In the city of Fredericksburg and surrounding Spotsylvania County, Central Virginia, the Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park is home to the battle sites of four important American Civil War battles: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.
One of the famous battles of the American Civil War, the Battle of Fredericksburg, is known as the most lopsided Union defeat of the war. It was one of the largest and deadliest battles of the entire war, with nearly 200,000 combatants involved.
None of the southern towns made famous by blood would become more famous than Fredericksburg. No population in any community in America would face calamity on a greater scale.
The battle of Antietam—the bloodiest day in U.S. military history—had occurred three months prior. In November of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln promoted General Ambrose Burnside to gain a victory before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863.
In mid-November 1862, General Burnside planned to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg and race to Richmond, the Confederate Capital, in order to get ahead of General Robert E. Lee’s Army.
With the delay of General Burnside’s pontoon bridges, General Lee blocked the Federals from crossing and fortified the heights beyond the town (where artillerist E.P. Alexander claimed that “a chicken could not live on that field”).
On December 11, 1862, U.S. artillery bombarded Fredericksburg – it would be the first time the U.S. Army would purposely target a U.S. city in an active battle.
This day would also witness the first opposed river crossing in U.S. military history and the first instance of urban combat in the Civil War.
December 12, 1862 – the Federals owned the city of Fredericksburg. While the Union command planned and prepared for an assault against ensconced Confederate forces the next day, the Union soldiers looted the city.
December 13, 1862, was to be the main day of the battle.
The opening shots were fired on the lower end of the battlefield, where the most decisive military main action occurred. A grand Federal assault was made against Stonewall Jackson at Prospect Hill. Though breakthroughs were made, delays, confusion, and lack of coordinated reinforcements stymied the only hope of Federal success.
On the upper portion of the battlefield, a diversion was made against Marye’s Heights so the Federals on the lower portion of the battlefield could succeed. Federal forces would send wave after wave of blue-coated soldiers, but they were met by devastating rifle and artillery fire from Confederates in a sunken road behind a stone wall and on the heights.
In the end, the maimed Army of the Potomac would manage to cross the river and immediately go into winter quarters. This was perhaps the lowest period of the war, known as the Valley Forge of the Army of the Potomac.
The grim arithmetic shows Lee suffered 5,000 casualties but inflicted more than twice that many losses on his opponent. Almost two-thirds of the 12,000 Federal casualties fell in front of the stone wall.
Continue exploring Civil War history in Virginia with more of our Virginia Battlefield Guides.