Battle of Fredericksburg

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Battle of Fredericksburg
Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers
22 x 28 in.
Chicago History Museum

On December 13, 1862, the Union army suffered one of its worst defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Look closely at the image; do you see the men in blue uniforms? They belong to the Army of the Potomac commanded by General Ambrose Burnside, depicted on his horse on the right side of the print. (The term “side burns” was inspired by Burnside’s distinctive beard.) One month earlier, Burnside led his massive army of 110,000 men to this location on the banks of the Rappahannock River. They were marching toward Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, but had to cross this river and take Fredericksburg first. However, rebel troops had destroyed all the bridges, so Burnside ordered floating pontoon bridges from army headquarters. By the time they arrived, Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee had occupied the town and the hills beyond known as Mayre’s Heights. In this scene, rebel troops are firing at Union soldiers on the pontoon bridges. Eventually, Union forces reached Fredericksburg and Burnside ordered them to take Mayre’s Heights. The suicidal attack resulted in 13,000 Union casualties (killed, wounded, and missing), while Lee lost fewer than 5,000 men. “If there is a worse place than Hell,” President Abraham Lincoln said upon hearing the dreadful news, “I am in it.” This print, made more than twenty years later by the Chicago lithography company Kurz and Allison pays tribute to the brave men who had to carry out such foolish orders.

1. Lithographs were inexpensive artworks that many citizens could afford to buy and put in their homes. Why might Americans in the late 1880’s have wanted to purchase this depiction of the Battle of Fredericksburg?

2. If you were Lincoln, what would you say to Burnside?

3. If you were Burnside, what would you say to Lincoln?

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