From December 11 to December 15, 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers struggled for control of Fredericksburg, Virginia. This conflict was one of the ugliest of the war, with Union soldiers, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside, butchered in their forward attacks on entrenched Confederate troops led by General Robert E. Lee. The casualties of these five days demonstrate this brutality: Union troops suffered losses three times those of their enemy.
Burnside’s original plan was to cross the Rappahannock River and launch an assault on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, before Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia knew what hit them. However, his plans were foiled when the pontoons necessary to cross the river didn’t arrive; weather delayed their crossing even further once the necessary supplies had been obtained. Lee was able to fortify his positions throughout Fredericksburg, resulting in city-based combat for the first two days of the battle. With the Confederates positioned just outside the city at Marye’s Heights, Burnside ordered Generals Edwin Sumner and Joseph Hooker to attack, hoping to roust Confederate General James Longstreet from his position. Each time, however, Union forces were pushed back with catastrophic losses. By December 15, Burnside realized he was not going to successfully penetrate Confederate lines and retreated. This battle, early in the war itself, was just another example of the Union’s inability to take control of those locations at the heart of the Confederacy.