Battle of Fredericksburg Summary: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Philip McMurry

Philip has taught college history, English, and political science, and he has a doctorate in American history.

In this lesson, we will learn about the Battle of Fredericksburg, which was a costly defeat for the Union army during the American Civil War, and examine why the 'early bird gets the worm.'

The Early Bird

Have you heard the expression, 'the early bird gets the worm'? It means that whoever gets to something first gets to keep it. This is very much like what happened at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the American Civil War.

Beginning in April 1861, the United States was fighting a civil war over slavery and the rights of states. Eleven southern states wanted to secede (or withdraw) from the United States and form their own country, the Confederate States of America. Northerners didn't believe they had the right to secede and fought to force the South to return.

On to Richmond

From the beginning, the North (also called the Union) wanted to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. In the summer of 1861, beginning with the Battle of Bull Run, the Union made several attempts to take the city, but each failed. A big reason for this was leadership. The Confederacy had excellent military officers such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson, while the Union had relatively poor leaders at this point such as Irwin McDowell and George McClellan.

Ambrose Burnside

After the Union army suffered terrible losses at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Abraham Lincoln dismissed General McClellan as leader of the northern forces. To replace him, Lincoln chose Ambrose Burnside from Indiana, who was known for his heavy whiskers on the sides of his face. Eventually, these became known as 'sideburns'. Though Burnside did not have much confidence in his own ability to lead, he reluctantly took command.

Ambrose Burnside

The Rappahannock River

Burnside marched his troops south toward Richmond in the fall of 1862. About halfway there, they reached the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, which sits on the Rappahannock River. There was no sign of the Confederates yet, and General Edwin Sumner sought shallow places to have his men cross the river before the Confederate army under Robert E. Lee arrived to stop them. But, afraid that the river might rise suddenly and cut his men off from the rest of the army, Burnside told Sumner to wait.

Burnside ordered a floating bridge called a pontoon bridge be sent so that his entire army could cross the Rappahannock at one time. However, due to some miscommunications, the bridge arrived late. While they waited, the Confederate army reached Fredericksburg and set up a strong defensive position on the hill called Marye's Heights. By the time Union soldiers were ready to cross the river, the Confederates were hiding behind a rock wall, waiting for them.

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