The battle at Fredericksburg began at first light, December 13, 1862, and soon became a slaughter of Northern soldiers urged on against a near-impregnable barrier of musket and cannon-fire. New York Times reporter William Swinton’s post-battle dispatch to the Times noted: “[The Federal soldiers] were literally mowed down. The bursting shells make great gaps in their ranks . . . flesh and blood could not endure it. They fell back shattered and broken, amid shouts and yells from the enemy.” By nightfall, more than twelve thousand Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing.
This severe defeat of Northern forces at the end of a year that witnessed astronomical casualties on both sides, leaves us to question Lincoln’s motives for continuing his war. After shelling and starving the women, children and old men of Vicksburg into submission, and the wounded, dead and maimed at Gettysburg, Lincoln unleashed Sherman, Sheridan and Grant upon Americans in the South in absolute total war – war against military and civilians.
The Carnage at Fredericksburg
“It was the first of six assaults, each more futile than the last. Federal artillery assayed a covering barrage; the euphemism “friendly fire” had not yet been invented, but according to [Cincinnati Commercial reporter Murat] Halstead, “at least half of the shells” fell into the Federal ranks, “killing more of our men than the enemy.”
A large number of Federal troops – wound or otherwise – were trapped on the battlefield. [London Times correspondent Francis] Lawley presented the view from the rebel lines:
“Such a scene . . . would baffle any mortal pen to describe. In addition to the agonized cries for water, and the groans of tortured and dying men, may be heard voices, constantly growing fainter and fainter, shouting out names and numbers of their regiments in hope that some of their comrades may be within hearing . . . Their bodies, which lie in dense masses, as thick as autumn leaves, within 40 yards of the muzzles of the Confederate guns, are best evidence of their bravery as well as to the desperate plight of their bitterly deceived commanders.”
Lawley, noting the large number of European mercenaries in the Federal army, offered a particular ethnocentric comment:
“It is not likely that the full details of this battle will be generally known in the North for weeks and weeks; but if, after the failure of this last and feeblest of all the Federal attempts to reach Richmond . . . the Irish and Germans are again tempted to embark on so hopeless a venture, then it is the conclusion irresistible that, in addition to all the shackles of despotism which they are alleged to have left behind them in Europe, they have left also that most valuable attribute of humanity, which is called common sense.”
“It became apparent to all observers,” the Cincinnati editor wrote, that the fortunes of the day on our side were desperate. It was manifestly absolutely impossible for our columns of unsupported infantry to carry the terrible heights.”
(Blue and Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War, Brayton Harris, Brassey’s, 2000, excerpts pp. 224-225; 228)