Union soldiers in trenches near Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1863

An 1863 photograph of Civil War soldiers huddled in trenches

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZC6-48.

Four months after the December 1862 Confederate victory at Fredericksburg, Virginia, exhausted and tightly packed Union soldiers are entrenched on the Rappahannock River, just northeast of the town. Union major general Ambrose E. Burnside began assembling his troops to take the Confederate capital of Richmond by way of Fredericksburg in November. Since his plan depended on a speedy crossing of the Rappahannock to catch the Confederate army off guard and to begin quick movement to Richmond, Burnside ordered pontoon bridges to arrive at the river ahead of the army. Due to administrative errors, however, the bridges failed to arrive on time and Union soldiers were unable to cross but were visible to Confederate troops. This failure to mobilize matériel may have single-handedly cost the Union the battle. Confederate general Robert E. Lee had time to move an army up to Fredericksburg to meet Burnside. In the meantime, the Union army built the breastwork, shown here at right. Finally assembling and crossing the pontoon bridges weeks later than planned, the Union army met immediate resistance, suffered heavy causalities, and retreated across the river, failing once again to bring a rapid end to the war.