by George C. Rable
Chapel Hill: The UNC Press, 2002. Pp. xiv, 671.
Illus., maps, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN:0-8078-2673-1
For all of the ink that has been spilled over various Civil War campaign and battles, it is remarkable that there are still some that are relatively uncovered. In the eastern theater, one of the major events that remains ignored is the battle of Fredericksburg. George Rable has now ably filled that gap with his study of the campaign.
Rather than merely doing a battle study, Rable’s aim was for a much broader work. In this he succeeds brilliantly. He places the campaign in the overall context of the war. Rable appropriately begins with Abraham Lincoln’s second and final firing of George B. McClellan and the appointment of his replacement, the reluctant Ambrose Burnside. Under pressure from the administration to “do something,” Burnside embarks on an advance towards Richmond via Fredericksburg, a plan ultimately frustrated by the well-known pontoon snafu, credit for which belongs largely to Henry Halleck. The delay allowed Robert E. Lee ample time to move first Longstreet’s and then Jackson’s Corps to the Fredericksburg area.
After looking for other crossing sites over the Rappahannock, Burnside decided to cross the river at the town itself and drive the Confederates from the positions they held along a series of hills and ridges west of town. Rable suggests that this was not necessarily a bad idea, for with Jackson’s Corps scattered along the river as far away as Skinker’s Neck and Port Royal, Lee’s defenses in the area of Prospect Hill and Hamilton’s Crossing might have been vulnerable, if a crossing and attack could be mounted quickly enough.
However, the crossing was delayed by some stout Confederate resistance and poor management on the Union side, especially at the upper pontoon site. Matters became worse for the Union when the officers let their troops engage in a rampage of looting and wanton destruction of the town itself, which many felt was not a good omen of things to come
The battle itself is well described, albeit rather briefly. Aside from some of the tactical descriptions, Rable wisely devotes much attention to the plight of the civilians both in Fredericksburg and the surrounding area. The treatment of these unfortunates clearly presaged a hardening of attitudes on both sides.
The most moving chapters deal with the plight of the wounded. Given the state of medicine at the time, one can only marvel at the ability of people back then to endure pain.
There are some flaws in the book. One is with the title. While Rable correctly notes the importance of the battle, especially on the Union psyche, citing the fact that after driving back Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, Union troops chanted “Fredericksburg, Fredericks-burg,” using this line as a title gives one the impression that Rable has written a Civil War musical, as opposed to a serious study. Also Rable overstates the possibility of Union success on the left, on the assumption that Meade’s attack through the six hundred yard gap left by the feuding A.P. Hill and Stonewall Jackson had been better supported. While Rable is certainly correct in this, maximum exploitation of the gap would have required tactical arrangements more akin to Long-street’s attack at Chickamauga or Emory Upton’s at Spotsylvania, a level of tactical thinking that did not exist in late 1862.
This book does not have some of kind of tactical detail that connoisseurs of battle books would perhaps prefer. Taken all together, however, this book, marked by impeccably exhaustive research, crisp writing and sharp analysis, is a splendid addition to the literature on the Civil War in the east. It will stand as the definitive study of the campaign for some time to come.