to change the strategic position for either army.
The Marine Corps Gazette and Leatherneck Magazine archives have more than 100 years of articles. Click the images below to read articles about the Battle of Fredericksburg and its implications on the Corps, yesterday and today.
Civil War History Leads to Present-Day Lessons for Marines
Friction and Fredericksburg
Maj Allan C. Bevilacqua, USMC (Ret)
Civil War Marines: Four Frustrating Years
Col Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret)
Plan of Attack on Marie’s Heights, Fredericksburg VA. By Maj. Genl. John Sedgwick, USA, with the 6th Army Corps. Sunday May 3rd 1863
Fredericksburg – Spotsylvania Battlefield National Monument Virginia
Plan of the battle of Fredericksburg. Fought 13th Decr. 1862
Map of the Initial Movements of the Fredericksburg Campaign of the American Civil War by Hal Jespersen
Plan of the Battle of Fredericksburg
The Field of Fredericksburg: Showing the Positions of the Troops on the Morning of December 13, 1862
Map of the Battle Field of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862
The First Battle of Fredericksburg: Lessons of Strategic and Operational Command and Control
Maj Shannon M. Shea
USMC Command and Staff College
Mapping the Battle of Fredericksburg
Battle of Fredericksburg Trail Maps
National Park Service
Terrain and the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862
Geology of the National Capital Region
Field Trip Guidebook