By late 1862, President Abraham Lincoln was looking for victories in the ongoing US Civil War. A change of direction ushered in the appointment of General Ambrose Burnside to take command of the Union’s Army of the Potomac. Burnside’s vision was to very quickly move his army south from northern Virginia to Fredericksburg, Virginia in an attempt to catch Confederates off-guard and take the city. Capturing Fredericksburg would help secure a direct path to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia while also safeguarding a route for supplies to the nation’s capital in Washington, DC, just 60 miles to the north. The Battle of Fredericksburg would become one of the largest battles of the war in terms of the sheer number of soldiers fighting: estimates place the number around 200,000 men.
Burnside moved quickly toward Fredericksburg and his fast pace succeeded in surprising the Confederates under Robert E. Lee, leaving the city exposed. However, there was a catch: the geography of the city.
As demonstrated in this 1867 map by Nathaniel Michler, Fredericksburg sits up against the Rappahannock river and is surrounded by low-lying hills. The topography required Union soldiers to cross the Rappahannock before they could take the town. With pre-war civilian bridges already destroyed, the Union would need pontoons. A panoramic map of the city, dated November 1862 (just one month before the battle, around the time troops started arriving in the area) shows the bridges spanning the Rappahannock already destroyed.
The heavy equipment needed to cross the river was not able to arrive quite as quickly as Union troops did. The slow-down of equipment arrival allowed Confederate troops to move into position in areas south of the city and to guard long sections of the Rappahannock. Union pontoons were planned across from the city and slightly downstream, but Confederate fire prevented Union troops from being able to complete the pontoons. Desperate, Burnside ordered artillery to fire on Fredericksburg itself. After hours of bombardment, the Union soldiers again attempted to construct the pontoons, yet were still met with fire. Finally, a contingent of Union soldiers crossed into the city on small boats, and engaged directly with Confederate troops inside the city’s streets.
The above map, created by an unknown cartographer, is dated 1862 and shows the layout of the city at the time. After crossing the river, troops moved through the city’s core and were forced to cross a small canal in order to engage with the Confederate troops positioned on top of the low-lying hills behind the city in areas such as Marye’s Heights. This positioning forced the confrontation into a space between the hills and the back of the city. Confederate troops took advantage of Telegraph Road, a major road into the city with stone walls on either side. Positioning themselves within the walls, the Confederates were able to fire directly on Union troops, leading to large casualty numbers for the Union. Burnside was ultimately forced to withdraw his troops from the city on December 15, 1862.
“Plan of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia” (seen below) animates the city plan with detailed information on troop positions:
This map shows the route Union troops needed to take across the river, through the city, and across the canal to meet the Confederate troops positioned on top of the hills south of the city. Also visible is the “Sunken Road,” the downfall of the majority of Union troops lost in the battle. Estimates place Union troop deaths at Fredericksburg as high as 12,000.
Another uncredited hand-drawn map held in the Geography & Map Division shows the extent of the city, including location of the pontoon bridges. The map also includes the location of General Lee’s field headquarters, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, the Washington Artillery, and positions of forces under the commands of Col. Pelham and Col. Walker.
For more information on Civil War maps held in the Geography & Map Division, consider a previous “Worlds Revealed” blog series by Ed Redmond, Places in Civil War History.