November 17-20, 2021
Fredericksburg, VA linked the Union’s capital, Washington, DC, to the Confederate’s capital, Richmond, VA. During the Civil War that made Fredericksburg a target. Four major battles were fought in and around this town between 1862 and 1864.
All these battles were fought between the Union’s Army of the Potomac and the Confederates’ Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee.
December 11-15, 1862
Union Commander: Ambrose Burnside
The Union’s second attempt to take the Confederate’s capital started off well enough. The Union Army got to Fredericksburg before the Confederates. But the Rappahannock River lay between them and the town. And the Union Army’s pontoon bridges were missing in action and kept Union forces from crossing the river for 10 days. That delay cost Union forces dearly. By the time Union forces crossed the river and occupied the town, Confederate forces had plenty of time to fortify the area behind it.
Early on December 13th, Union General George Meade attacked Prospect Hill on the Confederate right, defended by “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops. They broke through a lightly defended area, but Union reinforcements weren’t sent to widen the breach and the attackers were soon repulsed.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, Burnside launched Union brigade after Union brigade against Marye’s Heights. A stone wall along a sunken wagon road protected Confederate defenders.
The Innis house bore witness to the fierce fighting. It’s hard to stand on a spot where so many bullets whizzed by and not get a sense of the fear and terror the fighting men must have felt. The scarred interior wall looks the same today as it did in 1862.
Then and Now – Photos of Battle Damage to Innis House
But after the fight was largely over, enemies could still show compassion. For two days after the battle nineteen year old Sergeant Richard Kirkland (2nd South Carolina Volunteers) risked his life to care for wounded Union soldiers. A monument to his selfless act was erected in his honor. But the war eventually took his life too. He was killed during the battle of Chickamauga in September 1863.
After the war Congress created the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Over several years Union soldiers hurriedly buried on area battlefields were reinterred here. Of the more than 15,000 Union soldiers buried here, fewer than 3,000 were ever identified. Many graves contained the remains of up to five soldiers.
May 1-6, 1863
Union Commander: Joseph Hooker
Throughout the winter, Confederates held Fredericksburg while Union forces dug in on the opposite bank of the Rappahannock River. During that time, President Lincoln replaced General Burnside with General “Fighting Joe” Hooker.
Again, Union plans looked promising. A portion of the Union army kept the Confederate army in Fredericksburg. The rest of the Union forces sidestepped around the Army of Northern Virginia, crossed the Rappahannock River, and prepared to attack the Confederates’ rear. But Lee got wind of the attempt and barely managed to stop the Union advance.
The area this battle was fought in was known as “the Wilderness”, a 70 square mile region of thick, second-growth forest and twisted undergrowth, home to a few isolated farms, and a tangled network of woods roads.
Lee and Jackson came up with an audacious, extremely risky plan. Jackson’s troops marched well behind their own lines and snuck into position on the Union’s lightly defended right flank. Their attack routed the Union corps defending that position. Only darkness stopped the fighting. Later that night, Jackson reconnoitered between the lines to plan his next step. While returning to his lines, his own troops opened fire on him. He was seriously wounded and Dr. Hunter McGuire amputated his left arm below the shoulder. Jackson died a week later on May 10th.
Fierce fighting took place the next day at the Chancellor house forcing Union forces to withdraw toward the Rappahannock River, which the Union crossed the next day.
The Chancellorsville Visitor Center did a great job of leading you through the history of the battle. But it didn’t neglect the human dimension. People lived and worked here.
The soldiers on both sides that fought here volunteered or were drafted. Their stories are told too. Private William Hightower served in the 23rd Virginia Infantry. On May 3rd he was seriously wounded and his leg was amputated at the thigh. He died two weeks later. The uniform he was wearing when he was wounded is on display.
One very poignant display was a wall containing the names of more than 16,000 men who fought and died in and around Fredericksburg. Most of them were no different than us, living their lives as farmers, shopkeepers, sons, husbands, and fathers.
May 5-6, 1864
Union Commanders: Generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade
1864 heralded the beginning of total war. Ulysses Grant was now in command of all Union forces. The Union campaign extended along a 1,500 mile front. Prisoners were no longer exchanged. Confederates could not replace the men who were killed, wounded, or captured. The Union could. Union production of food, weapons, ammunition, and supplies were safe from attack. Not so for the Confederates as the war was being fought on their soil. The war would end when the Confederacy had no more men able to fight or materiel to fight with.
Although he chose to move with the Army of the Potomac, commanded by George Meade. Grant’s orders to Meade were simple. “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” For the next 11 months, that’s exactly what Meade did. The Union army maneuvered to get between Lee’s army and Richmond.
For two days, Union and Confederate troops tangled in the dense thickets and snarled undergrowth of the Wilderness. Much of the fighting occurred along the two main east-west roads through the Wilderness, the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road.
Battle of the Wilderness
Controlling and maneuvering large units was virtually impossible. It was every man for himself. The fog of war ruled. The woods filled with dense smoke. Tinder dry woods burst into flames. Wounded men on both sides burned to death. It was Hell on Earth.
Neither side could gain an advantage. After two days they separated.
What made this battle different is that Union forces did not retreat. They headed south toward Richmond, knowing that Lee would be forced to follow.
And follow he did, to Spotsylvania Court House, a viral crossroads controlling the most direct route to Richmond.
Spotsylvania Court House
May 8-21, 1864
Union Commanders: Generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade
Lee barely won the race to the court house and dug in. His lines formed a half-mile wide salient, or bulge, that became known as the Mule Shoe. Some of the fiercest, most brutal fighting of the war occurred here. And it was here that Union forces experimented with new tactics.
Most attacks were made on a wide front. If a defensive line could be pierced at some point along that front, additional troops could be sent to widen the breach and force the enemy to retreat. In this age of rifled guns and deadly accurate artillery, that rarely worked.
So Colonel Emory Upton sent 5,000 Union troops on a narrow, 200 yard front and managed to breach the Confederate center. He was eventually repulsed.
But Grant was impressed and on May 12th he sent 20,000 Union soldiers on a narrow front against the Mule Shoe. Fighting went on for 20 hours straight with neither side gaining an advantage. During that time Lee frantically constructed a new defensive line. Late that night he withdrew his troops from the Bloody Angle, leaving Union troops in control of a mangled mass of dead and wounded.
A total of 449,763 Union troops and 245,823 Confederate troops were engaged in these four battles. Of those engaged, there were 65,915 Union casualties (killed, wounded, captured, and missing) and 42,400 Confederate casualties. Overall, 15% of Union forces became casualties while 17% of Confederate forces did.
Grant knew he could make good his losses in men and equipment. Lee could not.
Like a pack of wolves after their prey, Grant kept nipping at Lee’s heels, bleeding him until he was too weak to resist.