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Fredericksburg, and After - A Quasi-Crisis - Emancipa
After retiring from the field of Antietam, the Confederate General gathered at his ease a rich harvest of supplies in the Shenandoah Valley. Circling around McClellan as he at last moved to Warrenton, Lee halted at Culpeper Courthouse, in front of his adversary. Burnside, on taking command, planned to move quickly down the left bank of the Rappahannock, to cross by pontoons from Falmouth to Fredericksburg before Lee could get there, and with this new base to advance on Richmond. On the 17th of November, Sumner, with the van of the army, reached Falmouth, but no pontoons were there, as they should and easily might have been. When they did arrive, several days later, Lee's army was already at and near Fredericksburg, and preparing with diligence to defend its naturally strong position. The Confederate left, under Longstreet, rested on the river at a bend a mile or more above the city, the line being extended by A. P. Hill from thence along the heights to Massaponax Creek, a distance of about five miles, connecting with Stonewall Jackson on the extreme right. It was not until the night of December roth that Burnside began laying his pontoons in front of Fredericksburg — completed the next morning. Another bridge was laid two miles below, in front of Hill's corps, where the heights recede much farther from the river. In this quarter was Franklin's command, on the Union left, consisting of Reynolds's corps (the divisions of Meade, Gibbon, and Birney) and the corps of W. F. Smith. In addition, Franklin had at his disposal the old divisions of Hooker and Kearney, swelling his available numbers to nearly fifty-five thousand. On the right, Hooker and Sumner (each now commanding a “grand division” of two corps) completed the line.
The morning of the 13th was foggy and chilly. Under Burnside's general order, Franklin was to move at an early hour, but he only received the order at 7 o'clock that morning; and the mists lifting but slowly, he did not get under way until 9. Meade's division, in the van, in crossing the valley came under a galling artillery fire, which he silenced after some delay. Birney and Gibbon were to support Meade, and Sickles (now commanding one of the divisions sent by Hooker) was in reserve. Meade advanced up the rising ground and into the woods, piercing the hostile line between the brigades of Archer and Lane, forcing them back and taking some prisoners. Meanwhile, heavy reinforcements, under Early and D. H. Hill, were hastened up by Jackson. Meade was driven back, not being closely supported by Gibbon on his right, while one of Birney's brigades was deploying on the left; but they so effectually charged the enemy as to check his advance. Meade retreated to the railway, when he was again
assailed and forced backward. Sickles joined in the conflict, but Smith's entire corps, twenty thousand strong, on the right of Reynolds (guarding the line of retreat towards Franklin's bridge), remained inactive. Properly supported at the right moment, with the means at hand, Meade's spirited attack might have led the way to victory. Whatever the reasons for so notable a shortcoming on the part of some of Burnside's subordinates, the concluding fact was a disastrous failure.
Nor was this the worst part of the battle. On his right, Burnside had ordered Sumner to assail the formidable works in his front, which was done almost simultaneously with the advance on the left. His men were repulsed with terrible slaughter dealt by batteries on the heights and by volleys that poured from the riflepits of Marye's Hill. Charge after charge only added fruitless sacrifices of blood. The first assailants were of the two corps of Hancock and French. The heaviest losses fell upon Meagher's Irish brigade, of which only two hundred and eighty out of the twelve hundred engaged appeared at roll-call the next morning. Howard's division supported the advance attacking party; and Hooker, after repeated and emphasized orders, against which his judgment protested, ordered Humphrey's division to continue the attack. The men fought bravely, against hopeless odds, but all ended in utter defeat. On the night of the 15th the army was withdrawn to the left bank of the river. Lee re-occupied the city of Fredericksburg. As officially reported, the Union losses (greatly superior to those on the Confederate side) were 1,152 killed — in Sumner's com
mand, 480; Franklin's, 338; Hooker's, 327 — about 7,000 wounded, and 3,234 missing; a total of over 11,000.
Burnside, chagrined but not broken-spirited, spoke out in a manly way, avowing his own responsibility for a movement which neither the President nor his advisers suggested — they, in fact, leaning to the opinion that the enemy should be engaged where the new commander found him.
It is not an idle legend that has told how Lincoln, in some of the darkest hours following this battle, paced his room in profound melancholy, saying the people would demand of him, as the Roman emperor demanded of Varus: “Give me back my legions!” and declaring in his anguish: “I would gladly be to-night in the place of the humblest soldier of the Potomac army." Yet he was not unbalanced by his accumulating troubles. After receiving General Burnside's report, he issued a brief address to this army (December 23d), saying:
Although you have not been successful, the attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than accident. The courage with which you on an open field maintained the contest against an entrenched foe, and the consummate skill and success with which you crossed and recrossed the river in the face of the enemy, show that you possess all the qualities of a great army, which will yet give victory to the cause of the country and of popular government.
Condoling with the mourners for the dead, and sympathizing with the wounded, I congratulate you that the number of both is comparatively small.
I tender to you, officers and soldiers, the thanks of the nation.
* Union-kilicd, 1,284; wounded 9,600. Confederate-killed, 596; wounded, 4,065.-War Records.
The preliminary proclamation of Emancipation had awaited a propitious occasion. The final edict, it was evident as the fixed day approached, would have no such advantage. In truth, the Administration now found itself in what, under other forms of representative government, would have been deemed a grave if not fatal crisis. In Congress there was a violent Opposition, emboldened by recent electoral successes, which showed the existence of a strong political minority — hardly admitting itself to be a minority — in the North. To crown all, a large number of Republican members were themselves inclined, only prudence forbidding, to express a want of confidence in the Administration.
On the Democratic side of the House of Representatives such members as Fernando and Benjamin Wood, of New York, and Vallandigham, of Ohio, now appeared rather as the actual leaders they had aspired to be, than as the exceptional sympathizers with Secession they had been counted. More defiant than ever, Vallandigham, though himself defeated as a candidate for re-election, sought to arrest the prosecution of the
S. S. Cox (then of Ohio), who had been returned to the next Congress, now seemed happy in the communion and fellowship of his Copperhead colleague, if not covetous of his parliamentary mantle. A day or two after the Fredericksburg battle, Cox recited in the House an elaborate speech, which a Southern historian of the war pronounced a bill of particulars in arraignment of President Lincoln. Arbitrary arrests, emancipation, and the removal of General McClellan were prominent themes of his discourse. A man of much literary faculty, with a spice of wit, which was his special