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Fredericksburg a resounding Southern win? Depends on who you asked at the time, including Robert E. Lee, Virginia scholar tells audience here
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"The Yanks have had a terrible whipping at Fredericksburg. The whole loss supposed to be forty or fifty thousand. Oh! I hope it is true."
--Amanda Virginia Edmonds, writing
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
Most today view the Battle of Fredericksburg, in which Union casualties were more than twice those of the area's defenders, as a signal Confederate victory.
But that's not how Robert E. Lee, a strategic thinker, saw it at the time, or later.
Reaction in the South to the triumph of arms was more mixed, more complex than people realize, University of Virginia historian Gary W. Gallagher says.
On Thursday, the 150th anniversary of the battle, he worked to correct that widespread misimpression in a Fredericksburg address to more than 200 preservationists from many states and descendants of soldiers who fought in the battle.
The occasion was a Christmas banquet of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, the local nonprofit that's saved nearly 1,000 acres of the area's four major Civil War battlefields.
At U.Va., Dr. Gallagher is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War. Last month, he was awarded the Society of Civil War Historians' Tom Watson Brown Book Prize for his volume "The Union War."
Many historians have also labored under mistaken impressions of Southern reaction to the battle, both civilian and military, Gallagher said.
"The assumption is that it's not really worth exploring because of the Confederate reaction," he said. "It must have been all positive."
To illustrate, he quoted The Richmond Daily Dispatch soon after the Dec. 13 fight. The newspaper was jubilant, calling Fredericksburg "the greatest battle ever fought on this continent."
Some thought the North's loss so complete that the Union would end the war; it was only a matter of time, Gallagher said.
END TO THE SUFFERING?
Confederate War Department bureaucrat John B. Jones wrote Dec. 19 in his diary: "Many people regard the disaster of [Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose] Burnside as the harbinger of peace."
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, stepping outside the White House of the Confederacy in response to a joyous Jan. 7 serenade, told the Richmond crowd:
"Our glorious Lee, the valued son, emulating the virtues of the heroic Light-horse Harry, his father, has achieved a victory at Fredericksburg, and driven the enemy back from his last and greatest effort 'On to Richmond.'"