On December 13, 1862, a bitterly cold day, about 40,000 Union soldiers marched down the road on the right and tried to take the ridge in the background. There were 3,000 Confederates behind a stone wall along a road running right across the center of the image. And another 3,000 with artillery on top of the hill. They held off the Union all day. The two white houses in the center left are on this side of the road. So is the white building in the dead center distance. Wave after wave of Union Infantry formed up beyond the stream on the left and tried to cross the open ground towards the road. None made it. Later in the afternoon, they tried it against the hill on the right of the road. No luck there either. It became a disaster that still haunts the US Army.
And who was responsible? My favourite idiot, General Ambrose E. Burnside. Recently promoted to commander of the Army of the Potomac, the general spent the day on the other side of the Rappahannock, having not actually laid eyes on the field itself. All afternoon he sent more and then bigger units to accomplish the impossible. The ridge could not be taken, and the Confederates knew it. His generals pleaded with him to stop, but he insisted. Things finally ground to a halt when darkness came. This was his trademark, focusing on one small tactical objective to the exclusion of everything else, like winning the battle. He used idiotic piecemeal tactics to boot, resulting in terrible casualties. Exactly the same mistake he made at Sharpsburg three months earlier. Except then he wasn't in charge of the whole army. Burnside may not have been the worst general of all time, but he was in there pitching.
That evening, when the scale of the disaster became apparent, Burnside tried to blame those same generals that had pleaded with him a few hours earlier. Lincoln wasn't buying it and fired him shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, that was not the end of his military career. It took another year and a half before Lincoln finally got rid of him. Burnside went on to become a successful politician, serving a term in the Senate.
Update Dec 21:
Thinking about it some more, what Burnside did at Sharpsburg, Fredricksburg and the Crater was to focus not on some random tactical objective, but on the one tactical objective he couldn't solve. Then he threw everything he had at that objective. And still didn't solve it. At Sharpsburg it was the bridge. At Fredricksburg the stone wall, and at the Crater, the crater.
The other thing worth mentioning is that this is photograph is almost unique. There are few other contemporary photographs that show the key part of a battlefield. In this case, it shows about 20% of the entire field, but this is where all the action was.
Here is another view from across the Rappahannock, behind and to the left of the camera position in the photo above.
In this photo, you can see the stone wall. It runs along the base of the hill on the right hand side, and can be clearly seen as a light line through the center and left at the base of the hill.
Many thanks to Blogger John Hennessy. His site is what excellent amateur history looks like.