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As region preps for Civil War battle's sesquicentennial, top historians explore what Fredericksburg meant and what it cost in lives
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BY CLINT SCHEMMER
The Battle of Fredericksburg lasted but a few days.
Yet it left such ruin and rubble that it took decades for the town to recover.
The greatest catastrophe--save the whole Civil War itself--to ever befall the community disrupted local commerce, vaporized millions of dollars in property, splintered families and cost thousands of lives.
"Fredericksburg is a deeply human story. It's a story of soldiers. It's a story of fighting men who are also members of families, and who are citizen-soldiers," historian George C. Rable said. "It's a battle whose effects reverberate throughout the Western world."
That's how Rable set the stage Saturday for a four-hour exploration of the fight for which Fredericksburg is most famed.
"Years of Anguish: Struggle at Fredericksburg," the region's fourth speakers' forum on the war's sesquicentennial, featured the world's finest scholars on the battle: Rable, Susannah J. Ural and Francis A. O'Reilly.
The trio of historians enthralled an audience of about 200 people in the Fredericksburg Baptist Church, a bastion for Brig. Gen. William Barksdale's Mississippi sharpshooters during street fighting before the Dec. 13, 1862, battle.
"To most students of the Civil War, Fredericksburg appears to be a major blunder by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside with little significance for the larger course of the war. It seems the horrific bloodletting didn't really accomplish anything," Rable said.
But Rable, whose "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" is one of the two definitive histories of the battle, said Fredericksburg was vitally important at the time and remains a key conflict for people to study.
"It was a false high point for the Confederacy and a false low point for the Union," he said. "It points out that the war could have turned out in many different ways than occurred."
The battle left 12,653 Union dead, wounded and missing and 4,201 Confederate casualties.
When President Lincoln heard the news, he moaned, "If there is a place worse than hell, I am in it!"
Lincoln, after all, had pressed Burnside and other generals to carry the war to the Confederates in an unheard-of winter campaign.
He desperately needed a battlefield victory. His Republican party had been shellacked in midterm elections; he'd sacked Gen. George B. McClellan after he failed to chase Robert E. Lee's forces into Virginia after Antietam; and his threatened Emancipation Proclamation had ignited a firestorm of criticism.