A brigade of Mississippians assigned to contest the Union crossing and delay the capture of Fredericksburg "fought house by house, block by block, in another 20th Century experiment," O'Reilly said. "At that time, military officers were trained to fight in open spaces, where they could maneuver easily and make use of en masse firepower from shoulder-to-shoulder formations of troops firing in volleys."
But the development of rifling, or grooving the insides of gun barrels, made small arms fire more accurate and deadly, creating a role for snipers and small units of riflemen. Confederate leaders had hoped the Mississippians would be able to hold back the Union invaders for two or three hours; using a well-coordinated urban combat scheme that involved fortified fallback positions, they managed to delay the inevitable by more than 12 hours.
While Fredericksburg proved to be one of Lee's easiest victories - one that led many historians to characterize Burnside as a well-meaning incompetent -- O'Reilly believes the Union Army commander's reputation may have been painted with too broad a brush.
"In truth, there's a lot to be said in favor of him," O'Reilly said. Unlike Maj. Gen. John McClelland, who he replaced, Burnside was "aggressive, assertive and driven. His plan to use Fredericksburg as a base from which to attack Richmond was a good one. His sudden arrival there caught the Confederates off guard."
Had the pontoon bridges Burnside ordered arrived on time, allowing him to enter Fredericksburg before Lee's army arrived, "we may have been hailing Burnside as the greatest military commander of all time," O'Reilly said.
O'Reilly's lecture, "From Stonewall to the Stone Wall: The Battle of Fredericksburg," is based on his book, "The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock," nominated for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.
The Battle of Fredericksburg "began changing American military strategy and ideas about how wars are fought," said Beth White, director of the 2012 Civil War Scholars Lecture Series, which is hosting the lecture, with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council and the University of Charleston.
The outcome of the battle and the carnage it created "affected the mindset of military leaders both north and south," White said. She said O'Reilly's lecture would explore how that changed thinking influenced decisions by leaders of both sides and affected the remaining years of the war.
The lecture series is a program of the Kanawha Valley Civil War Roundtable.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.