Best Books on the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg:
December 13, 1862
While I typically create “best Civil War books on…” posts for the 150th anniversary of major (and sometimes not so major) battles, I usually come up with brand new things to say about them. In this case I’ll mostly be letting my prior thoughts do my talking for me since I managed to cover most of these in some detail prior to today.
As many (most?) of you know, today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought on December 13, 1862 between Burnside’s Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Burnside is an interesting character to me. He had some good days and weeks with his invasion of North Carolina in 1862, his performance before and at the “Siege” of Knoxville in late 1863, and even in the plan he had drawn up for the Battle of the Crater. However, he negated all of that good with his head-scratching performance on the southern end of the Antietam battlefield, his actual implementation of his plan at the Battle of the Crater, and most infamously at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Like all things Burnside, this campaign featured some good and some horrific. Burnside was able to steal a march on Lee and was in front of Fredericksburg as early as November 17. However, the devil is in the details, and the pontoon boats Burnside needed did not make it to his crossing point in time. Burnside at that point had simply lost the initiative. He could have made other decisions, but he chose poorly and crossed over into Fredericksburg weeks later. Although Franklin could have done better on the southern end of the battlefield on December 13, 1862, the slaughter at the stone wall is what this battle is remembered for, especially the bravery of the Irish Brigade.
Perhaps due to the relatively uninteresting and one sided battle, there aren’t a ton of modern treatments of the battle out there. Let’s go over a few which can help you to better understand the battle and the campaign which led to it.
The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War On The Rappahannock
by Francis A. O’Reilly
Quite simply this is the best account of the Battle of Fredericksburg to date. Here’s what I wrote back in 2003:
“Here is the definitive study on the Battle of Fredericksburg, from a Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP Historian to boot! Buy this book. It has a ton of excellent maps, done by Ed Coleman, which go down to the regimental level and show lines of elevation as well. This is the way all Civil War tactical studies should be produced. Frank O’Reilly’s book is the one to get. He doesn’t just focus on the fighting around the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights, giving equal time to the fighting between the Pennsylvania Reserves and Jackson. The regimental level of the maps is exactly the way it should be. The text is actually enhanced by the many fine maps, a statement which I can rarely make. O’Reilly also does a good job leading up to the battle and detailing the consequences after it was finished. Also, this one comes with a recommendation from Drew Wagenhoffer, designer for HPS’ Campaign Corinth, whose opinion on various books has proven very useful to me. 630 pp., 15 maps”
The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock (Military Campaigns of the Civil War)
Edited by Gary Gallagher
This is one of what I refer to as the “Gallagher Essay Series” from (mainly) the University of North Carolina Press. Gary Gallagher served as editor and put together a who’s who of current prominent Civil War scholars for each book in the series. I routinely looked forward to purchasing new volumes in this series, which had a long and successful run for major Eastern battles. Unfortunately Petersburg was omitted. Here are some introductory remarks from my review as well as a list of the essays (keep in mind that these were written when my main focus was wargaming the Civil War):
“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.”
- “The Making of a Myth: Ambrose E. Burnside and the Union High Command at Fredericksburg”
by William Marvel
- “Confederate Leadership at Fredericksburg”
by Alan T. Nolan
- “It Is Well That War Is So Terrible: The Carnage At Fredericksburg”
by George C. Rable
- “The Forlorn Hope: Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys’s Pennsylvania Division At Fredericksburg”
by Carol Reardon
- “The Yanks Have Had a Terrible Whipping: Confederates Evaluate the Battle of Fredericksburg”
by Gary W. Gallagher
- “Barbarians at Fredericksburg’s Gate: The Impact of the Union Army On Civilians”
by William A. Blair
- “Morale, Maneuver, and Mud: The Army of the Potomac, December 16, 1862 – January 26, 1863”
by A. Wilson Greene
The Great Campaigns Series looked at major early American battles and even had a Waterloo entry, if I remember correctly. These books were typically filled with interesting sidebars and plenty of illustrations. Here are my comments from 2004:
“This is a book in the Great Campaigns Series. It is a typical entry, with pretty good maps and numerous sidebars giving extra information about the campaign. I think there could have been a few more maps, but the ones present are excellent. There is a complete OOB at the back of the book, but it unfortunately only gives the PFD numbers for each Army as a whole. Casualties incurred are noted, and while interesting information, aren’t too helpful to the typical wargamer out there. 252 pp., 5 maps”
by George C. Rable
I haven’t read Rable’s “New Military History” of the battle of Fredericksburg. It’s light on tactical detail, heavy on the social and political ramifications of the battle. This book complements but should not replace O’Reilly’s tactical treatment listed at the top of this blog entry. Drew Wagenhoffer reviewed this one way back when in North and South and found its military portions lacking. Your mileage may vary, but it seems to me that the book would’ve been better off ditching the military aspect entirely, including the misleading cover. Some have compared this one to Ken Noe’s look at the Battle of Perryville, but Noe’s book focuses on the battle first and the social aspects and aftermath second. Rable’s book on Fredericksburg is the other way around.
Fredericksburg 1862: ‘Clear the Way’
by Carl Smith
This is a typical entry in the Osprey series, fine to learn the basics of the battle but too short to provide a lot of tactical detail. One interesting note is that the Order of Battle contains unit strengths down to the regimental level. Osprey was kind enough to let me reproduce that information in my regimental level OOB’s series, hosted here at TOCWOC. If you read the comments section, don’t worry. The files are there and available to be downloaded.
Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862 (Emerging Civil War)
by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White
Don’t forget this upcoming Savas Beatie title from fellow Civil War bloggers Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White. I don’t have much else to say on this one because it isn’t out yet. I expect this to be a good introductory look at the battle with a good level of tactical detail.
There are more than a few options available to wargame the Battle of Fredericksburg: