Review: The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock

by Brett Schulte on March 2, 2006 · 0 comments

Books On The Fredericksburg Campaign

The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock (Military Campaigns of the Civil War)
ed. by Gary Gallagher

This is the second review of Gallagher’s essay books where I will review each article individually, thereby giving readers a chance to judge for themselves whether or not enough articles interest them to buy the book. This one is on the Fredericksburg Campaign, deemed by many as not worthy of study due to the unimaginative way Burnside threw his troops at Lee’s strongest point. Recent studies, however, have mentioned that Burnside’s plan was not as horrible as is generally thought, and that he tried to make the main attack at Prospect Hill, only to fail due in part to General Franklin’s poor showing in that area. My favorite essay I the book was Carol Reardon’s describing Andrew A. Humphreys’ Division’s attack on the Stone Wall, and my second favorite was A. Wilson Greene’s essay describing Burnside’s Mud March and the time period between the Battle of Fredericksburg and Burnside’s cashiering and replacement by Hooker. My least favorite essay was George Rable’s on the effect of the Battle on civilians. It wasn’t that I found it poorly written, but this type of Social History essay just does not interest me much. Fredericksburg: Decision on the Rappahannock is a solid to good entry in Gallagher’s “essay series” of books. There are a good number of tactical and strategic essays in the book, and even the New History essays were good enough to keep me interested. I definitely recommend this book as a solid buy.

243 pp., 6 maps

“The Making of a Myth: Ambrose E. Burnside and the Union High Command at Fredericksburg”
by William Marvel

Marvel has written an intriguing and very thought-provoking article on one of the most commonly accepted “facts” of the Civil War, namely, that Ambrose Burnside was a terrible commander and an idiot who sent his men to die against the Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights. Marvel first mentions that the key commander in Burnside’s plan of attack, William Franklin, may have been overcautious at the time of the battle due to the scapegoating of friend and fellow McClellanite Fitz-John Porter. Marvel believes Franklin, in the absence of forcefully worded orders on exactly what to do, decided to fight not to lose, instead of fighting to win, and he subsequently did exactly that. Burnside originally wanted Franklin, on the Union left, to cut loose from his pontoon bridges, march to Hamilton’s Crossing, and roll up Lee’s right flank. Unfortunately, Burnside’s written orders were vague and did not resemble his verbal orders from a meeting the two Generals had a few days earlier. Because of this, the cautious Franklin essentially attacked with only one Division out of the 8 he had available (3 from I Corps, 3 from VI Corps, and 2 from Hooker’s Center Grand Division). Also, instead of attacking on the flank, he simply hit the right end of the Confederate line in a frontal attack which, though surprisingly initially successful, was eventually routed. Sumner’s men who eventually attacked Marye’s Heights were initially supposed to simply give a hard push to a retreating enemy, which would have been falling back because Franklin had gotten behind their flank. Instead, Franklin’s weak attack did no serious damage, and Sumner hit a horrible obstacle and paid severely for it. Marvel mentions that Edward Stackpole did a lot of damage to Burnside’s reputation with an article in Civil War Times Illustrated commemorating the 100th anniversary of the battle, and also in a book that he wrote on the subject. Thanks largely to these two pieces of information, and the efforts of Burnside’s enemies to discredit the General after his death, we have a very poor image of Burnside the General. While I personally think Marvel is apologizing a little too much for Burnside, I don’t believe him to be as uniformly poor as he is generally credited to be. For instance, he did well in his early 1862 expedition to North Carolina, and he stole a march on Lee to put him at Fredericksburg while Lee’s Army was still far to the northwest. Only a snafu with the Pontoon boats arriving late created the conditions that led to Fredericksburg. Burnside’s original plan for the attack on the Crater at Petersburg was also well-devised, going so far as to run the Division earmarked for the initial attack (a Division of United States Colored Troops) through training for precisely what they needed to do after the mine exploded. Unfortunately, Meade rescinded this order at the last moment, and the untrained White Divisions stalled in the Crater, causing a disaster. Burnside was cashiered for this, and he seems to have come up with some good plans in a few cases only to see them fail through his faults and the faults of others.

“Confederate Leadership at Fredericksburg”
by Alan T. Nolan

Nolan’s essay attempts to describe the thinking of the Confederate Leadership, mainly in the form of Robert E. Lee, before, during and after the Battle of Fredericksburg. He argues that neither side had wanted to fight the battle at Fredericksburg, with Burnside looking to use it as a base of operations, and Lee looking to fall back to a line along the North Anna River. This was interesting news to me, as it foreshadows a similar move by Lee in 1864 following the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. But as so happens in war, circumstances dictated that a battle be fought at a place unexpected to both sides: the town of Fredericksburg and its immediate surroundings. Lee repeatedly changed his mind about whether Burnside would cross at Fredericksburg or at some other place upstream or downstream from the town. At one point Lee had a few divisions of Jackson’s Corps at Skinker’s Neck because he was certain Burnside would cross there. This led to Burnside crossing at Fredericksburg because he believed it would surprise the Confederates! During the Battle, Nolan mentions that Longstreet performed better than did Jackson. Stonewall (or A.P. Hill, or both) allowed Hill’s Division to have a faulty line of battle with a huge gap in its center, and it cost many of Hill’s men’s lives. Longstreet, on the other hand, was all over his portion of the battlefield, making sure his artillery and infantry were supported and/or relieved when necessary. In the end, Nolan believes that Lee departed from his usual aggressive tactics, and as a result won the type of victory Lee needed to win more often, with the Confederates losing a lower percentage of their Army than the Union did. This was an interesting article, and brought up some interesting points, but I believe Nolan goes too far in his criticisms of Lee, not just in this essay but in his other published work as well.

“It Is Well That War Is So Terrible: The Carnage At Fredericksburg”
by George C. Rable

This is one of the “New History” articles I so often find boring, but Rable did a decent job keeping me interested. He chronicles the thoughts and feelings of soldiers and civilians following the terrible casualties suffered at the Battle of Fredericksburg. He talks about how soldiers suffered, in many cases, days and even months before they eventually died of their wounds. Another point Rable makes concerns the religious convictions of both sides and how they struggled to tie together their religious beliefs with what had happened. Even the Federals, who had obviously lost, still found ways to reconcile their belief and faith in God with what had happened to their comrades on December 13, 1862.

“The Forlorn Hope: Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys’s Pennsylvania Division At Fredericksburg”
by Carol Reardon

This is the type of essay I really enjoy. It is a brief history of Humphreys’s Division before Fredericksburg, and its battle at the base of the Stone Wall. The Division contained two Brigades of 4 regiments each. Each Brigade contained 3 9-month regiments and one 3-year regiment. Fredericksburg was the only major battle for a good portion of the men, although a few saw action at Antietam. This V Corps Division was mostly mustered out (except for the 3-year volunteers) by May 1862, and Humphreys was reassigned to a III Corps Division. These men advanced after the II Corps had tried numerous times to take the Stone Wall. Humphrey’s showed great courage by placing himself out front of the Division, and he required his other officers to follow suit. Allabach’s Brigade went in first, and got close to the wall, but was forced back by the severe fire. After Allabach’s men fell back to the swale containing remnants of the II Corps, Humphreys went back to get Tyler’s Brigade. Tyler’s men charged as it became dark, eventually firing at the flashes of the Rebel muskets in the dark, but they too had to fall back. After the battle, many of Humphreys’s men made reference to the “friendly fire” coming from their rear, which also helped cause the men to break. Remember, these regiments mostly had not yet “seen the elephant”, and were going into their first fight. Precisely because of this fact, some of Humphreys’s veterans later claimed, they had gone the farthest forward out of all the units attacking the Stone Wall that day. They said that since they were green and didn’t know an impossible task had been set before them, they went where veteran troops knew better than to go. The II Corps vigorously disputed this claim, and the truth can never be known with certainty, but the members of Humphreys’s Division can make as good a claim as anybody, according to Reardon. This was an excellent essay, and I enjoyed it very much. The only problem I saw was that the ma depicting their attack has North to the top, when North should be off to the right, with due West facing up. But that’s a minor issue in an otherwise flawless and interesting piece of writing.

“The Yanks Have Had a Terrible Whipping: Confederates Evaluate the Battle of Fredericksburg”
by Gary W. Gallagher

Gallagher leads off the essay by mentioning that Confederates typically had one of two reactions to the Battle. The first was utter jubilation, taking comfort in the fact that the Union had suffered horrible casualties, its main Army and its Government were demoralized, and prospects for European intervention were high. This is the view that is to be expected. However, the second view, espoused by Lee himself among others, was disappointed that Burnside had not attacked or that the Confederates had not attacked Burnside on the day after the Battle. This view came to the conclusion that although the Confederates had won a stunning victory, so much more COULD HAVE been done that the battle was a disappointment in retrospect. Lee appears to have been worried that the victory also would cause a false sense of security among the Southern population, and warned Secretary of War James Seddon of precisely that in a letter sent in January of 1863. Gallagher mentions that a lot of historians have passed over the Southern reaction and focused on the North, generally assuming the Southern reaction to be overwhelmingly positive with no negative aspects. He concludes that if a Battle generally assumed to be as overwhelming a victory as Fredericksburg could cause this diverse of a Confederate reaction, what would study of the results of other less clear-cut battles show?

“Barbarians at Fredericksburg’s Gate: The Impact of the Union Army On Civilians”
by William A. Blair

This is another of the Social History articles which I sometimes have difficulty reading. While decently interesting, I struggled a little to get through this. Blair points out that the Federal Army initially occupied Fredericksburg during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, but that the occupiers were generally made to respect civilian property due to their officers. This all changed, however, after McClellan and his Democratic Generals were replaced with men convinced of the necessity of total versus limited war. Fredericksburg was demolished during the second Union occupation of the town just before the Battle of Fredericksburg. Net worth and real estate were greatly reduced, both in food and livestock taken and in Slaves that ran away during Northern occupation. Blair concludes that the devastation wrought on Fredericksburg, instead of weakening civilian resolve in the area, only seemed to strengthen it. He compares this with the claims that Southern resolve was ruined during the destruction by Sheridan and Sherman in 1864.

“Morale, Maneuver, and Mud: The Army of the Potomac, December 16, 1862 – January 26, 1863”
by A. Wilson Greene

Greene’s essay is the longest in the book, and I believe it to be the best written and most interesting. This is exactly the type of essay I prefer, focusing on the military events between the Battle of Fredericksburg and Burnside’s removal. Greene is somewhat sympathetic to Burnside, stating that Officers such as Grand Division Commanders Franklin and Hooker, along with lesser Generals such as Baldy Smith and John Newton, combined to create an atmosphere of distrust in Burnside which permeated the Officer Corps of the AotP and spread somewhat to the men. He also mentions that after the debacle of Fredericksburg, some events outside of Burnside’s control contributed to the declining morale of his men. Examples given included no pay for almost 6 months, objections to the Emancipation Proclamation, disapproval of the way the Lincoln Administration was overseeing the war effort, and perhaps most importantly the rampant “McClellanism” present in the Army. Greene is of the opinion that the majority of the fighting men genuinely liked Burnside, but felt sorry for him and did not have faith in him as a commander. Burnside himself contributed to this perception by taking public blame for all that went wrong in the Fredericksburg Campaign. Greene writes about two failed offensives after Fredericksburg. The first was nixed almost before it began. Burnside planned to cross the Rappahannock some seven miles east of Fredericksburg at the Seddon House, and some Generals believe he would have succeeded. In addition, William Averell was to be sent around Lee’s left on a daring raid south which would end with himself and 1,000 hand picked men from 9 Regiments on the Virginia Peninsula. Unfortunately two Generals in Franklin’s Grand Division, division commander John Newton and brigade commander John Cochrane, took it upon themselves to leave on the eve of active operations to visit Lincoln in Washington and tell him about the rampant “dissatisfaction” in the army with Burnside. Lincoln immediately telegraphed Burnside to halt any pending movement, and his plans were scrapped. Later, he planned to move again, this time feinting at the Seddon House and moving around Lee’s left, in a move very similar to what Hooker later tried at Chancellorsville. Unfortunately for Burnside, the two Grand Division Commanders assigned to the most important movements, Hooker and Franklin again, actively and publicly stated that the plan would fail. Add to this a pounding Nor’easter only a day after the movement began, and the seeds of the miserable “Mud March” were sown. Greene mentions that having your two most outspoken critics lead operations is not a great way to lead an Army. Apparently a newspaper editor at the time said much the same thing to Burnside, and advised him to relieve his most outspoken critics. Burnside was going to release this order publicly, but was advised to take it to Lincoln, and he did so. As everyone knows, Lincoln decided to relieve Burnside instead and appoint one of those critics, Hooker, in his place. So ended the tenure of the shortest-lived commander of the AotP. This was an excellent essay, and covers an area that is usually glossed over by most historians. I cannot recommend it enough.

243 pp., 6 maps

© Copyright Brett Schulte 2005. All rights reserved.

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