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The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock Paperback – April 1, 2006
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Winner of the James I. Robertson, Jr., Book Award (Robert E. Lee Civil War Round Table of New Jersey)
Winner of the Capitol District Civil War Round Table Book Award (The Capital District Civil War Round Table)
A stupendous effort by a well-known expert on the subject. . . . The definitive work on the battle. (North & South)
Winner of the Daniel Laney Book Award (Austin Civil War Round Table)
The story is in the hands of a master craftsman: one who knows the battle well and knows how it should be told. The interweaving of strategy, field tactics, logistics and supply, politics, weather, and terrain is nearly seamless. (North Carolina Historical Review)
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There were really two disparate battles: There was the battle in the town itself in which the Union commanders could not figure out a better battle plan than to keep feeding units in piece meal against the strong Confederate position behind the stone wall on Marye’s heights. And the battle further south where the Union forces found an undefended crease between two confederate divisions and almost broke that position apart. In the first battle, the Union lost eight men for every Confederate casualty inflicted showing the strength of the defense’ while in the other battle, the lackadaisical reaction of the Union commanders meant that they did not exploit their advantage and allowed the Confederate army to recover and push them back when they were on the brink of victory. The grim statistics bear this out as the Union army suffered 13,000 casualties of which 8,000 were suffered in the town. The Confederates suffered 5,000, but only 1,000 of those were in the town.
While the author lays out the disposition of the North and the South and then explains what took place in both parts of the battlefield, he clearly favors the south. This comes across in his descriptions of the actions of the various commanders and their reactions to the battle. While some of the Union commanders are depicted in a less than favorable light – with several being depicted as drunk, cowardly, self-aggrandizing, and the like – all the Confederates are depicted in a positive light – even if some of them are depicted as hiding behind trees, drinking, looking for glory, and the like. Also, the author describes how Burnside was bedeviled by bad luck – his pontoon train was delayed by almost a week, so his stealing a march on Lee was negated by this – and some of the mistakes made by Lee, Stonewall Jackson and his Generals were covered up by this.
Other faults in the book are in the maps. There are maps that depict each stage in the battle. However, they are generally small so that one almost needs a magnifying glass to determine what units are placed where; have many mistakes in them; are missing many details from the text; and are placed towards the middle to the end of each chapter, which makes it very hard to follow the text.
Finally, to make this book be more than just a recitation of one battle, the author added some more information about how Burnside became the commander of the Army on the Union side in the first place. That first chapter is a really good and exciting introduction to the book and really got me excited about the book. At the end of the book, the author added a chapter about the infamous “Mud March” as Burnside attempted a couple more outflanking maneuvers of Lee and his army only to be overtaken by political machinations in Washington or by the weather. The final chapter is a summary of the battle and its meaning in the context of the Civil War and a lamentation on who it was “forgotten” by the South because they felt it was not convincingly won, while the North wanted to forget it because of how poorly it was fought. I am not sure I agree with that analysis as this battle is well known as a foolishly fought battle and an unnecessary slaughter that prefigured the other battles where Union armies sent waves after waves of soldiers against prepared defenses and suffered similar results.
Overall, this is a really good book that goes into great depth and will act as a great resource to those who want to understand either this battle, or the short reign of General Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Only a few months ago, George C. Rable's "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" was published. Inevitably, a comparison between the two must be made. Rable sought a blending of what he characterizes the "old" military history (dealing largely with leaders and dissecting strategy and tactics) and the "new" (focused on soldier life and its connections to larger social themes). And, I think it is fair to say, he well achieved that blending in "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" In marked contrast to O'Reilly's study, less than 20 percent of Rable's text describes the December 13th fighting, only about 80 pages in a volume nearly as long as O'Reilly's. Where Rable excels is in providing what might be called the "context" of the campaign, including discussions of the impact of McClellan's replacement by Burnside, the continuing controversy over the planned formal issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the repercussions of recently conducted state and congressional elections, and the realities of army life in the field. And Rable delves deeply into the experiences of the wounded after the fighting ended and into how the battle was reported, both North and South. For the general reader not deeply into the study of American Civil War military operations, "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!) is probably more accessible than O'Reilly's more narrowly focused study.
Taken by itself, O'Reilly's book is clearly the definitive traditional military history of the Fredericksburg battle (and in the modern trend, he expands upon that traditional military history to portray the common soldiers as well as the generals). Paired with Rable's volume, the two together provide a uniquely comprehensive study of the campaign in all its multitude of aspects. I recommend reading both.