Book Review: The Fredericksburg Campaign

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by Victor Brooks

Conshohocken, Pa.: Combined Publishing, 2000. Pp. 185. illus., maps, sidebars, appendix, index. $27.95. ISBN:1-58097-033-8

This book is another in Combined Publishing’s long running campaign series. It’s welcome in one sense, as the author correctly points out, that of all the campaigns fought in the Civil War that of Fredericks-burg campaign is one of the least studied. Brooks’ study attempts to fill the gap, but it succeeds only in a partial sense.

Brooks begins his study logically enough, with the aftermath of the Antietam campaign, and the failure of George B. McClellan to make any aggressive move against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This eventually resulted in Lincoln’s second and final firing of McClellan and the appointment of Ambrose Burnside as his successor. There then follows a fairly standard description of the campaign as it unfolded in November 1862, culminating in Burnside’s decision to force a crossing of the Rappahannock River on December 11 and the unsuccessful Union assaults against Lee’s positions along Marye’s Heights two days later. Brooks closes the volume with a brief description of the disastrous “Mud March” of January 1863, which led to Burnside’s replacement by Joseph Hooker.

Although the book is somewhat heavy with description, Brooks does have some interesting arguments to make. His contention that Burnside’s decision to make the crossing at Fredericksburg was reasonable is actually well-founded. Given the relatively scattered nature of Jackson’s dispositions because of his mission to guard crossings downstream, a rapid crossing in force could well have found Lee’s right flank lightly defended. The execution of the crossing and the manner in which the army crossed the river are, however, different matters. Brooks’ contention that had William B. Franklin’s attack also utilized the VI Corps he might have achieved greater success against Jackson is true, but overstated. Although the presence of VI Corps (the army’s largest) would have caused Jackson more serious problems, for decisive success such an attack required the unique tactical talents of a Longstreet, Hancock, or Hooker. Such abilities were beyond Franklin, who was further hamstrung by the confused nature of Burnside’s orders.

The greatest deficiencies in the book are its omissions, most notably the absence of notes. This makes it difficult to judge exactly what sources Brooks used, and how judiciously he used them. Likewise, his bibliographical essay does not include several good works on the battle, most notably Frank O’Reilly’s very good scholarly analysis of the fighting at Prospect Hill. Finally, an analysis of Jackson’s dispositions, especially his decision to cover the entire portion of his front with A.P. Hill’s Division would have been useful.

Taken all together, this book is certainly a step in the right direction. We still await, however, a full scholarly study of the battle.

Reviewer: R.L. DiNardo, USMC C&SC   


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