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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Fredericksburg, Battle of

Definition:

Date(s): December 11-15, 1862
Location: Fredericksburg, Virginia (Google Map)
Other name(s): Marye’s Heights
Campaign: Fredericksburg Campaign (November-December 1862)
Outcome: Confederate victory

Summary

In one of the war’s most lop-sided battles, outnumbered Confederate troops with superior field position slaughtered Union forces trying to pass through Fredericksburg, Virginia.

After their victory at Antietam, Maryland, in September 1862, Union generals wanted to quickly cross the Rappahannock River and seize Richmond. The logical crossing point was at Fredericksburg, Virginia, but government inefficiency delayed delivery of the necessary pontoon bridges. By the time those arrived, Confederate troops had placed artillery and sharpshooters along a ridge behind the town.

On December 11-15, 1862, more than 100,000 Union troops tried to cross the river and push through Fredericksburg. As they crossed the Rappahannock River and tried to advance uphill, the 72,500 Confederates atop the ridge could pick them off.

For two days, Union troops launched one futile attack after another against the two ridge-top locations called Prospect Hill and Marye's Heights. When they finally gave up on the night of December 15, a wall of Union bodies lay piled all along the base of the ridge. The Union lost 12,700 soldiers compared to 5,300 Confederates.

Wisconsin’s Role

During the battle, Wisconsin’s Iron Brigade regiments (2nd, 6th, and 7th infantries), the 3rd and 5th Wisconsin Infantries and the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, Company G (Berdan’s Sharpshooters) were present but their losses were small.

The 5th Wisconsin Infantry was under fire for most of the three days but miraculously escaped major harm. Berdan’s Sharpshooters were deployed at multiple locations during the battle to pick off Confederate artillerymen and cover the Union retreat. They were the last unit to re-cross the Rappahannock River when the Union forces left the field.

Learn more

Read a five-page account of Wisconsin troops at Fredericksburg on pages 344-349 in William D. Love’s “Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion” Chicago, 1866).

View battle maps

View original documents

[Source: Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefields (Washington, 1993); Estabrook, C. Records and Sketches of Military Organizations (Madison, 1914); Love, W. Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion (Madison, 1866).]
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