Civil War battles in the Fredericksburg area

    A major battle and a part of one were fought in Fredericksburg, and battles also took place in Spotsylvania and Culpeper counties.
    The Battle of Fredericksburg was on Dec. 13, 1862, when Union forces under the command of Gen. Ambrose Burnside attacked Confederate Gen. Robert E Lee’s entrenchments at Marye’s Heights and five miles to the south at Prospect Hill.
   (The Union set up a command post at Chatham, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, and the house also served as a Union field hospital. Union troops crossed the river on pontoon bridges on Dec. 11 and spent two nights in the mostly deserted homes and streets of Fredericksburg.)
   Most of the fighting Dec. 13 was in front of the stone wall at Sunken Road, just below Marye’s Heights.
   At the time Fredericksburg was a city of about 5,000, and development clustered in a few blocks near the Rappahannock River. The half-mile between the edge of town and Marye’s Heights was mostly a sloping, open plain, with just a few scattered houses. It was across this ground that Union troops were ordered to charge, stopping to fire and reload wherever they could find cover. They faced bleak odds. Confederate artillery were on Marye’s Heights, and behind the stone wall Confederate troops lined up four deep to fire.
    It was in this fighting that Confederate Sgt. Richard Kirkland risked his life to take water to dying Union soldiers in front of the stone wall. For his gallant actions, he became known as the Angel of Marye’s Heights.
    It was this battle, also, that prompted Lee to remark, “It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.”
    The Union lost more than 12,000 soldiers in the fighting; Confederates lost fewer than half as many.
   The Battle of Chancellorsville began May 1, 1863, and lasted almost three days. It was considered Lee’s greatest victory, but it came at a high cost to the Confederates.
   The strategy of Union Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was to tie up Confederate forces in battle at Fredericksburg, then swing the Union’s main force north and west and come upon the Confederates from behind. The Union’s advantage was great; 115,000 troops to the Confederates’ 60,000. But a series of bold moves by the Confederates and bad decisions by Hooker ultimately led to the Union defeat at Chancellorsville.
    Lee was not fooled by the feint at Fredericksburg. In defiance of military convention, Lee had split his smaller force, leaving only a few thousand troops at Fredericksburg and rushing the rest west to defend the flank.
    Union forces moved through the woods beyond Chancellorsville, about 15 miles west of Fredericksburg, and were met by a Confederate attack once they emerged into the open. Instead of pressing the assault, Hooker ordered his men back to Chancellorsville.
    Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson then persuaded Lee to divide Confederate forces once more, and led 26,000 men on a 12-mile march to attack the Union’s right. Hooker mistakenly thought Jackson was retreating, and when Jackson attacked late on the afternoon of May 2, the Union troops were in camp, drinking coffee.
    Fighting was fierce and continued into the night. At about 9:30 p.m., in the darkness and confusion, Jackson was hit twice in the left arm and once in the right hand, shot by edgy Confederate pickets—his own men. His arm was amputated at a field hospital and buried at Ellwood (a historic home that still stands off State Route 20), and Jackson was taken by ambulance to Guinea Station in Caroline County. He might have recovered, but pneumonia set in, and he died May 10. His famous last words were, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”
   The Confederates gained a great advantage from Jackson’s flank attack and continued to drive the Union east over the next few days, with a notable Confederate victory in a skirmish at Old Salem Church on May 3 and 4.
   One Union success, though short-lived, came May 3 at Marye’s Heights. The Union, with overwhelming numbers under the command of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, drove Confederates from their entrenchments and stormed up the hill. But the next day, Confederate troops under Gen. Jubal Early rousted the Union troops from the summit.
    Hooker’s forces finally retreated over the Rappahannock River on May 6.
Losses to both sides were great. Hooker lost about 17,000 men; Lee lost about 13,000, including Jackson.
    The Battle of Brandy Station, in Culpeper County, was a surprise attack in June 1863 by Union cavalry under Gen. Alfred Pleasonton against the cavalry of Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart. Stuart was preparing to cover Lee’s northern advance in the opening stages of the Gettysburg campaign. Pleasonton was attempting to find out what Lee was up to when he encountered Stuart’s cavalry and attacked. For 12 hours; 21,000 mounted men fought along the Rappahannock River in the biggest cavalry battle in American history.
    Neither side could be said to have won, but as a result, Hooker learned of Lee’s northward advance.
   The Battle of the Wilderness took place May 5 and 6, 1864. By this point in the war, the tide had turned in the Union’s favor. (The defining battle had been in July 1863, when the South had attacked at Gettysburg, with inferior numbers, and been soundly defeated.) At the Wilderness, Union forces under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant engaged the Confederates for two days, producing 26,000 casualties. It was little more than a momentary check in Grant’s advance. From the struggle in the Wilderness, both armies staged a footrace for control of the junction at Spotsylvania Courthouse. From May 8 through 21, 1864, federal forces made numerous attacks on Confederate lines. The bloodiest engagement of the campaign came May 12, when Union forces overran Confederates at what is known as the “Bloody Angle.”

“Civil War Sites in Virginia, a Tour Guide,” by James I. Robertson Jr.
“The Civil War,” by Geoffrey Ward with Ric and Ken Burns
“Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave,” by Ernest B. Furgurson
“Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania,” the National Park Service (brochure)