A Saturday Spent Walking on Marye’s Heights


This was to be the summer of my 50th High School Reunion. Now you know how old I am, even though you may not realize that like Sheldon Cooper, I graduated from high school when I was twelve years old. Younger than you thought, right? I didn’t get to go to the reunion and renew acquaintance with those old fogies because I was in Washington DC that weekend. It was that Russian thing. Donald Trump reached out for wise counsel and well, my country always comes first. It may be my need to help out some family members added weight to The Donald’s plea.

In any case, I spent the weekend of my reunion, and a couple of others besides, in our nation’s capital. By the standards of the Deplorables, Washington is a strange place. Much of DC is a city in “transition”, a place where the two faces of Blue State America meet at close quarters, Adorable gentrification skirmishing with deep rooted urban squalor.

The city’s sidewalks are swept in early morning and late afternoon by waves of bland earnest people dressed in non-descript business casual dress, laminated ID’s hanging from lanyards draped around their necks. These otherwise faceless automatons are the Masters of the Universe, at least the one we live in and at least for now.

As the day wears on, the sidewalks become an uneasy host to random clots of people in irregular dress moving through the city. Mathematicians would recognize their chaotic yet regular walking as a Mandelbrot Set. Halting and agonizing over the need to wait for the “Walk” sign, these people, of all ages and colors speaking in tongues known and unknown, can only be tourists. As noon approaches, the city’s permanent residents gradually make their appearance on its shaded streets and walkways. They an amiable if initially disconcerting population, moving with easy grace, possessed of a practiced languor that can only be learned by long practice of timeless idleness.

Of course, one can’t spend time in Washington without visiting the monuments, the museums, the buildings housing those bland earnest people seen on the early morning streets. While there exist the monuments and iconic buildings regularly appearing as backdrops to the talking heads of TV news, most of non-residential Washington is taken up by endless blocks of large square anonymous office buildings fronted by pipe bollards and armed guards.

For those who are growing old without benefit of the comforting companionship of the fishing pole, the golf club or Judge Judy, exploring the quiet dusty corridors of our memory begins to take up more and more of our waking hours. While where I put this morning’s coffee cup is often mysterious, memories of past times ring clear and sharp. Walking around Washington confuses even my MapQuest enabled sense of navigation, but echoing metaphors from fifty year gone science fiction novels snap into sharp focus.

In my teens, before science fiction matured into the dystopian fantasy of today, a recurring theme of the genre were stories about characters living amid the ruins and monuments of a past greatness.One of the recurring themes of the science fiction of that day was the concept of the Forerunners. Many a story was set in a future time when the human race was expanding among the stars. As the human race expands through the galaxy, they come upon deserted planets covered with the ruins of a wide spread culture now gone, but far more advanced and powerful than their own. These future humans called this vanished alien people, the Forerunners.

Spending time in Washington always makes me think of the Forerunners. Walking among the monuments, the museums, testament to those who came before my own generation, I am left with the overpowering impression that it was another race of men who built these things, who did these deeds. I know my own generation, my own time, and simply cannot believe we could have achieved such wisdom, such greatness.

But after a time, the crowded streets of Washington close in and I need open air, to walk on dirt rather than concrete, to see the handiwork of God rather than man. And so temporarily free of any obligations on a Saturday just past, while my fellow high school alumni dined on Nebraska beef and shared stories about grandchildren, I made my way down the crowded tangled highways of Northern Virginia to the town of Fredericksburg.

Fredericksburg is just another Virginia town on the south bank of the Rappahannock River. It boasts a large and, on this July Saturday, busy Old Town, full of the quaintness beloved of tourists, i.e. restaurants, arts & crafts shops, etc. But just a few hundred yards up the hill from the buzzing noise and tourist commerce of Old Town lies the quiet shaded parking lot of the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. How many of the people in the densely packed streets jostling for a table at crowded restaurants within easy range of a Minnie ball know, or care, that only an easy stroll up the street lies the hallowed ground of the Fredericksburg battlefield?

That is a question with no easy answer. But a growing body of experience suggests that these hallowed grounds, the fields where armies of the Blue and Gray met, are empty and lonely places, devoid of people except for solitary park rangers and uniquely garbed old men, while the ersatz experience of nearby “Old Towns” bustles with life.

To be sure, walking Civil War battlefields is an acquired taste, particularly for those whose experience of history is only the bland hypocrisy and cynical deconstruction found in the modern classroom. Those who have absorbed the idea that human beings need to be affirmed, to feel good about themselves, a cornerstone of modern education, are very uncomfortable with such places. We are taught, our instincts tell us, that battlefields are ugly places, places of violence, hatred and all that is worst in the human condition. And that is very true. Anyone wishing to actually be on a battlefield while it is being fought should either be in a mental institution or allowed to experience the reality of their fantasy.

But that being said, these blood soaked fields are not only America’s hallowed places, but they are classrooms. They will educate us if we listen. In December of 1862 over two hundred thousand American citizens were in and around the village of Fredericksburg. Some two thousand of that number would forever remain. Another fifteen thousand would feel the impact of a Minnie ball or hunk of shrapnel, permanently scarring their mind if not rendering them crippled.

It is no great stretch of the imagination to believe that not one of that two hundred thousand wanted to be in Fredericksburg. Northern Virginia in mid-December is a wet and cold place. No one, man or animal, wants to camp out in the wet and cold and these men had already been here for a month. Christmas was near, a Christmas they would now most assuredly spend apart from family. But those two hundred thousand men were here, with few exceptions they obeyed orders, and they suffered for that obedience.

But the question must be asked, why were they here? Battles are fought in spring and summer, not winter. Battle in warm weather is a terrible thing, but to fight in a wet cold winter is hellish. Battles are not fought in winter unless the times are in crisis. What is the crisis that brought those two hundred thousand men to Fredericksburg, facing each other across the Rappahannock River in December 1862?

The short answer was politics, a point worth pondering as our present day political leaders throw mud and engage in grandstanding. We now remember Abraham Lincoln as one of our greatest leaders, if not the greatest of them all. And Lincoln was a great man, a President for the ages and worthy of his near sacred monument on the Washington Mall. But a moment’s reflection only serves to puzzle, history learned in school and on the movie screen leaves us with only a child’s cartoon image of the reasons for his greatness.

December 1862 was perhaps the lowest point in a life well stocked with low points for Abraham Lincoln. His personal life lurched from dysfunction to tragedy and back again. Only months before the confrontation at Fredericksburg, one of his children, his beloved Willie, died at eleven years old of typhoid fever. His wife, Mary, hated Washington and was scorned by the socially prominent women living there. She increasingly suffered from depression and migraines and was, by most accounts, a difficult woman even at her best. A sociable man by nature, Lincoln had few friends in Washington and came home to a wife more burden than helpmate. Washington’s elite treated him as they did his wife. Washington society showed a barely concealed contempt to the family, laughing at them all with cruel hate behind their back. Lincoln’s own cabinet thought him a fool all the while engaging in endless scheming to get their own way. Washington was a cold and lonely place for Abraham Lincoln.

But December of 1862 was even colder and lonelier. The year, 1862, had started well. It had even appeared that the war might soon be over, only a year after it had begun. The Union Army under George McClellan who gloried in his nickname, Boy Napoleon, had put a massive Union army within a few miles of Richmond, the rebel capital. It was even reported that the Union Army pickets could see church spires within the city. If Richmond, the political and industrial center of the Confederacy, were captured, the war was over. Game, Set and Match.

But then Fate took a hand. In June, the Confederate Army’s commanding general, Joe Johnston, was wounded in battle on the very outskirts of Richmond. In desperation, Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s President, appointed his military advisor, Robert E. Lee, to command the defense of Richmond. And then things turned to crap for the Boy Napoleon, the Union Army and Abraham Lincoln. Under Lee’s command the rebel army was unleashed, winning battles, driving the Union Army from the outskirts of Richmond back into Maryland. JEB Stuart’s cavalry was seen on the northern outskirts of Washington itself, a force of thousands of horse cavalry having ridden completely around the city. Maryland was invaded. Harper’s Ferry, the large Union supply depot, was captured. The world had turned upside down and the rebels looked triumphant, at least in the headlines and editorials of the newspapers.

People in the North were weary of losing sons and husbands in futile battles. More and more people were wondering why the war just couldn’t end. Outside of the New England abolitionists, the North had always been lukewarm about the war. In the thoughts of farmers and shopkeepers alike, if the Confederates had not fired on Ft. Sumter in Charlestown Harbor, the war would have been avoided altogether. Who really cared if those Southern grandees and their black field hands went their own way? To hell with them!

Now Congress, prodded by Lincoln, had passed a conscription law. In the coming year, sons and husbands would be drafted into an army widely seen as inept. At the same time and by the standards of the time, Rebel generals Robert E Lee, JEB Stuart and Stonewall Jackson were celebrities, superstars with a superhuman ability on the battlefield. In contrast the Union’s own generals appeared as a revolving merry-go-round of incompetence, Keystone Kops of the day.

In counterpoint to the incompetence displayed on the battlefield, The War Department’s bureaucrats in Washington had done well in the skills common to bureaucrats. They had created and equipped a large Union army. That effort had opened enormous opportunities for fortunes to be made by the well connected, which they had promptly taken advantage of. While farm boys from Ohio and Pennsylvania were bleeding on losing battlefields, the contractors supplying their beans and bullets, even their coffins, were awash in newly printed greenbacks.

The Democratic Party opposed Lincoln almost as ferociously as the Confederates and spoke for many in the North. Just a month past in the 1862 elections, Lincoln’s Republican’s had lost their majority in Congress. The Democrats had run on a Peace Platform, wanting to negotiate a peace treaty with the Confederacy and end the war. In a humiliating turn of events, even Abraham Lincoln’s own Congressional district back in Springfield, Illinois had elected an anti-war Democrat. Whatever support there had been in the Union for war was rapidly eroding away.

But Lincoln believed in the Union. He had faith and he had two more years before he faced his own re-election. Lincoln believed, as did most knowledgeable people on sober reflection, that the overwhelming superiority of the Union’s industrial base and population size would bring the Union’s victory if the North just stayed the course. Unless of course the Union Army simply collapsed, which was a worrisome possibility at least to Lincoln watching from Washington.

The greater threat to the Union’s victory in Lincoln’s calculating mind was that the Confederacy would make an alliance with European allies, specifically England and France. After all, it was the French intervention in the Revolutionary War some eighty years previous that enabled the United States to win independence from England. If England did no more than use her all-powerful navy to enforce open seas for the Confederacy’s merchant ships, breaking the Union blockade of Southern ports, the Confederacy would gain independence. And, if truth be known, there were many reasons why England would be open to, even inviting of, an alliance.

In 1862, relations between the United States and England were cordial, but the “Special Relationship” was still fifty years in the future. England and the United States had fought two wars and had two close calls in the past seventy-five years. England viewed America’s rapid growth with unease, seeing a future rival growing across the Atlantic. Splitting this fast growing nation into two antagonistic rivals was a very attractive strategy to assure England’s own continued military and commercial dominance.

On a purely personal level, Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward made no secret of his personal hatred for England and things English, which feelings were reciprocated by the English establishment. John Slidell, an experienced and savvy diplomat from Louisiana, was in England working to facilitate such an alliance with the Confederacy. In any case, the English upper class, the aristocrats who formed England’s government whether Whig, Liberal or Conservative, found their fellow aristocrats of the Confederacy far more to their liking than the brash “Yankees” of the Union.

But most concerning to the English government was the growing crisis in England caused by the Union’s naval blockade of the South. As a result of the Union Navy’s blockade of southern ports, the Confederacy’s cotton had disappeared from English textile mills. English newspapers were calling this growing crisis the Lancashire Cotton Famine.

A major part of the British economy involved taking raw cotton from America, from what was now the Confederacy, and turning it into cloth. Booming cotton production in the late 1850’s had given the southern states now forming the Confederacy enormous prosperity. This prosperity was no small part of their confidence in daring to secede from the Union. Southern cotton production was booming in the decade before the war and it was all being shipped to England where it was woven into cloth.

As the South’s growers had prospered, England’s textile economy in its turn had boomed. English mill owner’s had gone deeply into debt financing the construction of new factories, bringing on new workers. Now those heavily indebted mill owners were underwater, going into bankruptcy, their workers out of work and struggling simply to survive. Civil unrest was building quickly.

Out of a total population of some 20 million in England, 400,000 mill workers were thrown out of work in a few months. Remember the novels of Charles Dickens. He was simply using melodrama to tell it like it was. There was no “welfare” state then. In fact, England’s Poor Laws, the beginning of what we now think of as the “welfare” state, came into being because of the Lancashire Cotton Famine caused by the American Civil War.

Using the Royal Navy to open Southern ports allowing free trade between the Confederacy and England, ending the Lancashire Cotton Famine, was a powerful temptation. Freedom of the seas, now being flouted with impunity by the pipsqueak Union Navy, was the basis of all English foreign policy. The Union Navy was greatly irritating English sensibilities. The War of 1812 between England and the United States had begun over these same issues. The admirals and captains of the Royal Navy ached to teach these upstarts a lesson they would not soon forget. Other than the unfortunate dependence of the Confederacy on slavery, England would have probably already broken the blockade. But abhorrence of slavery loomed large in England, particularly among its growing middle class.

What we now call Evangelical Christianity was born in England/Colonial America a hundred years before. As Evangelical Christianity matured it evolved the novel idea that all men were equal. The American Declaration of Independence is an expression of that radical idea nurtured within Evangelical Christianity. That idea, along with the concepts and attitudes that grew out of that idea, resonated powerfully in English and American middle class households. But slavery, Southern slavery, was the elephant in the room.

If all men were truly equal in God’s eyes, then how could some men enslave other men? And as with most elephants found in civilized living rooms, polite people preferred to ignore the elephant’s presence. Perhaps if everyone ignored the elephant, it wouldn’t start breaking up the furniture.

And so the ragged farm boys marching under the Stars and Bars fought for their rights, not to preserve the plantation aristocrats right to own slaves. The blue bellies patiently suffering the political gamesmanship of incompetent generals fought to preserve the Union rather than to free the slaves. And prosperous textile workers in England didn’t think too hard about where the cotton came from. To do otherwise risked recognizing the obvious, and as all civilized people understand, that risked everything.

But a measure of Abraham Lincoln’s greatness was that he recognized the time had come to roll the dice, to start talking about the elephant. Perhaps circumstances forced his hand, as he knew he had nothing to lose. Abraham Lincoln was not only a lonely figure of ridicule in 1862, but was playing a losing hand. Without new cards and a new game, he would lose. And so in late September of 1862, Abraham Lincoln folded on his existing hand and began a new game. Against the advice of nearly everyone in official Washington, he raised the stakes dramatically. One might say that Lincoln “shot the moon”. He declared to the rebellious states of the Confederacy that unless they ended their rebellion and rejoined the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, he would issue an Executive Order giving all slaves in those rebellious states their freedom.

Lincoln was no idealistic fool. He carefully avoided threatening the status of slaves in the Union, of which there were tens of thousands. Instead he declared that he would preserve the Union and free the slaves, but only in the Confederacy. Making the war about ending slavery in the Confederacy in addition to preserving the Union would end the possibility of English intervention. England had no interest in preserving the Union, but would not bring the Royal Navy to bear against a government committed to ending slavery within its rebellious states.

It was a brilliant strategic move on Lincoln’s part, but a very risky one, particularly at a time when the war in Virginia was going very badly. And as far as politics and public perceptions were concerned, the war in Virginia was the war. Abraham Lincoln warned of what he would do. He would issue an Executive Order now called the Emancipation Proclamation. But he would not actually do it until the New Year. Everyone from Abraham Lincoln and his opposite number, Jefferson Davis, on down knew that talk is cheap. Warnings about future consequences from someone getting their butt kicked are laughable. It is the little boy with a bloody nose lying on the ground in torn clothing threatening the schoolyard bully with what will happen if the bully doesn’t give back the lunch money. Now Abraham Lincoln needed victory on the battlefield, victory in Virginia, to make his threat credible.

And that brings us to the two hundred thousand men on the quiet shaded slopes of the Rappahannock River south of Fredericksburg. The two armies, one wearing blue, the other butternut grey, had fought the bloodiest battle in American history, Antietam, only a few weeks before in September 1862. Antietam had been a draw. Both armies were exhausted and with winter weather approaching had deployed into winter camp. Having only rudimentary railroads, the Confederate Army needed to be close to its sources of supply, near the Shenandoah Valley out west. The Union Army was well supplied around Washington but tired. Morale was terrible, but Abraham Lincoln could not allow them to rest. He needed battlefield victory or his Emancipation Proclamation would be just another belch of political hot air. The Army must take the field again. They must fight and win before January 1.

But before the army could once more go on the attack, Abraham Lincoln needed a general. Generals weren’t hard to find in Washington. In fact, generals were thick upon the ground, great swarms of them infesting the offices and drawing rooms of Washington’s power brokers. But finding competent generals able to lead the Union Army, ah – that was another thing entirely. Abraham Lincoln had tried before and failed. Irvin McDowell, George McClellan, John Fremont, Nathanial Banks, John Pope had been given command, failed and discarded.

Lincoln wanted to give the job to a general with at least a modest record of success, Ambrose Burnside. Earlier that summer, Lincoln had approached Burnside, offering command of the Army. Burnside, by reputation a humble man – a rare quality indeed among Union generals, had turned him down, citing a lack of experience. Lincoln had then given the job to John Pope, another general with a modest record of success. The result had been 2nd Bull Run, a complete fiasco resulting in the Confederate Army’s invasion of Maryland, threatening Washington DC itself.

Now Lincoln approached Burnside again in October, twice. And was turned down twice Exasperated, Lincoln issued an ultimatum to Burnside. If Burnside did not accept command, Lincoln would be forced to give the job to another general. This general in marked contrast to Ambrose Burnside, was pulling strings all over Washington to get the job. This other general by the name of Joe Hooker, called Fighting Joe Hooker by the newspapers, was not in any way burdened by humility. Ambrose Burnside was both a patriot and convinced in his own mind that giving Fighting Joe Hooker command of the army was a disaster waiting to happen. And so Burnside accepted his fate and assumed command of the Union Army of the Potomac.

In an interesting aside, the names of both Joe Hooker and Ambrose Burnside are remembered in popular culture today. Ambrose Burnside was known for his magnificently sculpted facial hair, sweeping down his cheeks in dramatic fashion. His name “Burnside” was rearranged to give us our word “sideburns”, in memory of his distinctive look. Joe Hooker’s last name is remembered as the vulgar street name for a profession of dubious morality.

Prodded by a nervous Abraham Lincoln, Burnside was given very little time, charged with bringing victory in Virginia before January 1. And so in the few days available to him he planned his campaign, identifying Fredericksburg as the place to attack. Far to the east of the Shenandoah Valley where Confederate Army winter camps were located, crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg would put the Union Army half way to Richmond. The Union Army would be in position to drive on the city with its defenders far out of position in the west. But to do this the Union Army must get to Fredericksburg before the Confederates knew what was up. Then they must cross the river before it could be defended. Success was possible but it depended on secrecy and swift movement.

Surprisingly this hastily concocted plan worked. The Union Army moved out of winter camp on November 15, arriving in force upon the bank of the Rappahannock River two days later, November 17. Fredericksburg on the opposite bank was essentially undefended, open before the Union Army. Robert E Lee and his army had been caught by surprise and outmaneuvered. The Union Army need simply cross the Rappahannock and in a few days time would once more be on the outskirts of Richmond. Victory was again in sight and Abraham Lincoln could issue his Emancipation Proclamation with confidence.

Everything had depended on secrecy and swift movement. But it had also depended on pontoon bridges. The Rappahannock was too deep and wide to ford. Existing bridges over the Rappahannock River had been burned earlier in the war. The only way to cross the river at Fredericksburg was in boats or on pontoon bridges.

Benjamin Franklin said it this way – “For want of a nail the shoe was lost . . . . “ William Shakespeare with more poetry, more drama expressed it so – “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” In either case, disaster awaits the grand enterprise because of a missing detail. And Ambrose Burnside learned this truth, as had many before and after, the hard way. He sent letter upon letter, telegram upon telegram, to Washington, to Lincoln himself begging for his missing pontoon bridges. Where were they?

Of course Ambrose Burnside had known that he needed pontoon bridges. In fact they already existed in Army storage depots for just such an occasion. I am sure that some contractor well connected to the War Department had been paid handsomely for them. Burnside had ordered them sent to Fredericksburg on November 6, more than enough time to get there on time. But the pontoon bridges were not at the Rappahannock to meet him on November 17. They were not there the next day either. In fact, the pontoon bridges did not actually arrive until December 1. By which time, the entire Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E Lee, some 78,000 men and their supporting artillery were dug in on the heights above Fredericksburg facing Burnside and his army of 138,000.

Looking across the river, Burnside could see Confederate battle flags stretching on a line nearly ten miles in length, well entrenched behind stone fences. Innumerable cannon, well sited and dug in, completed the picture. It didn’t take an experienced general to know what would happen if the Union Army attempted to cross the river and attack that formidable defensive line. The attack would fail and many good men would die for no purpose.

With hat in hand, Ambrose Burnside explained the situation to Abraham Lincoln. There was no chance for victory now, the Union Army must withdraw, giving battle here and now would be a disaster. Lincoln’s answer was a short one (slightly paraphrased) “You wanted the pontoon bridges. Now you have them. Attack”.

And so under orders from the Commander in Chief, Burnside moved to the attack. Over two days, December 11th and 12th, Union troops crossed the Rappahannock River in the first amphibious assault in American history, a bloody and clumsy preview of what would come on D-Day and a lengthy series of Pacific atolls eighty years later. The town itself was turned into a smoking ruin but finally the Union army was across the river in position along the Confederate lines for a general assault.

December 13 was an ugly day for the Union Army and Ambrose Burnside. The Union Army’s assault on the Confederate positions at Fredericksburg turned out to be just what Ambrose Burnside said it would be. But the assault had its own special glimpses of hell, its own vignettes of ineptitude. George Meade, a general fated to take his own turn in the revolving door of Union Army command some seven months later, led his division into a swamp in front of the Confederate line well to the east of Fredericksburg. The swamp had been thought impassable and was lightly defended. Meade broke through into the rear of the Confederate line, threating to roll it up and create havoc. But he had only a few thousand men and needed support to have any real effect on the battle. None of the nearly 20,000 men, idling in reserve just behind his attack, were ordered up and Meade’s men were overwhelmed by a Confederate counterattack. They retreated in defeat, leaving their dead and wounded behind in an area known to posterity as The Slaughter Pen.

The present day Visitor’s Center is located just below Marye’s Heights, a few hundred yards up the hill from Fredericksburg’s Old Town. It was here that the main Union attack was made. It was here that the long-suffering Union soldiers paid a terrible price for Abraham Lincoln’s political calculus. Marye’s Heights is the name given to a ridge above what was then a cleared pasture, directly south of Fredericksburg. A stretch of cleared land just outside of the town itself, this pasture served as the town’s commons, a place for farmer’s markets, fairs and Sunday picnicking. Creeks flowing down into the Rappahannock River bound the pasture on two sides. Marye’s Heights, rising some 120 feet above the town, is on its south border. Just below Marye’s Heights is a stone wall sheltering a sunken road along its entire length.

It was at the edge of this open field that Union troops dressed their lines, then marching in measured rows up the gently rising pasture toward the stone wall, a stone wall sheltering thick lines of Confederate infantry. The great Union Army advantage of overwhelming numbers was blunted. Only so many men could march in their lines bounded as they were by the two creeks.

Burnside’s plan of attack, such as it was, called for the first wave of infantry to absorb Confederate fire until it could advance no more, then the men of the first line would lie down. A second wave of infantry, sheltered until then by the first wave would step over them and continue to advance across the pasture and up the hill. In this way, the Union army would advance up the hill in leapfrog fashion and capture Marye’s Heights.

It was not the most imaginative plan, but given the tactical situation, what else could be done? Abraham Lincoln had given a direct order that a battle must take place, that the battle must take place here and now. As the battle progressed, after the failure of the third, or maybe the fourth, or even the fifth wave of infantry, it became clear to the watching officers that this was not going to work.

I imagine that Ambrose Burnside, watching the unfolding defeat from his command post, had many regrets at the sight meeting his eyes. But now he had an immediate problem that perhaps had not been given adequate consideration, how to disengage. In other words, how do we retreat? The open pasture below Marye’s Heights contained thousands of dead, wounded and disorganized Union soldiers, hiding in swales, behind the bodies of the fallen or simply hugging the ground hoping to remain unnoticed. Crowded on the river bank or mustered in the smoking ruins of the town were thousands more Union soldiers awaiting the order to advance, shoulder to shoulder with no room to maneuver and a river at their back. What if the Confederate army, fresh and almost untouched as yet, advanced down the hill in a counterattack? Lee was known for his aggressive tactics and now the a large part of the Union Army was exposed to the risk of annihilation. What would happen if tens of thousands of fresh Confederate infantry leapt over the wall screaming the Rebel Yell?

What else was there to do? If the assault continued, the Confederates could not organize a counterattack. And so the Union assault across the open pasture and up Marye’s Heights continued for the rest of a mercifully short December day. Eighteen separate lines of Union infantry advanced into the smoking charnel house that was the pasture below Marye’s Heights. Robert E Lee, watching the collapse of one oncoming blue line after another from his command post on a high ground now known as Lee’s Hill, turned to James Longstreet with a thought both triumphant and melancholy –

“It is well that war is so terrible, else we would grow too fond of it.”

Finally the setting of the sun brought an end to the seemingly endless lines of blue coming up the hill. Many of the Confederate guns were too hot to touch from the continuous firing during the day. But even though the day was over, the day was not over. The Confederates were still in place, the open fields in front of their wall littered with Union soldiers, dead, wounded, hugging the ground. The moon was near full in a clear sky. A clear sky meant a cold night as temperatures rapidly dropped near freezing.

To compound the soldiers’ misery, the day had been a warm one, in the upper sixties. Many of the Union soldiers had been hot, discarding their winter coats before lining up for the assault up the hill. In addition the men had been forced to cross a trench at the pasture’s edge, with water three feet deep, soaking their woolen uniforms. Now they lay on the ground, hugging the dirt in the cold freezing night in wet clothes without coats.

The men crowded into shallow swales or simply hugging the ground dare not move in the moonlight, else alert sharpshooters would fire on them. Joshua Chamberlain, who would go on to a Medal of Honor at Little Round Top and governorship of Maine, spent the night hugging the ground of that pasture sheltering behind the body of a dead man. After a long freezing night, morning came, but it brought little relief to the suffering of the stranded men scattered on the pasture below Marye’s Heights. They were still out in the open. The Confederates were still overlooking them from Marye’s Heights.

But to Burnside’s relief, and the relief of the men stranded out on the open pasture, there was no Confederate counterattack. Lee was content to hold his line. But the thousands of wounded on the hillside continued their suffering, crying out in pain and thirst. The next afternoon, Burnside requested a truce to attend to his wounded, as well as withdraw from the hill. It is a measure of Lee’s greatness that he agreed. It was not the smart move of a successful general, but it was the compassionate act of a great man.

The battle was finally over. Burnside withdrew and marched back to Washington in defeat, in humiliating defeat. Along with his army, long columns of ambulances bounced over roads, both frozen and muddy, carrying the pitifully wounded back to the doubtful balm of crowded hospitals.

Back in Washington, it was a time for an accounting. In a long series of Union Army defeats Fredericksburg stood out for its ineptitude at the command level. Why weren’t the pontoon bridges on time? How come George Meade wasn’t supported when he broke the Confederate line? Who ordered that endless series of pointless charges up Marye’s Heights? What idiot thought it a good idea to fight a battle in December anyway?

Newspaper editors were outraged, well understanding the link between outrage and circulation. In this case, the newspapers were well informed about the events surrounding Fredericksburg. Washington’s army of generals sensing opportunity for advancement and influence could be counted on to offer “informed opinion” and “inside information”. The generals actually at the battle were eager to escape blame by telling the story of “what really happened”. There were scores to settle, blame to escape and the chance for future advancement or influence.

Any veteran of modern corporate America understands the situation. Disaster requires a scapegoat and Fredericksburg was a “no doubt” disaster. But whatever other deficiencies there might be in Ambrose Burnside, he was a man of honor, a man with character. He shouldered the blame without excuses, offering his resignation for a job he had not wanted.

Ambrose Burnside showed a character that few possess, particularly commanding generals. We often see our leaders making a show of accepting the blame, saying something like “The buck stops here.” But then, often in the same breath, they offer long lists of excuses proving it really not their fault. Former President Barack Obama was an exceptional practitioner of this disingenuous hypocrisy.

Ambrose Burnside did not blame those masters of bureaucracy and Army politics, Generals Henry Halleck and Montgomery Meigs, for the late delivery of the pontoon bridges though they were in fact at fault. Burnside was charitable in his assessment of the performance of his subordinates, including Generals William Franklin and John Reynolds who had ignored George Meade’s breakthrough, despite their command of large and ready reserves directly behind Meade’s breakthrough. This was the same General Franklin who ceaselessly politicked against Burnside’s appointment to command and endlessly conspired against him afterwards. Ambrose Burnside did not blame Abraham Lincoln for boxing him into a hopeless position.

Perhaps Ambrose Burnside wasn’t the equal of Robert E Lee, but then what Union general was? Fredericksburg was a fiasco. Burnside was appointed to command on November 7. One week later he was marching toward Fredericksburg with little time to prepare or plan. After the failure of the pontoon bridges to arrive, Burnside told Lincoln that any attack would fail, begging him to allow a retreat. Lincoln ordered him forward into battle anyway. The unexpected success of George Meade during the battle could have led to a great victory if reinforced, but Meade’s commander, a bitter enemy of Burnside, took refuge in an after the fact strict interpretation of his orders and did nothing.

One of our most pre-eminent historians of the Civil War, Bruce Catton, had this to say about Ambrose Burnside:

“Burnside had repeatedly demonstrated that it had been a military tragedy to give him a rank higher than colonel. One reason might have been that, with all his deficiencies, Burnside never had any angles of his own to play; he was a simple, honest, loyal soldier, doing his best even if that best was not very good, never scheming or conniving or back biting. Also, he was modest; in an army many of whose generals were insufferable prima donnas, Burnside never mistook himself for Napoleon.”

Catton tells us that it was a military tragedy to give Burnside a rank higher than colonel. That may be, but my own survey of Civil War generals suggests that Bruce Catton set the bar for becoming a general in the Union Army far too high. In my own time, we have grown familiar with generals both great and good. The past thirty years have seen a parade of American generals in high governmental positions or in command of armies. We see them talking to us, telling us what must be done. To believe that William Westmoreland, Colin Powell, Norman Swarzkopf, Tommy Franks, Stanley McChrystal, etc. are better men or even better generals than Ambrose Burnside, Henry Halleck, William Franklin, George Meade, etc. is, I believe, a bridge too far.

How many of our generals parading across our news feeds in their ribbon spangled uniforms could be described as “insufferable prima donnas” or as “mistaking themselves for Napoleon”? It might well be that the number of medals on a general’s uniform is a good indicator of both competence and character. How many of our present day generals might be described as “a simple, honest, loyal soldier, doing his best” or as “never scheming or conniving or back biting”?

Perhaps an overlooked measure of Lincoln’s greatness is to be found in his desire to appoint Ambrose Burnside as the commander of the Union’s most important army. Why would Lincoln want Ambrose Burnside, described by Bruce Catton as a man who should never have even been a general, to be his most important general? Lincoln continued to pursue Ambrose Burnside, even after being turned down three times. Why?

It might just be Lincoln placed great value on character traits like honesty and loyalty. Perhaps Lincoln knew the value of a man who had no angles of his own to play, who never schemed or connived or talked about others behind their back? Perhaps in Lincoln’s mind character was at least as important as experience or technical competence. I am sure that Lincoln was disappointed in Burnside’s performance on the battlefield, but I don’t think he was disappointed in Burnside’s performance as a man.

But Lincoln continued his search for both a man of character and a general who could win a war. Fighting Joe Hooker came after Ambrose Burnside. Chancellorsville, equally as bad as Fredericksburg, proved Fighting Joe’s performance not the equal of Fighting Joe’s ego. George Meade replaced Fighting Joe, but Gettysburg did not give anyone confidence that he was the one either.

Finally Lincoln found his man and his general. In March of 1864 an unassuming man of modest character, accompanied by his 13 year old son, arrived in Washington. Not one for pomp and circumstance or a medal-bedecked uniform, this simple man had gone from the rail station straight to his hotel and was found by the inevitable news reporters eating a quiet dinner there with his son. Ulysses S Grant could also have been described as “a simple, honest, loyal soldier, doing his best” and as one “never scheming or conniving or back biting”. Lincoln had found his man.

We are only human beings and as human beings we worship, or blaspheme, our leaders. We praise or deprecate the actions of Lincoln, Burnside, Lee, etc. But we gloss over, we take for granted, those anonymous souls who are led by the names we remember and celebrate. One of the glories of our beloved country is the ordinary citizen, the one called upon to fill the ranks of those who follow. Not dreaming of glory or in the grip of an ideology, just simple men called upon to do an unpleasant duty.

During my time wandering over the fields at Fredericksburg, my thoughts returned again and again to the men of the Union Army of the Potomac. All men suffer in battle. But these men suffered through one insufferable prima donna after another in command, one scheming, conniving, backbiting general after another. Ambrose Burnside was a man of a different sort, but a failure like the rest. These anonymous men in blue, boys really, were led into one ignominious defeat after another. But there was awesome nobility in them, a wellspring of unquenchable courage that kept them going.

When they finally were given a leader to match themselves, these men in blue won victory, but only after a summer of battle so terrible that it unnerves our imagination. But they were finally led to victory. And then in victory, rather than indulging in exultation and taunting, they honored their enemy. As the ragged remnants of the defeated Confederate Army straggled before them in surrender, they did not jeer or throw offal as was their hard earned right, they stood at silent attention, honoring their defeated brothers limping past.

To think that Washington, or the United States, is any better or any worse today than yesterday is to be purposefully ignorant of our true nature. We are truly a fallen race. But as we walk among Washington’s monuments, as we wander the hills and valleys of Virginia, if we are quiet, we can sense the presence of the Forerunners.

6 Responses to “A Saturday Spent Walking on Marye’s Heights”

  1. Dave says:

    That was an excellent retelling of the battle at Fredericksburg and its background.

  2. Greg says:

    Bill-good detail on Fredericksburg. I’ve under appreciated the economic impact between England and Southern cotton. General Franklin and Meade: I’m getting a Frederick Benteen/George Custer comparison “vibe.”
    One has to wonder if Lee had been on the Union side, if the war would have lasted as long as it did. Thanks-

  3. Greg says:

    Actually, the possible Benteen/Custer comparison should be between Franklin and Burnside–not Meade.

    • bgroskopf says:

      Hard to say about William Franklin. He was by all accounts a good engineer on government jobs. Take that for what you will about the kind of man he was. Robert E Lee was a good engineer on government jobs as well, though Lee did his engineering in the boondocks while Franklin worked in D.C. Perhaps I am being harsh, but Franklin’s biggest contribution on the battlefield was to make Stonewall Jackson look good.
      But regarding the Benteen/Custer comparison, based on Franklin’s career, I suspect he was every bit as good at holding life time grudges as Benteen was.

  4. Geoff Singleton says:

    Hi Bill, The U.K. (England) did consider recognising the Confederacy in 1861 for the reasons you describe but Palmerston, who was Prime Minister, did not get enough support.The issue was further discussed in 1862 but the government decided that Russia was a more important issue for them.The Lancashire cotton mill workers took a principled stand in 1863 by refusing to use cotton picked by slaves.
    The battle was lost at Fredericksburg not only because of Halleck’s speed of providing the pontoons but also because the high ground was controlled by Confederate troops and the Confederates controlled with artillery the low ground the Union troops would have to cross.
    of the two purpose built capitals that I have visited Washington is by far the best. Yes it does have a split personality but that is the nature of such places.
    Canberra is the other and this is a very ordinary place especially when Parliamrnt is not sitting.
    As a Brit looking at the U.S. Civil War I cannot believe given the distance between Washington and Richmond the war wasn’t concluded earlier either way -but this is only an uninformed view.

    • bgroskopf says:

      Your comment about Washington & Richmond being so close that the war should have been shorter is on the money. The war should have been over in 1862. Why it lasted for three more horrible years is a good question.

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