“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”
General Robert E. Lee, December 13, 1862
1862 had been a year of fighting, and there would be no break in the final month of the year. Instead – as if to mock Christmas and hopes – a large scale battle took place December 11-15 near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Most of the heavy fighting occurred on the 13th.
General Burnside, the new commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac, had started his advance toward Richmond in November, but he had to wait at the Rappahannock River for the arrival of the pontoon bridges. That delay gave the Confederates time to assemble their forces and take a defensive position on the high ground outside and downriver from the town. Many civilians fled the area as the armies converged.
Finally, on December 11, 1862, Union soldiers and engineers succeeded in placing the pontoon bridges, under fire from Confederate units in town. The generals attempted to clear the Rebels out of the town by a destructive artillery barrage. Union regiments moved across the river.
On December 13, Union assaults aimed at two different areas of the long Confederate line. One directed at General Jackson’s lines actually broke through, but the Union troops were unable to follow-up since they lacked reinforcements. The other attack point was closer to two and directed against Maryes Heights and the Sunken Road; numerous assaults failed to reach the Confederate position, but Union officers continued sending (or leading) units into the butchery until the fields were carpeted with bodies of the fallen soldiers in blue.
The 14th and 15th brought skirmishing and the survivors in blue retreated back across the river. Thousands were dead and in the geographical sense the Union army wasn’t any closer to capturing Richmond and ending the war.
The Cost of Lee’s Victory
With a relatively strong defensive position and a horrifyingly successful artillery crossfire, Lee and his generals demonstrated the art of war at Maryes Heights. Though Jackson’s lines were temporarily broken, they managed to hold giving Lee another victory.
But it was not a moment to rejoice. “War so terrible.”
Approximately 100,000 Union troops engaged at Fredericksburg. When the fighting ended, approximately 13,353 were dead, wounded or missing. From their defensive positions, losses were less for the Confederates: about 72,500 troops engaged and 4,576 were casualties.
Sometimes the shortest quotes have the most meaning. Edward Everett made a wonderful, two-hour oration at Gettysburg’s Cemetery dedication, but we remember Abraham Lincoln’s two minute speech. There are hundreds – thousands – of quotes written during the Civil War, describing emotions, events, people, places, and happenings. But sometimes it’s the impactful one line statements that we remember. (I actually did an informal study on this by asking a question on Emerging Civil War a couple weeks ago – read the results here.)
Ironically, Lee’s “war so terrible” quote lingers in my mind as I buy yet another book about conflict. From an armchair, it can be easy to be “too fond of war.” Still, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been enamored with war or battles. So why do I study conflicts? Because they bring out the very best and very worst in human nature – often in the same moments. While soldiers brutally murdered each other, a doctor knelt near by – dodging bullets – and trying to save life. And that’s just one example…
War is sickening. It is terrible. I have not been in combat, but I have spoken with those who have. As I study military history, I try to remember the cost. The tragedy. Reading in safety, I don’t want to take that safety for granted or forget the sacrifices made on the battlefields…or the trauma that lasted long after the firing ceased.
Lee witnessed a victory and made his statement. I think historians and armchair history buffs must remember his quote and make sure they remain sensitive to the realities of warfare.