In late November, 1862, General Ambrose Burnside led the Union army south towards Richmond. Burnside’s plan called for crossing the Rappahannock river at Fredericksburg, Virginia. His plan called for an immediate crossing of the river and the seizing of the town and the surrounding heights. Unfortunately, the pontoon bridges that Burnside had counted on did not arrive for seventeen days. The seventeen days gave Lee’s army plenty of time to prepare for an assault.
In the meantime the two armies faced each other waiting with a just the River separating them. Finally the bridges arrived. On December 11th Union forces began shelling the town whose residence had fled. After setting the town on fire, the Union forces began crossing the river on six pontoon bridges. The Union troops crossed under the cover of a massive artillery barrage. The Confederates used snipers to harass the Union advance, but had withdrawn their army to the heights above the town.
On the morning of December 13th Union troops began an assault on Confederate line. South of the town four divisions under General William Franklin attacked the troops under General Jackson. Well placed Confederate artillery managed to blunt the Union’s assault. The main Union assault however, was commanded by General Hooker. His goal was to capture Marye’s Heights.
Many of Burnside’s officers opposed the assault. They claimed it would be impossible to capture in a frontal assault. They were right. Seven separate Union divisions, attempted to scale the Marye’s Heights. Each assault was halted in its tracks.
Thousands of Union men were trapped on the fields leading to the heights. All night the dying lay untended on the battlefield. With staggering Union casualties, General Burnside ordered a general withdrawal back across the river. Union casualties totaled 12,653, while Confederate casualties stood at 5377.