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.
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.
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.
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.
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. https://www.nps.gov/frsp.
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. https://www.archives.gov/files/publications/general-info-leaflets/guide-to-civil-war-maps.pdf
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