Fredericksburg: On Saturday, Dec. 13, a day after Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside got his entire Federal Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River using five pontoon bridges, he launched a series of futile frontal attacks against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s entrenched Army of Northern Virginia on the high ground at Prospect Hill and Marye’s Heights, west of Fredericksburg. The frontal assaults resulted in staggering Union casualties; soldiers making the later charges had to walk on and over the piles of the dead and wounded.
In the afternoon, Maj. Gen. George Meade led his division on the Union left flank and briefly penetrated the Confederate line of Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at the southern end of the battlefield. The Confederates drove the Union line back in a fierce counterattack. By nightfall, the battle was over; the cries of the wounded on the field loudly penetrated the still, cold night air. Of some 114,000 Union troops engaged, Gen. Burnside’s army sustained 12,653 casualties. Gen. Lee had some 72,500 men engaged, and sustained 5,309 casualties. One Union officer said of the battle, “It was a great slaughter pen; we might as well have tried to take Hell.”
Under a brilliant display of the aurora borealis in the night sky, Gen. Lee is reported to have said to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s comment that night: “It is well that war is so terrible lest we might grow too fond of it.” Of the Northern Lights in the sky, many a Confederate observed that it seemed that “Almighty God was celebrating our tremendous Southern victory.”
On Dec. 14, the battered Union army remained in Fredericksburg, and the victorious but bloodied Army of Northern Virginia remained on the high ground. Gen. Burnside, driven to rashness by his failures, ordered the attack against Gen. Lee’s army renewed despite being advised against it by his generals. Gen. Lee received some criticism in the South for failing to counter-attack the Federals, now in Fredericksburg with their backs against the river. That night, Gen. Burnside withdrew his troops back across the Rappahannock to their camps; the next day, Gen. Burnside’s strategy and tactics were questioned by most of the officers in his command.
In New Orleans this same Dec. 16, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks assumed command of the Federal Department of the Gulf. When Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler transferred command and left New Orleans, there were not many who were sorry to see the dictatorial man from Massachusetts go. In New York City, Mayor Fernando Wood (who favored trade with the Confederacy) received President Lincoln’s letter in response to rumors and reports of peace overtures, that “if the Southern states would cease resistance to the national authority, the war would cease on the part of the United States.”
At Holly Springs, Miss., on Dec. 17, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was intent on eliminating the widespread speculators and black market traders who seemed to be everywhere in his area of command. He issued General Order No. 11 concerning speculation but specifically singled out Jews as the object of his declaration against illegal trade. “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” Perhaps Gen. Grant equated Jewish people with the peddlers and speculators who plagued his camps. The order could also have been discerned as an indictment of a religious group. It was a highly controversial, inflammatory order, causing a tremendous outcry of public opinion in the North, and had long-lasting ramifications. It mattered little that Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck and President Lincoln rescinded the order in January 1863. The damage was done, and G. O. No. 11 continued to haunt Gen. Grant even into his presidential campaign in 1868.
In Washington, as the week drew to a close, a Cabinet crisis arose, resulting from political disputes between President Lincoln and Sec. of State William Seward and Sec. of the Treasury Salmon Chase. Seward and his son Frederick, Asst. Sec. of State, tendered their resignations, but President Lincoln refused to accept them. The President also postponed the execution of the 39 Sioux Indians in Minnesota from Dec. 19 to the day after Christmas.