Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 196-197
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Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! By George C. Rable. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. 671. Cloth $45.00.)
Until recently, most Civil War historians viewed the battle of Fredericksburg as little more than a futile Union defeat and a lop-sided Confederate victory. It seemed to have no military significance beyond the terrible Federal losses sustained at the base of Marye's Heights. Over the last several years, however, Fredericksburg has gained renewed scholarly attention. In 1995, Gary Gallagher edited a valuable collection of essays about the campaign, and in 1998, Daniel Sutherland paired Fredericksburg with Chancellorsville to offer a fresh assessment of both engagements. Ambrose Burnside and William B. Franklin, two scapegoats from the Federal debacle, have attracted new, more sympathetic biographers. Historians and others have begun to reevaluate the winter fight and examine it within the larger context of the war. George Rable's Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! caps this trend, offering readers the best and most complete examination of the battle and its larger meaning.
This study does much more. Rable has written a new kind of battle history that melds many different types of history into one, all-inclusive narrative. Rable is one of the most versatile Civil War historians in the field today. He has authored important works about Confederate women and politics, and Reconstruction violence. He is sensitive to cultural, racial, and gender-related issues, but he is also comfortable writing about traditional military and political subjects. This book underscores his multi-faceted approach to the past. Sections of the book read like a traditional military tome, and many parts examine familiar political and diplomatic questions. However, mixed with these fairly standard approaches are fresh and insightful discussions about soldier motivation, the meaning of freedom, the significance of death, and the importance of religious faith. Civilian voices are found throughout the text, intermingled with those of soldiers, stressing Rable's perceptive observation that: "Soldiers are more than fighters, and civilians are more than citizens. Bodies, minds, spirits, all become part of the story of war" (430). [End Page 196]
Rable stresses that for the Confederates, Fredericksburg was a tremendous victory that buoyed both soldiers' and civilians' morale. But he recognizes that Southerners made mistakes and withstood irreplaceable casualties at Fredericksburg. Before and after the fight, Confederates struggled with serious supply shortages and dissension over conscription. The win, combined with Robert E. Lee's triumph at Chancellorsville later that spring, convinced Lee and his men they were invincible. Gettysburg, of course, proved they were not.
Perhaps unavoidably, Rable spends much more time and care telling the Union side of the story, providing better coverage of Northern personalities, politics, and military issues. Rable judges Fredericksburg a costly mistake for the Union, noting the roles that Abraham Lincoln, Henry Halleck, and Edwin Stanton played in the fiasco as much as the hapless Burnside. The author presents a balanced, yet sympathetic portrait of the Army of the Potomac's commander recognizing his patriotism, honesty, and modesty. But he severely criticizes Burnside for his inflexibility during the fray, especially when it became clear that successive attacks on the Confederate left were not only purposeless but also suicidal.
The strongest part of this impressive study is Rable's discussion of the battle's aftereffects. He focuses on grisly accounts of the dead and wounded, as well as the deep deprivations endured by the town's inhabitants. Fredericksburg, like other communities ravaged by war, never fully recovered from the violence. Armies suffered, but so too did families and communities.
The battle's overall military and political significance did prove temporary, overshadowed by bloodier and costlier fights. But the story of Fredericksburg, Rable concludes, offers an impressive example of the human spirit's stubborn resilience. There were deserters, skulkers, and others sorts of cowards at Fredericksburg to be sure, but the author attests that the majority of men who fought in this battle were courageous, and that most veterans remained committed to the war effort and went on to endure even more violence and death. Contending that both...