Civil War 150th Anniversary: The Battle of Fredericksburg


By the end of the summer of 1862, the Union Army had suffered yet
another defeat at Bull Run. Even though the battle at Antietam was
a stalemate, President Lincoln was terribly
dissatisfied with the performance of George McClellan. He replaced him with Ambrose Burnside,
who immediately took his troops and turned south. We’re in
Fredericksburg, Virginia where the army of Burnside met the
army of Robert E. Lee. We’re on the the banks of the Rappahannock on the north side. From this spot, Burnside was tasked with getting his troops across the river
to fight in Fredericksburg and then ultimately to attack Lee’s
forces on the south side of the town with the intention of going beyond
Fredericksburg to Richmond. We’re here in the Civil War Rooms of the National Portrait Gallery. The Battle of Fredericksburg was a battle of very large numbers, over
100,000 men were immediately available to Burnside and he had the luxury of having tens of
thousands in reserve. Robert E Lee entered the fray with
around seventy thousand men. While Burnside set his mind to crush
right through Fredericksburg, Lee set his own mind to stop him after all, if the northern army were to
defeat Lee at Fredericksburg, very little would stand in the way of moving on to Richmond which would have made a dandy present
for Burnside to give to president Lincoln at Christmas, 1862 Robert E. Lee, however, had other plans and a great tactical advantage. On December 13th 1862, from this spot,
Marye’s Heights on the south side of Fredericksburg, Robert E. Lee’s artillery blazed away at
Ambrose Burnside’s army this same army of Burnside’s had spent a day trying to get across the river and also
another day fighting inside Fredericksburg. Lee also had troops along the sunken
road beneath here. General Edward Porter Alexander noted of this position, not a chicken
could live in that field once we open up on it. Any dreams that Burnside had of storming south from Washington and sweeping the field all the way to
Richmond were dashed in the beginning the moment he began wasting time, waiting on his pontoons to arrive. Had Burnside been able to take advantage of speed and surprise, his overwhelming numbers would likely
have given him a victory and could easily have changed the course of the war. This was not to be, however, as Lee’s army would win the day at
Fredericksburg, this victory greatly augmenting Lee’s reputation as a
military leader. A brief aside to this conflict at Fredericksburg it was this battle which led Walt
Whitman, the poet, to enter the war not as a soldier, but as a volunteer and a
nurse. Whitman’s brother George was a soldier
at Fredericksburg and as the story goes, Walt left New York to
come find him. While George Whitman continued to fight
through most of the rest of the war, Walt Whitman would become one of the
great chroniclers of the event in both journals and poetry. After the
war, women would take his experiences and
lecture from them, his talks almost always culminating with his oration of O Captain! My Captain!

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