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Union losses 'did not go far enough' here for Lee

December 18, 2012 12:10 am


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Many people, including historians, have mistaken impressions of Southern reaction to the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg. TNC1218PROCESSION2.jpg

Civil War enthusiasts and re-enactors, both blue and gray, take part in the Dec. 9 Crossing Hallowed Ground processional through downtown Fredericksburg. TNC1218PROCESSION.jpg


Top: The Union Army crossed the Rappahannock River--and into bloodshed.

"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 from near Paris, Va.


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.


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.'"

But unbeknownst to the public, Lee himself was deeply unhappy with the outcome, Gallagher said.

Despite the Union bloodshed before Marye's Heights and Prospect Hill, Lee had believed his foes would hurl more assaults at his army's defensive line. He was wary of the Union artillery masses on Stafford Heights, which would punish any Confederate counterattack on the plain toward the river.

Only on the morning of Dec. 16 did he learn that Burnside's forces had secretly re-crossed the Rappahannock River under cover of a rainstorm that dark night.

His reaction, Gallagher said, indicated contempt for an enemy that would shy from battle after mounting less than an all-out attack.


To his wife, Mary, three days after the battle, he wrote: "Yesterday evening I had my suspicions that they might retire during the night, but could not believe they would relinquish their purpose after all their boasting & preparations."

Lee concluded, "They suffered heavily as far as the battle went, but it did not go far enough to satisfy me. The contest will have now to be renewed."

A few weeks later, he wrote Secretary of War James A. Seddon, pressing him to increase the size of the Confederate armies, and warning against complacency.

"The success with which our efforts have been crowned should not betray our people into the dangerous delusion that the armies now in the field are sufficient to bring this war to a successful and speedy termination," he told Seddon.

The secretary's brother John told of a July 1863 conversation with Lee in which the commander said of the battle, "Our people were greatly elated--I was much depressed."

Fredericksburg "accomplished nothing," Lee said: "We had not gained a foot of ground, and I knew the enemy could easily replace the men he had lost. "


And yet, with 12,600 Northern casualties, the battle's impact on Union morale and resolve looked to be enormous. It curbed Burnside's threat to the Confederate capital and traumatized the Northern public and politicians. There was talk of a Cabinet shake-up in Washington, and that President Abraham Lincoln would reconsider issuing his Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day.

On Dec. 16, reacting to the news from Fredericksburg, Lincoln said, "If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it."

When Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin described the battle's "terrible slaughter" to him, Lincoln, in anguish, paced the floor and wrung his hands, asking over and over, "What has God put me in this place for?"

The South could win only by convincing a majority of the North's people that the war wasn't worth the cost, Gallagher said. Lincoln knew that, and so did Lee.

Jeff Davis' words in early January to the crowd outside his home in Richmond spoke to one important outgrowth of the fight.

Fredericksburg cemented Lee as "The Man" of the Confederacy, embodiment of its people's hopes and its military's emboldened leader--quite a turn for someone who'd taken overall command only that June, Gallagher said.

By spring of 1863, the general was "much more important" than President Davis, the professor said.

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Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

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