Lithograph mirrors Union engineers struggling to develop belatedly showing up pontoon bridges throughout the Rappahannock flow under fire native Mississippi sharpshooters in the city of Fredericksburg. (National Parks Service)

By chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White


Plenty of blame come go around for the defeat that price the Union army 13,000 casualties

To the casual observer, the fight of Fredericksburg was a devastating blunder for the Union army of the Potomac, in specific the daylong attacks on Marye’s Heights: 30,000 troops repeatedly sent 900 yards across an open up field, uphill, against Confederate infantry hunkered down behind a formidable rock wall and supported by virtually 50 artillery pieces perched ~ above the heights behind them. By the finish of the fighting top top December 13, 1862, the Federals had suffered practically 13,000 casualties, the Confederates fewer than 5,000.

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History blames Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside because that the federal fiasco at Fredericksburg. In fact, that had numerous reasons to think he would certainly succeed. (Battlefield.org)


It’s straightforward to cast blame on Union commander Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, come decry the loss together a catastrophic debacle that should have actually been avoided at every costs. But to i disbanded Burnside together a blunderer is to do a blunder. The outcome of the battle of Fredericksburg to be anything but an inescapable fiasco-waiting-to-happen. Walking in, Burnside had plenty of legitimate reasons to believe he can win.

To far better understand Burnside’s mindset, flash ago to September 17, 1862, when the two militaries clashed along Antietam Creek in the single bloodiest job of the war. After the battle, Confederate commander basic Robert E. Lee slipped his military of north Virginia back across the potomac River and also to the safety and security of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan decided not to give chase.


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Mathew Brady photo of the meeting in between President Lincoln and also General McClellan Oct. 3, 1862, after ~ Antietam. Lincoln had actually issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and also was pressing McClellan to seek Lee’s military into Virginia. (Ohio background Connection)


Frustrated through McClellan’s inaction, chairman Abraham Lincoln urged his commander onward, but to no avail—and Lincoln can do nothing about it. The midterm elections were coming up, and also things already looked grim because that his Republican Party. Through disciplining McClellan, a well-known Democrat, Lincoln would just make his political situation worse.

But the work after the elections, on November 7, Lincoln sacked McClellan and appointed Burnside in his place. Burnside concerned command discovering that his predecessor was fired for not doing anything. Together a result, he knew he had actually to perform something or risk McClellan’s fate.

Not only did Burnside need to act, he additionally had to do so quickly. It was already mid-November, and also winter would soon work out in. Once the weather turned, conducting a campaign would be beside impossible.

It would certainly not be enough, however, to march around and rattle his army’s sabers in a display of force. Burnside had to win. Because of the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, i m sorry freed servants in areas of the United says still in rebellion. That course, the only means to obtrude the proclamation and also garner public assistance would be v battlefield victory—otherwise, the president’s lofty setup would it is in little much more than a file tiger.


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General-in-Chief Henry Halleck pressured Burnside to fight for political reasons.


So Burnside had to carry out something, he had to do it quickly, and also he had actually to succeed. Washington’s fervor for fight was so extreme that Lincoln’s general-in-chief, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, claimed it was far better for Burnside “to struggle a battle now, even if that is to lose it.”

Rather 보다 follow the Confederates southwest into the Shenandoah Valley, Burnside devised a arrangement to on slide his 118,000 males southeast come Fredericksburg, whereby he might cross the Rappahannock River, make a quick dash to Richmond, record the Confederate capital, and, that hoped, finish the war. If nothing else, threatening Richmond would attract Lee right into battle.

Fredericksburg, a city v a wartime population of just an ext than 5,000, put directly in between the capitals of Richmond and also Washington, D.C. The city to be a key component to Burnside’s plan because it had actually a major railroad and also a river; Burnside could use both to it is provided his army. Fredericksburg additionally boasted two major roads come the Confederate capital: the Telegraph Road and the Bowling green Road.

Burnside knew the bridges in Fredericksburg had actually been melted during a commonwealth occupation of the city the previous summer. So, well in advance of his move, that asked the battle Department to send bridging products that he might use to span the river.

On November 15, Burnside launched his plan, properly moving his army to Fredericksburg by November 19. Due to circumstances beyond Burnside’s control, though, the bridging materials had not however arrived. Bad communication in between the war Department and the designers in charge of the bridging left the materials backed up follow me a path that extended from Washington, D.C., come Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. That malfunction in interaction would cost Burnside and his army dearly.

When Lee found what Burnside was up to, he conveniently moved come intercept the Federals. With part of the Confederate army settled around Culpeper, Va., and component of it still in the Shenandoah Valley, Lee bespeak the 2 wings come concentrate. He relocated his very first Corps, under Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, right into the hills behind Fredericksburg—including the area well-known as Marye’s Heights. This 40,000 males were in a perfect blocking position.

The other half of Lee’s army—the 38,000 guys in Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 2nd Corps—stretched out some 25 miles toward the southern to cover all other feasible river crossings. Till Burnside confirmed his hand, Lee had actually to prepare for every contingencies.

A rapid strike was now out the the concern for Burnside due to the fact that he’d shed the element of surprise—but he still essential to execute something.

As he considered his alternatives, Burnside looked downriver. There, the Rappahannock to be wider, that was influenced by the ocean’s tides, and also the roadway network ~ above the opposite financial institution wasn’t particularly conducive for relocating his huge army.

Alternatively, if the military moved upriver it would need to cross not just the Rappahannock but additionally its key tributary, the Rapidan. Meanwhile, Lee could simply transition his military to the northwest to fulfill Burnside, and then the Union army would confront two disputed river crossings instead of one. Walk in that direction would additionally move the Union army away native its it is provided lines.

In short, neither direction looked promising. At least if he overcome at Fredericksburg, Burnside can use the city to shield the army’s movements, providing his guys a level of protection. So, the the options easily accessible to him, Fredericksburg readily available the finest chance for success. “I think currently that the opponent will be an ext surprised by a crossing immediately in our front 보다 in any type of other component of the river,” Burnside wired Lincoln.

Burnside planned come build pontoon bridges in ~ the north and south end of town, in addition to two pontoon bridges about a mile listed below town (eventually there would be three bridges in ~ that southernmost location). His military would overcome at all three places, but Burnside planned to launch his main attack against the south end of the Confederate line, in ~ an area known as possibility Hill, where the high soil wasn’t together formidable as it was straight behind the city.

To stop the Confederates native reinforcing the southern part of their line, though, Burnside intended to launch an attack against the northern finish of the Confederate place to hold those potential reinforcements in place. He hoped one assault or the various other would attain a breakthrough that would certainly flush Lee’s military from the position and also open the southward road toward Richmond.

Burnside set his setup into movement on December 11. The engineers had an obstacle building their pontoon bridges since of Mississippi riflemen ensconced in the city. After artillery bombardment failed come dislodge the Mississippians, Union commanders sent numerous regiments across the flow in boats to develop a bridgehead. It would come to be the an initial amphibious landing under fire in American history.


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Lithograph mirroring fighting in the roadways of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862 (Library that Congress)


Troops from brand-new York and Michigan created the foothold, and also from there, the Union regiments fans out. Street fighting ensued. Casualty were heavy on both sides. The 20th Massachusetts, recognized as the “Harvard Regiment,” lost 163 the 307 engaged. The house-to-house battle lasted much more than 3½ hours before the Mississippians to be driven earlier to the key Confederate line. They had held off the Union breakthrough for an entire day, buying an important time for Lee to concentration his men.

The Union engineers finished their bridges, yet the bulk of the Union military would not cross the river until December 12. Irritable by the delay, federal soldiers took out their anger by sacking the city the Fredericksburg. Your commander, meanwhile, frittered far December 12, supervising the advancement of his army in and around the city and tweaking his plan.

This delay may have actually been Burnside’s decisive mistake. Remember, his plan called for an assault on the southern end of the Confederate line—the very section that the line the was weakest, extended out 25 miles to the south. However, as soon as Burnside tipped his hand by cross in Fredericksburg, Lee sent out word come Jackson to concentration his 2nd Corps. Burnside’s wasted December 12 gave Jackson the beneficial time he needed to consolidate his position at prospect Hill.

Burnside intended come launch his attack versus Prospect Hill in the predawn hours of December 13 with 60,000 men. Return Burnside cut the assignment on the night that December 12, Maj. Gen. Wilhelm B. Franklin, commanding the army’s Left Grand division on the southern end of the field, didn’t get them till 7:45 a.m.—35 minutes after dawn.

To make matters worse, Burnside’s orders to be vague, saying, “You will send out at once a division at least…taking treatment to save it fine supported and also its line of retreat open.” back the written orders flummoxed Franklin, that didn’t quite know exactly how to analyze them also though he and Burnside had actually gone over the arrangement the previous evening, the failed come ask Burnside because that clarification.


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After the military of the Potomac lost the element of surprise at Fredericksburg, left wing commander Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin compounded the fail by neglecting come reinforce Maj. Gen. George Meade’s males at the southern finish of the Union line. (American Battlefield Trust)


Meanwhile, Burnside, unaware the his arrangement was currently unraveling, sent word at about 10 a.m. To Maj. Gen. Edwin V. “Bull” Sumner, commander of the ideal Grand Division, to begin the assault at the north finish of the heat in former of an area known as Marye’s Heights, a ridge that crested around 900 yards past the west edge the the city.

Despite the uphill slope Union soldiers would have to cross, Union commanders saw an advantage to the terrain: The wide-open an are contained very couple of obstructions, i m sorry would allow the advancing soldiers to develop up inert for your attack. The arrangement called because that a lightning-fast strike out of the city, throughout the open plain, and against the Confederate infantry position—a sunken road that ran behind a rock wall part 30 yards below the stakes of the hill, organized by 2,000 troops native Georgia, under Brig. Gen. Cutting board R.R. Cobb. The Confederate pickets the end in the field would it is in so startled through the fast attack that they would turn tail and also run ago to the line, acting as human being shields for the proceeding Union soldiers warm on your heels.

The chest-high wall looked imposing, return a section of the was surprise from Union view due to the fact that it organized up a dirt embankment. Even so, Federals experienced a potential advantage to attack the wall. After ~ all, in ~ Antietam, the Confederates had actually used a sunken road as a fortified rifle pit, native which they were able to create a withering fire—but when the Union soldiers broke through, it would certainly be choose shooting fish in a barrel. Confederates had no safe course of retreat.

Here in Fredericksburg, the situation would be much the same. If Union forces could breach the stone wall, Confederates could try to retreat, however the only route accessible would be up the slippery exposed slope behind castle or under the Telegraph roadway toward Franklin’s force.

In addition, if Union troops might breach the wall, that would give them safety and security from the pho fire that would surely rain down from the height of Marye’s Heights. Very first Corps artillery chief Colonel E. Porter Alexander had almost 50 weapons posted follow me the peak of the heights. “Sir, a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it,” that boasted to his commander, general Longstreet, referring to the expanse the Yankees would need to cross. But if those Yankees obtained close sufficient to the stone wall, the Confederate artillerymen wouldn’t have the ability to depress their barrels enough to fire top top them.


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Confederate infantrymen indigenous Brig. Gen. Thomas R.R. Cobb’s and Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s units put up a withering fire native behind the rock wall at the base of Marye’s Heights. (British Library Collection)


By 11:45 a.m., the first Union troops, under Brig. Gen. William H. French, stepped the end of the city towards Marye’s Heights. The 4,500 males in his three brigades automatically came under artillery fire native Alexander’s batteries. “We might see our shells, bursting in their ranks, making great gaps,” said among the artillerists. A Union soldier said that “it seemed we were moving in the crater the a volcano.” Still, the Union soldiers came on, also as the cannons tore them come pieces.

A millrace cut across the field. Fifteen feet broad and 5 feet deep, the ditch diverted water native the Rappahannock. Union designers had blocked off the millrace and also tried to drain it, but nearly three feet the water quiet stood in ~ the bottom. The troops clambered through, then tried come get back into formation prior to continuing their advance, the pho ripping right into them the whole time.

Another factor the Federals hadn’t thought about was the weather. ~ above December 13, the temperature rose to 56 degrees—but several days previously, it had actually snowed. The subsequent warmth weather melted the snow, making the floor wet and spongy and slippery. The smooth-soled boots that the soldiers do footing top top the muddy ground even slipperier and also the advance more difficult.

When the lead aspects of French’s attack neared the stone wall, the Confederate infantry opened up on them, halting the advance. “ur guys were never ever subjected to a much more devouring fire,” one Union soldier said.

All three brigades in French’s department met the exact same fate together they tried come brave the “furious storm of shot, shell, and also shrapnel.” practically a quarter of French’s soldiers would finish up as casualties. Survivors took cover in a shallow swale, a emboldened in the ground around 200 yards downhill the the rock wall.

Still, the Union soldiers came on. At around noon, after French’s attack fizzled, Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s 5,000 males were sent in to challenge the storm of lead coming native the stone wall.


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Maj. Gen. Wilhelm H. French led the an initial Union troops against Marye’s Heights. Almost a 3rd of the guys in his three brigades would finish up casualties. (American Battlefield Trust)


Among Hancock’s males was the ireland Brigade, among the much more famed devices to fight in ~ Fredericksburg. That the 1,200 Irishmen who progressed against the wall, only 256 would make it through the attack to prize roll contact the next morning. (After the battle, together stragglers and the wounded returned, the brigade’s ranking would boost to just much more than 600.) Overall, Hancock’s division suffered 2,000 casualties.

By 1 p.m., Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard’s division, v its 3,500 men, to be sent versus the stone wall. Brigadier general Samuel Sturgis v 4,475 men of the 9th Corps was sent out to assistance Howard. They experienced 610 and 1,011 casualties, respectively.

Overall, the Union military was suffering a staggering average of 1,000 casualties an hour.

By 3 p.m., Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin’s division, through its 6,000 men, to be sent right into action. Rather of do the rock wall his objective, Griffin sent his guys in piecemeal to relax Sturgis’ embattled troops. When Griffin ultimately did decide to attack the wall, he short the toughness to perform it. Through the finish of the day, his department suffered almost 1,000 casualties.

By this time, ~ above the Confederate side, practically 3,000 reinforcements had actually been sent out to the Sunken road to assistance the 2,000 infantrymen who had started the battle. To get into position, reinforcements had to descend native Marye’s Heights down a steep embankment the exposed them to Union fire. Most of the Confederate casualties suffered during the fighting would happen on the hillside. Because that instance, the 8th southern Carolina, stationed atop Marye’s Heights, occurs 31 casualties in the battle—28 of lock on the height of the hill and also on the hillside as they progressed down come the Sunken Road; top top the road itself, they sustained only three.

From the Union perspective, it could have looked together though their developments were having an impact. Why else would Confederates send in reinforcements if not due to the fact that they were emotion the pressure?


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A Currier and also Ives lithograph the the relentless but futile dues by Union troops increase Marye’s Heights.


In fact, Confederate soldiers were putting so much lead in the air that they to be running out of ammunition. To alleviate the problem, Longstreet shifted whole brigades onto the road: fresh soldiers supposed fresh gives of ammunition. “f you placed every male on the other side that the potomac on that ar to technique me over the same line, and also give me many of ammunition, I will kill them all before they reach my line,” Longstreet boasted.

The Confederate firepower behind the wall surface was do even more terrible by the effectiveness of the infantrymen. Some units lined up 4 to six ranks deep, v the guy in prior firing and then going come the back of the line to reload while the 2nd person stepped approximately fire. Once he did, he checked out the ago of the heat while the 3rd man stepped up, and so on. Therefore the Confederates to be able to create a conveyer belt–like effect.

Other units placed their best marksmen in the front; they would certainly fire, happen their empty muskets come the back while who passed castle a invited one, which they would certainly fire and again trade for a loaded one. In this way, “he little arms do one continuous noise without a moment’s cessation,” a Confederate infantryman said. One more Confederate marksman proclaimed he to be black and also blue indigenous his right elbow every the means to his right hip because that the next two weeks due to the fact that he fired so many rounds that day.

Meanwhile, at the far end of the field near possibility Hill, Union troops under the command the Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade—who would eventually command the Union military at the fight of Gettysburg—finally achieved success. At about 1 p.m., Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves damaged through the Confederate line. However, they to be 8,000 men trying to drive through 38,000 Confederates stack four divisions deep. Meade’s men held for a while, however the Confederates started to press them back.

Meade, confident he can exploit the breakthrough if supported, desperately called for reinforcements. No one came, so Meade rode ago himself come look because that help. He even verbally assaulted another general who had not marched come his aid.

But that was all to no avail. Meade’s commander, Franklin, had made decision his soldiers had had enough and also called turn off the attack.

Yet he no tell Burnside.

And so, Burnside continued to send troops into the meat grinder in former of the stone wall to support an assault at the far finish of the field that was not happening.

Burnside to be able to see Marye’s Heights native Sumner’s headquarters at Chatham Manor, a huge house directly throughout from the activity on the far bank of the Rappahannock; he could not see prospect Hill, though, hidden by trees, smoke, and distance. The Rappahannock, however, amplified the echoing effect of the sound waves from the battle. Together a result, Burnside might hear consistent gunfire, however he can not pinpoint the direction indigenous which it was coming. From his perspective, that sounded together if every little thing at the far finish of the ar was moving on together ordered.

Poor communications complex matters. Back the Union army had strung mile of telegraph line, no everyone reliable the brand-new system, therefore officers typically sent couriers, who took a good deal the time to take trip from one end of the heat to the other.

Eventually, Burnside learned the Franklin had referred to as off the attack and also ordered him come resume his offensive, to “advance his entirety line.” Franklin, who was together overcautious as his old mentor, McClellan, said he’d view what he can do—but then did nothing.

And again, that did no tell Burnside.


A Mathew Brady portrait the Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, whose guys succeeded in pushing earlier Stonewall Jackson’s force at prospect Hill. Meade called desperately for reinforcements, but William Franklin had referred to as off the attack and also left Meade hanging.


Burnside, however, expecting that his orders to be being brought out, continued to throw soldiers at the rock wall to save those Confederates from reinforcing the far end of their line. And also so, what had originally been intended only as a diversion took on a damaging life the its own. By the end of the day, 7 waves of Union soldiers would certainly crash versus the stone wall and be swept away—18 federal brigades containing some 30,000 men. Beside French, Hancock, Howard, Sturgis, and Griffin, Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphreys and Brig. Gen. George Washington Getty sent out in attacks.

Humphreys’ 4,500 Pennsylvanians struck with a collection of bayonet charges. Survivors of ahead Union strikes clung come the pantlegs the the proceeding men. “Don’t go forward, the is useless, you will be killed,” one of them pleaded as he place prostrate behind the swale. For a arrangement that dubbed for a rapid bayonet charge, having other soldiers grabbing at the foot of the advancing males tended to be counterproductive.

Still, Humphreys’ men declared they made it to within 12 paces the the wall. Peter Allabach, a colonel under Humphreys, stated, “My guys made it closer come the gateways of hell that day than anyone else on the battlefield.” succeeding charges gained to within 30–45 yards the the rock wall before being repulsed by “a sheet of flames.” Humphreys lost an ext than 1,000 men in much less than 45 minutes.

Getty’s assault came in ~ the finish of the day, simply after sunset. His men advanced through “(a) perfect storm the bullets, boys; a perfect storm!” follow to one Connecticut colonel.

One of Getty’s brigades, under Colonel sirloin C. Hawkins, obtained within 80 yards the the rock wall by sneaking under the cover of darkness increase an unfinished railroad cut. In their excitement, the guys let the end a yell as they neared the wall, offering away their position. “If they had actually not began with a cheer,” admitted E.P. Alexander, “I nothing think the I, in ~ least, would have actually known they to be coming; because that I might not watch them.” however thanks come the giveaway, Alexander’s men loaded up with canister, and also the volley that ensued shredded Hawkins’ advance.


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Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphrey’s men made the final charge versus Marye’s Heights. Again and also again, wounded guys would grab their pant legs and also beg them no to shot to advance. Your momentum spent, the guys fell back and general Burnside dubbed off the attack.


So ended the fighting top top December 13. Much more than 8,000 Union casualties place in front of Marye’s Heights. The Confederates had actually suffered just about 1,000—an 8-to-1 ratio. Practically one-third of the attack force ended up being casualties, yet not a solitary federal soldier touched the rock wall or made it into the Sunken Road.

Meanwhile, at prospect Hill, i beg your pardon had clearly held Burnside’s ideal chance for victory, the Union military suffered 4,500 casualties, the Confederates just much more than 4,000.

The following morning, Burnside still thought he could achieve victory in ~ Fredericksburg. He convened a council of war through his subordinates and announced that he would personally command his previous troops, the 9th Corps, right into battle. Burnside believed that the personal loyalty those soldiers felt towards him would inspire them to follow him anywhere, including throughout the increase sloping plain toward the stone wall.

Burnside, however, was the only one who felt the way. ~ doing a personal inspection and talking to several officers, “I found the feeling to it is in rather against an attack…” he said, “in fact, it to be decidedly versus it.” Ultimately, a teary-eyed Burnside dubbed off his plan.

Therefore, December 14 passed v Confederate soldiers behind the stone wall commerce pot shots v Union soldiers trapped behind the swale. Lee tried come goad Burnside into another attack, however the Union commander balked, therefore the Confederates simply fortified their position further. December 15 would pass lot the exact same way, and also when December 15 waned into December 16, Burnside i was withdrawn his military under the sheathe of darkness.

Lee, that was usually aggressive, knew this to be one victory he can not follow up. He construed that if that counterattacked throughout the same areas the Union military had just crossed, the would have actually the tables turned against him. The Federals had actually 147 cannon placed across the river on Chatham and Stafford Heights, and also a big number of Union infantry had actually not yet been engaged. Frustrated, Lee can only clock the Federal army slip far to safety.

On the night that December 13-14, the north Lights had appeared—a rare incident that far south. Lock shone overhead for more than one hour. Union soldiers experienced the lights together God’s means of commemorating the brave sacrifice of their fallen comrades. Confederates, ~ above the various other hand, stated that “the heavens to be hanging the end banners and streamers and setup off fireworks in respect of our victory.”

But the fight of Fredericksburg to be no magnificent win for the Confederates, and Lee knew it. In ~ one point, he had actually watched from a hilltop as the spectacle unfolded below him and had said, “It is a an excellent thing war is therefore terrible; we should thrive too fond of it.” Lee knew what an horrible price Burnside’s army had paid in defeat.

The military of the Potomac had actually suffered nearly 13,000 casualties, with roughly 8,000 of castle on the ground in former of the rock wall. The Confederates, by comparison, experienced fewer 보다 5,000 casualties, most of them in ~ the far end of the ar near possibility Hill where Meade accomplished his breakthrough.

Those lopsided numbers might suggest a destructive blunder on the component of Ambrose Burnside. However, when his generalship would at some point prove to it is in unspectacular, at Fredericksburg Burnside to be as much a victim that circumstances, sloppy communication, and poor generalship through his subordinates together he to be a victim the his own mediocrity.

Burnside had come to Fredericksburg with numerous reasons come think he can find victory there.

Instead what he found was, together Lee said, battle so terrible.

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Ernest King, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Fleet that designed the joined States" win strategy in human being War II.