[The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Francis Augustin O’Reilly. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Pp. 630, $39.95, Cloth. 15 Maps. ISBN 0-8071-2809-0)]
It has been a good year for the long-suffering students of the Fredericksburg campaign and battle. Until now, the largest conflict of the Civil War—pitting the Army of the Potomac led by Ambrose Burnside against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the height of their respective numbers and vigor—has been strangely neglected by historians and has lacked a thorough modern study. Working concurrently, historians Frank O’Reilly and George Rable now treat readers to two excellent, thick Fredericksburg tomes. While Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (reviewed in an earlier issue of North & South) is a vast, comprehensive treatment equal part social, economic, political, and military history, O’Reilly’s book provides the most in-depth tactical study of the battle to date.
The Fredericksburg Campaign is a stupendous effort by a well-known expert on the subject and should be considered the definitive work on the battle itself for the foreseeable future. The author’s vast knowledge of the campaign and battle is readily apparent as he expertly describes each phase of the battle in stunning detail. The horrors of each hopeless assault on Marye’s Heights and the doomed attack on the Confederate left flank at Prospect Hill are brought alive in vivid and often moving detail. Though the battle narrative makes up the bulk of the book, the experiences of the civilians in the area and of the wounded after the battle are not neglected. The large role played by politics in the conduct of the campaign in the periods before, during, and after the battle reminds the reader of how little has changed as purely political considerations all too often fatally harm military operations.
Much of the action is depicted at the company and regimental levels and the many maps provided make sure the reader does not become lost in the swirl of events. The maps themselves are uniformly excellent, including all relevant terrain features, even elevation lines. One only wishes there were more, as several extended sequences of battlefield action do not have an accompanying map. Additionally, the overview maps could have used a bit more detail, as many locations described in the text are not depicted on any of the maps.
One particularly interesting assertion by O’Reilly is that, although Burnside gave equally ambiguous orders to wing commanders Franklin and Sumner, the Army of the Potomac commander clearly considered the army’s main effort to be in the Prospect Hill sector of the battlefield. One wishes this point was better developed in the book as it is only mentioned in passing. On a much more inexcusable level is the complete omission of an order of battle. A complete OOB is essential to every modern battle study and it was baffling not to find one. The book also lacks any of the other “extras” commonly found in battles studies such as appendices providing fresh analysis of numbers engaged and casualties.
The above criticisms do not materially detract from the overall quality of the book. As a traditional battle study, The Fredericksburg Campaign excels, affirming Francis O’Reilly’s place in the top echelon of battlefield historians. Taken together with Rable’s work, we now have the most complete treatment of the campaign to date. This book is highly recommended and belongs in the personal library of all Civil War students interested in this important campaign.
(Reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appeared in vol. 6 #4, pp. 90-91, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)