Mapping the Battle of Fredericksburg

In honor of the anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, which was fought December 13, 1862, the Cartographic Branch is highlighting some of its many maps related to Fredericksburg during the Civil War.

In the fall of 1862, both armies began concentrating around Fredericksburg, a town halfway between Washington, DC and Richmond, VA.  Union General Ambrose Burnside created a plan to occupy Fredericksburg, which was only lightly defended by Confederate troops, but this plan depended on speed. Unfortunately for the Union Army, the wagon trains carrying pontoon bridge sections were delayed. This left the Union Army with no means to rapidly cross the Rappahannock River and take Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia took up a position just west of town, fortifying the high ground from Marye’s Heights near downtown Fredericksburg south to Prospect Hill. Because of the delays, the Union Army arrived across the river from Fredericksburg in time to see the Confederate troops digging in.

Map of the Battlefield at Fredericksburg. RG 77, Civil Works Map File, G 204-27. This map, dated 1867, was created after the Civil War. It is based on other maps that were created during the war. It shows the topography of the battlefield area and other important features, like the Rappahannock River, the canal that bisected the battlefield in front of Marye’s Heights, and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. The map also shows the locations and names of names of local residents, including Major Lacy, whose home, Chatham, became the headquarters of Union General Edwin V. Sumner during the battle.

In the pre-dawn of December 11, the Union Army finally made its move. Using the darkness and a thick fog as cover, Union engineers began to construct temporary floating bridges made from pontoons across the river near downtown Fredericksburg. Additional pontoon bridges were also placed to the south; there were three crossing sites in total. At the Upper Crossing, the engineers came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters positioned along the riverbank, which prevented the completion of the bridge. A Union bombardment of the town failed to drive out the Confederates. Eventually, Union infantry soldiers were sent across the river in boats to clear out the Confederate sharpshooters. Fighting soon spread through the streets as the Union soldiers pushed the Confederates back. This allowed the engineers to complete the bridges. Union troops moved across the bridges and occupied Fredericksburg on December 12, looting the smoldering city and readying for the main attack, which was scheduled for December 13.

Sketch showing position of pontoon bridges and guns covering them, at Fredericksburg, Va., December 11-15, 1862. RG 77, Fortification File, Drawer 150, Sheet 29. This map shows the locations of the pontoon bridges (in red, crossing the river). Two bridges were constructed at the Upper Crossing at Fredericksburg, one bridge near the City Dock (Middle Crossing), and three bridges at the Lower Crossing, located south of Fredericksburg. The sketch also shows the location of artillery pieces, which were position on the bluffs above the river to help protect the crossings. Union artillery bombarded the city of Fredericksburg from these positions with over 150 cannons in an attempt to drive out Confederates who occupied the town.

On December 13, Union troops attacked at both ends of the Confederate lines, hoping to crush the enemy. The attack against Prospect Hill, on the southern portion of the Confederate line, began first. The Union commander, General Ambrose Burnside, intended for this to be the main attack. However, vague orders and confusion led to a much smaller attack against Prospect Hill. Nonetheless, the Union forces proved successful, striking Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops at their weakest point of the line. There, Union soldiers broke through the Confederate line. However, they were soon beaten back, and eventually forced to retreat back across the pontoon bridges.

Passages of the Rappahannock River and the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 11th to 16th, 1862. RG 77, Civil Works Map File, G117 (NAID 102279263). This manuscript map depicts the battle of Fredericksburg. Union positions are shown in blue and red, and Confederate positions are brown. The map also shows the pontoon crossings. The map has a note, in pencil, written in the lower left corner, which reads, “The property of Maj. Genl. Burnside + subject to his order. J.C.W. Mar. 20, 1863.” Note that this map is a specially protected holding, and is only available to view digitally.
Sketch of the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13th, 1862. RG 77, Civil Works Map File, G131-1 (NAID 109182787). This map, drawn by noted Confederate mapmaker Jedediah Hotchkiss, also depicts the main battles lines at Fredericksburg. Union forces are shown in blue and Confederate forces in red. The Cartographic Branch also holds two additional copies of this map. The citations for the others are RG 77, Civil Works Map File, G131-2 (NAID 109182789). and RG 77, Civil Works Map File, G443, volume 9, page 3.

Later that morning, on a plain adjacent to the city of Fredericksburg, Union troops began their attack against Marye’s Heights. Confederate troops were well entrenched, making use of an existing roadway, which had worn down to form a sunken lane, as cover. A stone wall ran parallel to the road, providing additional cover and creating a ready-made trench. Union troops, on the other hand, had little cover once they left the safety of the city. About 400 yards of open ground, bisected by a canal filled with water, separated the soldiers from the Confederate line. With artillery positioned on the heights and infantry well protected behind a stone wall,  the Confederate troops pushed back every assault by the Union forces. However, the Union Army continued its waves of charges against the stone wall as a matter of necessity; they feared that stopping the attack against Marye’s Heights would allow Confederate troops to crush the Union Army before it could re-cross the river on the pontoon bridges to safety. Part of one Union brigade reportedly came within 25 yards of the stone wall, but no one soldiers were able to break through the Confederate line at Marye’s Heights. By evening, Union soldiers, dead and wounded, littered the field. Living soldiers also lay on the field, huddled into any depression in the ground, or behind any cover that they could find.

Position of the Divisions of Humphreys, Whipple, Griffin and Sykes at the Battle of Fredericksburg, on December 13th, 1862. RG 77, Civil Works Map File, G119. This map shows the positions of some of the Union forces that advanced against Marye’s Heights during the battle of Fredericksburg.
Positions of Humphreys’ Division, Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13th, 1862 and December 14th, 15th, 16th, 1862. RG 77, Civil Works Map File, G130-1. This map, similar to the one above, depicts the position of General Humphrey’s soldiers during the attack against Marye’s Heights and the days that followed. One of Humphrey’s brigades reached within 25 yards of the stone wall. This map includes a note at the top, which reads, ” Accompanying Memoir or report of action by Genl. Humphreys, Dec. 20, 1862.” Other maps very similar to this one can also be found within RG 77, the Civil Works Map File, filed as G130-2 through G130-5.

Union troops slowly withdrew back across the Rappahannock River , dismantling their pontoon bridges behind them, determined to try again in the spring.

For more information about the Battle of Fredericksburg, see the following:

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

O’Reilly, Francis A. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006).

Pfanz, Donald C. War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg. (One Page History Publications, 2003).

Rable, George C. Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002 and 2012).

For more information on Civil War Maps held by the Cartographic Branch, see the following:

A Guide to Civil War Maps in the National Archives.

Other related blogs from The Unwritten Record: 

Mapping the Battle of Gettysburg

Jedediah Hotchkiss: Mapmaker of the Confederacy

RG 109 Confederate Maps Series Now Digitized and Available Online!

Mapping the Civil War: Antietam and South Mountain

Mapping Appomattox