It was during this battle, watching the carnage from Lee's Hill, that Robert E. Lee famously said:

"It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it."

It is a phrase that I find interesting. It captures all of the fighting man's fascination for war, and the admission that war is terrible. Despite being terrible, war fascinates nearly everybody: think of our videogames, of the movies and of the many books about the subject.
Still, it remains a subject that is terrible in the sense that it should inspire awe: it is outside the everyday's flow of things.
I suspect that war makes people feel terribly alive, unless they are dead. Lee captured the contrast between the exhilaration of the warrior and the horror of the reasonable man (which apparently he was).

The (first) Battle of Fredericksburg was fought on December 13, 1862. This battle pitted the 120,000 strong Federal army of Ambrose Burnside against the 80,000 strong Confederate army commanded by Robert E. Lee. Lincoln had just replaced George B. McClellan with Burnside, despite McClellan’s minor victory against Lee at the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Burnside’s poor performance at that battle. Even though it was winter, Burnside (he is where the term sideburns came from) was determined to make a major push towards Richmond.

Burnside decided to make his strike across the Rappahannock River at the town of Fredericksburg. However, even though his army arrived opposite Fredericksburg on November 17, his pontoon bridges were delayed in arrival, so he lost his element of surprise. Once they arrived, the construction of the bridges was further delayed on December 11 by Barksdale’s Mississippi sharpshooters, who were hidden in the town of Fredericksburg. Throughout the day, Federal attempts to drive the pickets from the town with artillery met no success, as the Mississippians were hidden in cellars. Finally, that evening, Federal infantry was ferried across and conducted a street-to-street battle. All these delays gave Lee time to bring up more of “Stonewall” Jackson’s II Corps from downriver.

On the morning of December 13, the Confederate army occupied a long series of hills and ridges a mile west of the town. The ridges stretched from across Fredericksburg to the crossings 5 miles south. James Longstreet’s I Corps occupied the stone wall across from Fredericksburg, Marye’s Heights, a National Cemetery, and various other hills. Jackson’s II Corps, some of which were still arriving, occupied a forest to the south, and parts of the Richmond and Potomac Railroad. To the rear of this line sat the old Telegraph Road. E.P. Alexander, Lee’s unofficial chief of artillery, remarked about the field in front of Marye’s Heights, “A chicken could not live on this field if we open on it.”

Union artillery situated on Stafford Heights east of the Rappahannock River bombarded Jackson’s men at about mid-morning, to soften up Confederate positions. Union general Franklin, who commanded one of the three Federal Grand Divisions, then sent George G. Meade’s division (not to be confused with Grand Division) forward. The Federals were first enfiladed by 2 light horse artillery guns commanded by Major Pelham. J.E.B. Stuart ordered Pelham to retreat after one of these guns was lost. Then, the batteries of L. Walker began to fire upon Meade, compelling him to retreat at around noon.

Meade then moved forward again after an hour, with Gibbon in reserve, reaching the Confederate front line, which consisted of A.P. Hill’s Division. Meade managed to reach a small swamp in which Hill hadn’t thought of placing troops. Meade’s men poured forth through the swamp, but were met on the other side by the brigade of Maxcy Gregg. Then, the fresh division of Jubal Early counterattacked and filled the swampy gap. In the meantime, Gibbon had captured part of the Richmond and Potomac Railroad, but had then been forced back. By mid-afternoon, Meade and Gibbon had withdrawn and Franklin’s overall attack stalled.

In the meantime, Burnside had been launching elements of the Federal II Corps piecemeal towards Longstreet’s impregnable position. Attackers would have to cross 1 mile of open field, with a deep canal in the middle, under murderous fire from Confederates entrenched in a sunken road behind a stone wall. In close succession, from noon to late afternoon, the Federal divisions of French, Hancock, Howard, Sturgis, Griffin, Humphrey, and Sykes charged, faltered, and were pinned down. Another division, that of George Getty, almost was sent in, but was ordered back just as it started out. These 7 divisions took 8,000 casualties but only inflicted 1,500. Hancock’s division took 50 % casualties, with only 25% of the Irish Brigade answering roll call that night. Hooker declared that he had already lost as “many men as his orders required.”

That night, the cries of the Union wounded across Marye’s Heights filled the air. Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland, of Kershaw’s brigade, could not stand it. He walked into the field, dodging bullets at first, with an armful of canteens. He gave water to the Union soldiers he saw. For this humanity, Kirkland was nicknamed the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.

Burnside’s ill-fated plan had cost him almost 13,000 soldiers, opposed to 5,500 Confederate casualties. Burnside withdrew across the Rappahannock, but not after raving about leading a “last charge.” Lee had achieved one of the most lopsided casualty figures of the entire Civil War.

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