The Battle of Fredericksburg: Summary, Timeline & Significance

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  • 0:07 The Battle of Fredericksburg
  • 0:38 1862
  • 2:35 Fredericksburg
  • 3:34 December 13, 1862
  • 6:03 Union Defeat,…
  • 7:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Battle of Fredericksburg, fought December 13, 1862, was a major Confederate victory and one of the most lopsided defeats of the Civil War for Union forces. The battle had over 18,000 casualties.

The Battle of Fredericksburg

Among the battles of the Civil War, names which are most commonly known are those such as Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Shiloh. Among the lesser-known battles are names like Fredericksburg, which was a major battle of the Civil War in its own right. With over 18,000 casualties on December 13, 1862, Fredericksburg was a major setback for Union troops trying to push south into Virginia, and it gave new hope to Confederate states that were growing weary of war.


1862 was one of the most important years in American history. Toward the end of the year, major changes were taking place in the United States. After the Battle of Antietam - a Union victory in September 1862 - President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's proclamation declared that the Civil War would be fought to preserve a union without slavery, taking aim at the root cause of the war. That fall, the 1862 elections saw anti-war Democrats gain several governorships and numerous seats in Congress.

Despite the victory at Antietam and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, there was still considerable consternation and war weariness. The hopes of many in the North were placed on the upcoming campaigns. In Virginia, Major General Ambrose Burnside was leading Union forces southward, and many hoped the results would be different this time.

Several months earlier, Union forces were soundly defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run. In the time since, there had been several leadership changes, one of them being when Burnside replaced Major General George McClellan as the head of the Union Army of the Potomac. Lincoln relieved McClellan when the general failed to pursue Confederates after the Battle of Antietam. Now, it was Burnside leading a Union army into Virginia.

For Confederates, 1862 was a year of ups and downs as well. By December, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was preparing his Army of Northern Virginia for action once again. Lee was in Virginia, healing with his army after their defeat at Antietam in Maryland. Lee knew that he could not rest for long before the Federals attacked again. He needed to position his army in between Burnside and Richmond. After a quick movement by Burnside, Lee shifted his men towards Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he took up defensive positions.


With generations of history, Fredericksburg seemed a likely place for a Civil War battle. George Washington had spent some of his early years nearby along the Rappahannock River, as had Robert E. Lee himself. Now, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia took position on heights outside of the town, hoping that their position would force Burnside and his Federals to attack rather than bypass them.

For Burnside, he knew he had to cross the Rappahannock to attack Lee. The question was where he would cross. He originally hoped to cross the river in November, but the necessary pontoon bridges and equipment did not arrive until late in the month, preventing an early crossing that would have avoided heavy losses. Burnside eventually settled on crossing at Fredericksburg itself and attacking Lee's position. Preparations were made, and on December 13, a general attack was launched.

December 13, 1862

Burnside's plan was to attack in two areas. Just beyond the town of Fredericksburg, Lee's main line occupied Marye's Heights. Here, Burnside would send men under the command of Major General Edwin Sumner in frontal assaults on the Confederate line.

To the south, Burnside ordered Major General William Franklin to launch assaults on the Confederate line as well. Originally, the idea was for Franklin's attack to be the main assault with Sumner attacking to the north in a secondary role. However, the orders were poorly communicated, and Franklin's attack never had the strength it was originally meant to have.

For the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, this meant a day of suffering and loss. On the morning of December 13, four divisions of Union soldiers were sent forward from the town of Fredericksburg. These troops were intended to attack on the Northern end of the field, where they had a difficult time attacking uphill against Marye's heights, suffering heavy losses in the process.

For the Confederate defenders, there was a clear field of fire and well-positioned defenses. In spots, the Confederate defensive line was four men deep, making it impossible for Federals to break through in the event that they reached the stone wall that Confederates were using for defense. In the span of roughly four hours, there were over 5,000 Union casualties in these four divisions, a shockingly high rate of loss.

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