On this day 150 years ago, Union and Confederate armies fought at Fredericksburg in what was perhaps the Confederacy’s most lopsided victory of the Civil War. You might recall—it’s been nearly a month—poor old Ambrose Burnside, the Army of the Potomac‘s new commander, stuck on the wrong side of the Rappahannock because of a bureaucratic screw-up. (No pontoon boats meant no pontoon-boat bridges and therefore no way to cross!) Charged with aggressively seeking out and destroying Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Burnside instead found himself just sitting there while Lee dug his army in on the heights above the river.
You can imagine, then, what happened once Burnside finally got his boats and crossed his army. On December 13 he sent six Union divisions across an open field against Lee’s well-fortified line, causing such slaughter that Burnside wept openly at the outcome and Lee was inspired to utter his famous remark to his subordinates, “It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it!” The Fredericksburg defeat was one of the lowest points for Union fortunes in the war. Eight months later, when Confederates experienced a similar fate at Gettysburg, jubilant Union troops were heard to yell, “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”
PS: That quotation from Lee about war being so terrible—that’s the sort of thing you see in nearly every account of the battle. It makes the narrative. And in Civil War history, narrative is king. But where did it come from? Gary Gallagher tells us that Douglas Southall Freeman, in his biography of Lee, cited John Esten Cooke‘s biography, only he changed the quote slightly. The original read, “It is well this is so terrible! we should grow too fond of it!” Edward Porter Alexander, another former Confederate soldier, wrote his own account of the battle and remarked, “it is told that, on one of the Federal repulses from Marye’s Heights, Lee put his hand upon Longstreet‘s arm and said, ‘It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.'” It is told … Who told it? How do we know it’s true? We don’t, but it sure sounds good!
IMAGES: “Fredericksburg,” sketch of a skull by B. Lewis Blackford (Library of Virginia); “Position of Union and Rebel Armies at Fredericksburg, Decr. 1st 1862” by Robert Knox Sneden (Virginia Historical Society); “Genl. Humphreys charging at the head of his division after sunset of the 13th Dec” by Alfred R. Waud (Library of Congress)