- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

By Francis Augustin O'Reilly
Louisiana State University Press.
672 pages. $39.95.

Francis Augustin O'Reilly has provided a comprehensive, well-written study of a crucial campaign and Union defeat. Fredericksburg was a vitally important battle but, as Mr. O'Reilly says, it has been little studied or understood. This is changing; along with Mr. O'Reilly's book is a good new work by George C. Rable titled "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" that places the campaign in its broader political and military context.
Mr. O'Reilly, too, looks at the overall significance of Fredericksburg. He offers a gripping narrative as well as clear analysis, and his publisher probably is right in saying "The Fredericksburg Campaign" is sure to become a classic.
Late in 1862, 18 months into the war, President Lincoln badly needed a victory. The first part of 1862 had brought a series of disasters to the Confederacy, but then Union Gen. George B. McClellan's great campaign to take Richmond failed miserably in June; in August, Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson defeated the Union forces under Gen. John Pope at the second battle of Bull Run; in September, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland, and while he was stopped at Antietam, the battle ended in a tactical draw, and the horrendous losses were greater on the Union side.
The paucity of military successes, coupled with Lincoln's imposition of new taxes and suspension of habeas corpus, alienated many Northerners. Congress created a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War that second-guessed the president.
In November, Lincoln finally replaced the do-nothing McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The successor was Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, a West Pointer who had recently captured the North Carolina coast (and whose name and side whiskers inspired the coining of the word "sideburns").
Burnside knew what he wanted to do: move his army rapidly south, cross the Rappahannock River and take Fredericksburg and then go on to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, which would "tend more to cripple the rebel cause than almost any other military event."
Lincoln did not like the idea. Lee's army still lay to the west, in the Virginia Piedmont, and Lincoln thought Burnside could best fight Lee there and threaten his ties to Richmond.
Mr. O'Reilly does not say so, but Lincoln unlike many of his generals already realized that the key to winning the war lay in the destruction of Lee's army, not in taking the prize of Richmond; after all, the original Confederate capital had been Montgomery, Ala., and the capital could well be moved again.
Lincoln, however, finally agreed to Burnside's plan, perhaps, Mr. O'Reilly surmises, because of his new commander's conviction and aggressiveness, which "differed refreshingly from the always-whining McClellan."
Civil War buffs will recall how Burnside brought his great army down to the northern side of the Rappahannock, across from Fredericksburg, in the third week of November but could not cross because his pontoon train had not arrived to bridge the river. Burnside saw no feasible crossing points either farther up or down the river, but, Mr. O'Reilly writes, he assumed that Lee was not sure where he would cross and must therefore be stretching his army thin along the river. A crossing right at Fredericksburg would, Burnside thought, surprise the Southerners.
The pontoon trains finally arrived, and on the night of Dec. 10, 1862, the engineers began to bridge the river in three places. On the heights behind them stood 147 pieces of Union artillery, the greatest concentration of guns yet seen in the war; Burnside expected them to dominate the ground beyond the bridges.
Then so much went wrong. Mr. O'Reilly tells the story in fascinating and horrid detail. He might have added to his account only that John Moncure Daniel, the editor of the Richmond Examiner, who knew the Fredericksburg area from his youth, had written in his paper on Nov. 24 that the "Union generals may find the plains around Fredericksburg, the highlands in front and the river in their back, the prettiest place to be drubbed in, that Yankees ever saw."
Daniel was right. Lee's army was not surprised when Burnside's engineers started bridging the river at Fredericksburg, and Burnside's delay had given Lee ample time to dispose his forces. The Union artillery proved far less effective than Burnside had anticipated.
A storm of Confederate fire delayed the bridging, and some Union units balked, the first of a number of cases detailed by the author in which soldiers, even whole regiments, on either side refused orders to push forward and sometimes turned tail and ran.
Mr. O'Reilly also tells many tales of valor. Maj. Henry Hunt and his 7th Michigan finally crossed the river and secured a bridgehead under fierce fire the first time, the author emphasizes, that this had been accomplished in American military annals. There ensued a long fight in the streets of Fredericksburg, the first urban battle, as Mr. O'Reilly again makes clear, in our military history.
Gen. William Barksdale and his Mississippi brigade contested the bridging and defended the city. When they pulled back on the night of Dec. 11, they had given Lee ample time to arrange his forces beyond town.
Again, the story is familiar of how Union soldiers advanced across the fields beyond town until they ran into a wall of fire from Confederate infantrymen placed in an impregnable position, behind what one Union man called "that terrible stone wall" that ran along the sunken road below Marye's Heights.
What fewer know, and what Mr. O'Reilly brings out, is all the obstacles the Union men encountered on their way toward the sunken road, including thick mud and a millrace with three feet of standing water. The fields in front of the sunken road became, as one New York officer said, "a perfect slaughter house." Almost 8,000 Union soldiers fell in front of the stone wall. Later, a Confederate soldier was to count 484 dead bodies in one acre.
The struggle before the stone wall was not all of the battle of Fredericksburg, however. As Mr. O'Reilly demonstrates, the fighting three miles farther south, where Gen. James Longstreet's and Stonewall Jackson's Confederates defended other heights from Union assaults, was tactically more important.
That struggle conceivably might have brought a Union victory, while to the north, the Union infantry had no chance of reaching the deadly stone wall.
On Dec. 14, Burnside wanted to renew the assault but found that none of his commanders agreed. The next day, he ordered a general retreat, and that night, his troops successfully recrossed the Rappahannock in stormy weather while Lee's troops rested, oblivious to the withdrawal.
Mr. O'Reilly goes on to tell how Burnside led the useless "mud march" up the Rappahannock in January 1863, still seeking a way to cross the river and reach Richmond. Burnside failed miserably, and Lincoln accepted his resignation.
Fredericksburg was a great victory for the South and a campaign that helped Lee as he "molded a disjointed, green organization into an efficient army." For the North, Mr. O'Reilly concludes, "Fredericksburg had left a stigma that could only be removed by the vindication of Gettysburg and the redemption of Appomattox."
Histories written in detail can be dull or fascinating. Mr. O'Reilly has drawn on an amazing number of accounts by participants in the Fredericksburg campaign plus a wealth of other sources to produce a book that is 672 pages long and fascinating.
Peter Bridges is a retired ambassador and historian whose "Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel" was published by Kent State University Press last year.

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