“It is well that war is so horrible, or else we should grow too fond of it.”
— Robert E. Lee
Today in 1862 at Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg, Virginia, Union general Ambrose Burnside commanded the Army of the Potomac to make a frontal assault on the heights held by the confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee—to the amazement and disbelief of both sides.
One Rebel officer observed, “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.” A Union soldier remarked, “We might as well have tried to take hell.”
After 14 frontal assaults resulting in 12,650 killed and wounded, Burnside called off the attacks. Lee lost 5,300 men, mostly from union artillery. But it was 5,300 men he could not readily replace. Despite the lop-sided figures, the war of attrition was taking its toll on Lee’s army. (Different sources quote different casualty figures.)
Burnside wanted to continue the attack the next day and his staff convinced him to stop. Some sources say union officers had resolved not to obey the order, in any case. On December 15, a truce was called for the Union to collect their dead and wounded soldiers. Burnside retreated northward under the cover of darkness and rain. Confederate general Stonewall Jackson was upset because he was not allowed by Lee to pursue the retreating Yankees.
Despite the destruction and looting of Fredericksburg, confederate veterans of the battle monitored the later burial and constructed cemetery for the casualties, insuring the fallen were treated with dignity and honor.
The improved deadlier arms of war made the shoulder-to-shoulder lines of assault on fixed positions obsolete—but both sides insisted on using the tactic. Malvern Hill, Bull Run, Antietam, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, and probably more I can’t think of, produced unimaginable and horrific casualties. As one reads the journals, letters, and recollections of Civil War veterans, “simply murder” is a recurring independent description.
The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia would meet again in a similar reversed scenario. As confederates retreated from the carnage of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, union troops chanted “Fredericksburg.”
Despite proclaiming in early March 2003 that, “it is without doubt that the faithful will be victorious against aggression,” Saddam went into hiding soon after the American invasion of Iraq, speaking to his people only through an occasional audiotape, and his government soon fell.
Five months later, today in 2003, U.S. soldiers found Saddam Hussein hiding in a six-to-eight-foot deep hole, nine miles outside his hometown of Tikrit. The man once obsessed with hygiene was found to be unkempt, with a bushy beard and matted hair. He did not resist and was uninjured during the arrest. A soldier at the scene described him as “a man resigned to his fate.”
On November 5 of the next year, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging.
Today in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson arrived in France to take part in World War I peace negotiations and to promote his plan for a League of Nations.
The war, in which approximately 320,000 American soldiers died, grimly illustrated to Wilson the unavoidable relationship between international stability and American national security. Wilson took this plan to France and reiterated what he had told Americans in a January speech: “the world [must] be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression.”
Wilson’s treaty negotiations in Europe set the tone for post-war American foreign diplomacy, which emphasized intervention over isolation. The League of Nations failed, largely as a result of the U.S. deciding not to join, but it was the precursor to the United Nations, which was established in the wake of the Second World War.