The gracious little city of Fredericksburg, to which Lee came through a rising storm on November 20,1 is among the fairest and most ancient of Virginia. Lying at the fall line, it had been settled before the end of the seventeenth century. Across from it George Washington had spent his boyhood, and in a simple house on one of its shaded streets his mother had breathed her last. Paul Jones had climbed its hills. Hugh Mercer had practised physic on its kindly folk. From the Fitzhugh mansion at Chatham, Lee himself in youth had looked upon its gardens. Along the river, among the shops and warehouses, lived humble people; terraced above them were the seats of the socially mighty; still higher, ranged along the western hills that sheltered the town, were a few great homes, proud and separate in the architecture of Jefferson. Aristocrats who remembered the Revolution had built these fine houses, had covered handsome panels with old portraits, and had stored deep cellars with comforting Madeira. Their leisured sons had grown gray reading their fathers' books and holding fast to their politics and their religion. It was a place of respected names and long memories, of tinkling church bells and of children's laughter — proud, brave, patriotic.
As Lee saw it through a rain that had whipped the last of the leaves from the oaks and maples, his eye swept swiftly over its beauties to the Stafford Heights. There they were — the encampments and the fires of the enemy, the batteries and the hurrying dispatch bearers. A demonstration, which the Confederates had taken for an attempt to force a crossing,2 had been made on the 17th, but otherwise the enemy had been content to await reinforcements.
p434 Scarcely had Lee made his preliminary dispositions on the 21st, with the storm still raging, than a flag of truce from the mayor of the town was reported on the river front. The flag came from Brigadier General M. R. Patrick, commanding General Burnside's provost guard, and was delivered to Lee. In a letter, General E. V. Sumner, commanding the Right Grand division of the Army of the Potomac, demanded the surrender of Fredericksburg on the grounds that his troops had been fired upon from the streets, while the manufactories had been used to assist the Confederate cause. Capitulation was demanded by 5 P.M. that day, under penalty of a bombardment at 9 A.M. on the 22d.3 Lee was determined, of course, to protect the civilian population of Fredericksburg. At the same time he could not afford to have the place occupied by the enemy, nor could his batteries in rear of the town prevent a bombardment by the long-range Federal artillery across the Rappahannock. To save the town from destruction, if possible, Lee informed Mayor Slaughter that he would not occupy Fredericksburg or use its factories, though he could not consent to an occupation by the enemy. The mayor immediately dispatched General Sumner a letter of dignity and candor, telling him what Lee had said and reminding him that it was impossible to remove the non-combatant population within the time limit, which was only sixteen hours from the moment of writing.4 Later in the evening, Lee was told that Sumner had notified the mayor that he would accept the assurances given him and would not begin to shell the town the next morning. Beyond that he made no promise, except to say that General Patrick would meet at Chatham a delegation from Fredericksburg the next day at 9 o'clock.5 Welcome as was this reprieve to the defenseless townspeople, Lee felt that a collision was likely at any time and that the non-combatants would inevitably suffer if they remained where they were. With a heavy heart he had to advise them to evacuate the town as promptly as possible.
Although the storm was still at its height, the brave women and the old men accepted his advice without a murmur. That night and the next morning a long, dolorous procession moved p435 out from Fredericksburg. Those who possessed means and had friends to the southward took the train, which the enemy shelled; the less fortunate had to seek shelter in the woods and farmhouses behind the Confederate lines. Old family carriages were hitched to aged, lame, and blind horses; by Lee's orders the wagons and ambulances of the army were placed at the disposal of those who had no conveyances;6 the outraged soldiers shared their poor rations with the hungry.7 Many of the civilians had neither food, transport, nor protection against the rain of November 22.8 Not a few mothers were seen, wearily carrying infants, while older children walked at their side through the mud and over frozen ground. Yet such was their spirit that when these women met soldiers, they often greeted them, not with tears or hysterical appeals for succor, but with a stout-hearted "God bless you."9 As Lee met these brave townsfolk his admiration rose. One little group of children that he saw from the roadside he had his troopers take on their horses and carry to a place of safety.10 Months later, when he was writing his report, he echoed the tribute expressed in the letters written at the time. "History," said he, "presents no instance of a people exhibiting a purer and more unselfish patriotism or a higher spirit of fortitude and courage than was evinced by the citizens of Fredericksburg. They cheerfully incurred great hardships and privations, and surrendered their homes and property to destruction rather than yield them into the hands of the enemies of their country."11 The Federals themselves must have been touched by the fortitude and suffering of the women and children, for at a conference held on the afternoon of the 22d, General Sumner gave written guarantee that as long as no hostile demonstrations were made from Fredericksburg the town would not be shelled.12 Before many days were passed some of the shivering people imprudently crept back to their desolate homes and remained there even when walls were toppling and the streets were fire-swept.13
When no advance followed the threatened bombardment of p436 Fredericksburg, Lee was puzzled. The rebuilding of the wharfs at Aquia Creek seemed to indicate that Burnside intended to use that admirable landing as a base for an advance on Richmond;14 but there remained a possibility that he might be screening a movement southward to the James.15 Lee had to shape his defense for either eventuality and had at the same time to hold to the major plan he had adopted against McClellan after Sharpsburg, that of delaying the enemy until the winter halted his advance.
His dispositions were characteristic. General G. W. Smith at Richmond was told of the possibility of an advance to the James and was directed to make every possible effort to discover the plan of the Federals at Norfolk.16 A battalion of the reserve artillery, under Major John W. Moore, was ordered to Richmond to strengthen the city's defenses, but on second thought was directed to go to the North Anna, where it could defend from a cavalry raid the principal bridge on Lee's line of communications, which was now established by way of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad.17 If no raid was threatened, this artillery, of course, could be moved in a day either to Richmond or to Fredericksburg.
The most important orders that Lee issued, when he found that Burnside did not follow up his threat to bombard Fredericksburg, were directed to Jackson. Lee at this time had with him less than 31,000 infantry, about 1300 artillerymen, and approximately 7000 cavalry.18 He assumed he had in front of him, or marching through the autumn fields toward Stafford Heights, virtually the whole Army of the Potomac, fully three times his numbers.19 Anxious as he was to strengthen himself against these odds by calling up Jackson's 34,000, Lee concluded that for a short time at least Jackson might be of more use to him on the enemy's flank than in the Shenandoah Valley or across the Rappahannock p437 from Burnside. He reviewed the situation in a dispatch he wrote Jackson on November 23, and at the end of it he indited a paragraph that perfectly illustrates the relations between the two men and the faith Lee now imposed in the discretion of Jackson. Lee said: "Under this view of things, if correct, I do not see, at this distance, what military effect can be produced by the continuance of your corps in the Valley. If it were east of the Blue Ridge, either in Loudoun, Fauquier or Culpeper, its influence would be felt by the enemy whose rear would be threatened, though they might feel safe with regard to their communications. Another advantage would be, provided you were at Culpeper, that you would be in railroad communication with several points, so that the transfer of your troops would be rendered certain, without regard to the state of the weather or the condition of the roads. If, therefore, you see no way of making an impression on the enemy from where you are, and concur with me in the views I have expressed, I wish you would move east of the Blue Ridge, and take such a position as you may find best."20 In a word, Lee held to his previous belief that with Jackson at Culpeper, Burnside would hesitate to make any general advance or to detach large forces for operations elsewhere. Even in this belief, he left that move to the discretion of Jackson and, at the same time, had so much confidence in the fighting qualities of Longstreet's corps and in the strength of its position that he was willing to keep the army divided a few days longer and to face the Army of the Potomac with less than 40,000 men.
By November 23, Jackson was on the march from the vicinity of Winchester. Burnside remained mysteriously quiet and even drew back slightly from the Rappahannock. This created some new doubt in Lee's mind as to whether his adversary was not covering a transfer of troops south of the James, but he felt that the Army of the Potomac by this time was so definitely committed to the line of the Rappahannock that a further change of base would be regarded in the North as equivalent to a defeat. "I think, therefore," he said, "he will persevere in his present course, and the longer we can delay him, and throw him into the winter, the more difficult will be his undertaking."21
p438 The probability of a general offensive on the Rappahannock increased as three days, four days, five days passed, and with it grew the desirability of uniting the army. Still Lee had faith in the advantage of holding Jackson on Burnside's flank.22 It was not until he found that the next storm would probably make the roads almost impassable and would cause a march on Culpeper to be inhumanly severe on Jackson's men that he finally, on November 27, abandoned his plan of keeping the Second Corps on the right of Burnside's army and definitely urged Jackson to move to Fredericksburg and take position close to Longstreet. Even then he left the advance to the discretion of "Stonewall."23
On the evening of November 29, while the snow was falling heavily outside his headquarters tent at Hamilton's Crossing,24 Lee heard some commotion and, on going out, saw the familiar figure of Jackson, who had ridden ahead with one aide to report the advance of his corps.25 Lee greeted his incomparable lieutenant warmly and after a friendly exchange of good wishes, gave him and his companion supper and then confirmed the directions he had already issued that Jackson place his corps to the right and rear of Longstreet.26 For Lee was beginning to suspect that Burnside would not dare assault the strong position directly at Fredericksburg, and that, if the Federals crossed the Rappahannock at all in that vicinity, it would be below the city.27 For this reason he ordered Jackson to establish himself on the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad around Guiney's Station, whence he could easily move to support Longstreet, to extend the right, or to face an advance from farther down the Rappahannock.28
In accordance with these directions Jackson's troops began to take their position on December 1. Many of them had marched p439 •175 miles in twelve days,29 and though some were barefooted, the physical condition of the whole corps was good and its spirit was high.30 Their commander did not like his new position, and protested against it to Lee. "We will whip the enemy," Jackson told D. H. Hill, "but gain no fruits of victory."31 D. H. Hill himself was sent as far down the Rappahannock as Port Royal. Lee felt that he should protect a wide front, but he was fully conscious of the tactical limitations of the position at Fredericksburg and, it will be recalled, had first planned to make his stand against Burnside on the North Anna. Now, in addition to the earlier considerations that had decided him to stand on the line of the Rappahannock, others had arisen. The government at Richmond was concerned over Federal preparations that seemed to indicate a new offensive in the South, and General G. W. Smith, commanding at Richmond, was more apprehensive than ever of a Federal advance up the south side of the James.32 Lee was willing to withdraw nearer to the capital when the President thought such a move necessary;33 yet he felt that a retreat from the Rappahannock would bring the enemy close to Richmond, where a further Federal concentration might be effected; and he knew that such a movement would cost the Confederacy the supplies he was then drawing from the lower valley of the Rappahannock. He urged that troops from the South be brought to Richmond, if possible, and that Smith, if attacked, make the best defense he could. In case of emergency he could march to Smith's support.34 Meantime, he told Smith, "I think it important to keep [Burnside] at a distance [from Richmond] as long as possible,"35 even if that of necessity involved a battle where a victory could not be followed up.36
Fortunately, Lee's intelligence service was now working admirably — even better than when Burnside, at Warrenton, had frankly told the War Department that Lee's means of getting information were "far superior" to his.37 Confederate spies were p440 on both flanks of Burnside's army north of the Rappahannock and on the Potomac as well.38 Another spy had visited the North and had returned with an excellent budget of information.39 The Federal newspapers, which Lee read assiduously, afforded much of high value.40 Three days after the arrival of the pontoons by which Burnside intended to cross the Rappahannock, Lee was apprized of the fact.41 Assured that he would be notified of any movement of consequence,42 Lee made the best of the time allowed him by Burnside's unexpected delay.
"I tremble for my country," he said, "when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, and that our only hope is in God."43 But there was not lacking in his preparations the calm poise of a man who relied on his own military judgment and on the valor of his army. On the hills around Fredericksburg the reorganization begun after Sharpsburg was completed. Regiments were shifted;44 Lee's proposal to place in the infantry ranks those cavalrymen who had lost their mounts was at length approved;45 an incompetent general was tactfully disposed of, and another was sent back to seek command elsewhere;46 pleasant relations were established with the new Secretary of War, James A. Seddon, who on November 15 had succeeded Randolph on the resignation of the latter.47 When Captain A. P. Mason left him to rejoin General Johnston, Major Walter H. Taylor was formally named acting assistant adjutant general in his place.48 Refitting went on, despite a threatened breakdown of the railroad to Richmond.49 Provision was made for recasting the smaller guns into 12‑pounder Napoleons;•50 arms were provided p441 for Jackson's convalescents;51 shoes were somehow found for those stalwarts who required footgear larger than the government issued;52 further supplies of warm clothing were issued for at least some of the men.53 The fine spirit of the army mounted higher and higher;54 the men began to indulge in snowball battles for lack of more serious hostilities55 and, as one pious brigadier remarked, their natures seemed so changed that they bore in patience "what they once would have regarded as beyond human endurance."56
Active preparations for the inevitable battle went on apace, in weather that made war impartially against the armies.57 On the hills back of Fredericksburg, artillery positions were chosen and the ranges set.58 Possible crossing places below Fredericksburg were examined;59 some troublesome gunboats in the vicinity of Port Royal were driven off;60 cavalry reconnaissances to feel out the enemy were safely conducted;61 the railroad from Fredericksburg to Hamilton's Crossing was torn up;62 and absentees were brought into the ranks until, on December 10, Lee had 78,511 men with the colors.63
Only two things were left undone, so far as Lee could direct: The army continued on a long, sprawling front of •twenty miles, from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, unconcentrated; and, secondly, to the surprise of some officers,64 only a few earthworks were thrown up. These seeming omissions were undoubtedly deliberate. The occupation of the Port Royal sector seemed necessary to prevent a turning movement that would give the enemy an easy line of advance on Richmond. The position directly at Fredericksburg was so strong that elaborate fortifications would have convinced any antagonist that it was impregnable, especially if the whole Army of Northern Virginia had crowded the heights above the intrepid little town. It doubtless was better, in Lee's p442 opinion, to invite attack by seeming negligence, than to discourage it by a show of complete preparation.
Ten dark December days passed. Headquarters labored to meet the attack when it should come. Axes rang ceaselessly in the woods as the soldiers chopped firewood to keep from freezing.65 The night of December 10 arrived and a rumor spread through some of the camps that a Southern woman had crept down to the river bank that evening and had called across to the shivering gray pickets that the Federals had received a large issue of rations with orders to cook them at once.66 The Confederate in the ranks had learned to read the signs of operations that close-mouthed officers sought to keep secret, and he knew that the cooking of extra rations almost invariably meant an army movement on the morrow.
Would the attack come with the dawn? Was Burnside about to pass the river and challenge the confident Army of Northern Virginia on the heights? At every camp fire the questions were argued. They doubtless were still vaguely ranging in the sleeping minds of the soldiers when, about 4:45 o'clock on the morning of December 11, there came from Marye's Heights, behind the town, the roar of a cannon, then of another, and then silence. Two guns . . . signal guns . . . the agreed warning that the enemy was attempting to force a crossing of the Rappahannock.
7 McCabe, 306.
8 For the weather, see 1 Meade, 330.
9 Goolrick: Historic Fredericksburg (cited hereafter as Goolrick), 40; 1 R. W. C. D., 194; T. R. R. Cobb to his wife, Nov. 22, 1862, 28 S. H. S. P., 299; Scales, 10‑11.
10 5 Confederate Veteran, 18‑19.
13 Goolrick, 40.
19 Actually, Franklin's Left Grand division was at Stafford Courthouse, Hooker's Central Grand division was encamped along the railroad between Aquia Creek and the Rappahannock; Sumner's Right Grand division was on Stafford Heights. This gave Burnside 118,000 troops within •nine miles of Fredericksburg. Sigel's corps, an additional 15,000, was at Fairfax courthouse, within two days' march, and Heintzelman had 46,000 in the Washington defenses. Lee did not credit reports that Burnside had 200,000 in his front (O. R., 21, 1053).
24 Long, 240.
25 J. P. Smith in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907. The date of Jackson's arrival is not given in official reports. Captain Smith, who accompanied Jackson, stated that it was Saturday, Nov. 26 (See 43 S. H. S. P., 24). Since Saturday was the 29th, not the 26th, Doctor Smith was mistaken either in the day of the week or in the date, and as he remarked in another connection that the following day was Sunday (ibid., 25), it is certain that arrival was on the 29th. This fits in with Lee's correspondence, which shows a letter written on the 27th to Jackson, who had not then joined him (O. R., 21, 1035). According to this letter, Jackson had been at Madison Courthouse on the 26th.
26 J. P. Smith in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907.
29 Welch, 36.
30 Paxton, 73.
31 Dabney, 595; Cf. Longstreet, 299, and 3 B. and L., 72.
36 These facts dispose of the contemporary gossip that Lee was compelled by a timid administration to remain on the Rappahannock when he desired, to the very last, to withdraw to the North Anna.
40 For Lee's constant and careful study of Northern newspapers, see the admirable monograph of James G. Randall, in 23 American Historical Review, 303 ff.
43 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Dec. 2, 1862, Fitz Lee, 234‑35.
47 IV O. R., 2, 178. Jones had noted on Oct. 2 that Lee had "razed the [war] department down to a second-class bureau, of which the President himself is chief" (1 R. W. C. D., 162). For the circumstances attending the resignation of Randolph, see 2 English Combatant, 208‑9; Memoir of Jefferson Randolph Kean.
53 G. Wise, 126‑27.
54 Cooke, 174‑75.
55 2 von Borcke, 82 ff.
56 Paxton, 74.
57 There were •four inches of snow on the night of Dec. 5‑6. The weather on Dec. 6 and 7 was very cold. On the 8th the snow was still unmelted and the Rappahannock was frozen over (28 S. H. S. P., 300).
64 E.g., Sorrel, 132.
65 Paxton, 74.
66 10 S. H. S. P., 385.
Images with borders lead to more information.
Robert E. Lee
Battle of Fredericksburg
(US Park Service)
Fredericksburg: primary sources
John's Military History
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 17 Mar 11