It was not so much about the number of men as it was about the lay of the land. Had the battle of Fredericksburg been about the numbers, the Union army would have easily won the day. Geography, however, provided the advantage for the Confederate army. On December 13, 1862, Robert E. Lee’s army would be outnumbered by at least thirty thousand men, though rebel fortifications atop Marye’s Heights and adjacent hillsides south of the town would give them a keen strategic advantage.
More soldiers were at Fredericksburg than any other battle of the Civil War. About 200,000 men—slightly less than today’s population of Richmond, Virginia—fought in this battle, and the Confederate victory stopped Ambrose Burnside’s march to Richmond. Abraham Lincoln, seeking a success before the onset of winter, was disappointed in the sorry conclusion to a difficult year. Both sides would use the months until spring to regroup forces and plan for the next campaign.
As with so many battles in this war, Fredericksburg saw the contributions of many skilled officers and courageous soldiers. One of the stories to emerge from the battle was that of Confederate major John Pelham (right) who would survive this battle, only to fall a few month’s later at Kelly’s Ford. Civil War historian Herman Hattaway writes of Pelham, “He was a favorite of General Lee’s who had nicknamed him the Gallant. Now… with two artillery pieces, Pelham held the Union thrust in check for a critical thirty minutes.”
Pelham’s immediate commanding officer, JEB Stuart, ordered the young man to retreat with his artillery, but Pelham held his ground until one cannon was disabled by Union fire and the other ran out of ammunition. General Lee commented at this moment, seeing Pelham’s stand against two dozen large federal artillery pieces, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.”
The Union general who met with the most success that day was George Meade (right), whose division managed to partially penetrate Stonewall Jackson’s command within the Confederate line until, as Hattaway again notes, “Inadequately supported… they could not hold the ground they took, which was regained by a counterattack under the leadership of Brigadier Generals Jubal Early and A. P. Hill.” Beyond Meade’s thin moment, the northern forces were left with nothing to celebrate at the battle’s conclusion.
The Battle of Fredericksburg is also responsible for bringing the voice of Walt Whitman (below) into the war. Arriving from New York after the battle, Whitman searched for his brother, George, who was wounded during the conflict. It was then that Whitman chose to stay in the area, settling into Washington and volunteering his time at the military hospitals of the city, among them the hospital in the Patent Office building, now the home to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum. His work brought him face to face with the soldiers who were wounded and dying from both sides of the fight.
Whitman, it is thought, visited with more than 100,000 men in his volunteer time, and these visits and these men’s experiences are the subject matter for much of his Civil War journals and poetry. The war evoked much passion from Whitman and his time in Washington provided him with another subject for his work; Whitman was fascinated with Abraham Lincoln and his most well known works of poetry would serve to commemorate the sixteenth president.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Robert E. Lee / Edward Caledon Bruce / Oil on canvas, 1864-1865 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
John Pelham / Mathew B. Brady / Half-plate ambrotype, 1858 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
George Gordon Meade / Unidentified artist / Albumen silver print. c. 1863 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Walt Whitman (31 May 1819 - 26 Mar 1892) / Samuel Hollyer (1826 - 1919), Copy after: Gabriel Harrison, (1818 - 1902) /Stipple engraving on paper, 1854-1855 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Hattaway, Herman. Shades of Blue and Gray: An Introductory Military History of the Civil War. Columbia (Missouri): University Press, 1997.