The Fredericksburg Campaign
December 3, 1862–February 9, 1863
I am now compleatly bare footed.
—William Cowan McClellan
On November 9, 1862, Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, and on November 15 he began moving Union forces southward toward Richmond. Burnside was under immense pressure from Washington to assume the offensive again and to force Lee to defend Richmond. The most direct approach to Richmond was to move due south and through Fredericksburg, Virginia, so that city became his first objective. As Burnside moved troops out of Warrenton toward the city, Robert E. Lee responded by putting his army into motion from Culpeper to Fredericksburg.
Once there, Lee positioned the Army of Northern Virginia along Marye’s Heights above the town. Burnside and the Army of the Potomac took up positions at Falmouth across the Rappahannock River. The river created a formidable barrier for Burnside in his attempt to take the city. Although he planned to use pontoon bridges to cross the river, the needed pontoon delivery was delayed for weeks, and he was thus late in beginning his attack. As William Cowan McClellan observed, the Union bombardment of Fredericksburg started at midmorning on December 11, 1862, with the hope of knocking out the Confederate sharpshooters attached to Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s command in the town. Barksdale’s Mississippians, acting as skirmishers, had delayed the construction of the pontoon bridges across the river by nearly eight hours. The construction under fire continued as the Confederates were slowly pushed from the vicinity of the river.
Burnside launched wave after wave of almost suicidal attacks against the Confederate position. The main Confederate line along Marye’s Heights held, and Burnside broke off the attack with heavy casualties. The Northern press was highly critical of the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. While Lee knew that Northern morale was low after the victory, he also realized that he had failed once again to destroy a significant portion of a