November 9, 1862 – On the day that Major General Ambrose E. Burnside assumed command of the Federal Army of the Potomac, he proposed a new drive on Richmond by moving his massive force from Warrenton, Virginia to Fredericksburg.
Burnside sent a broad proposal to his superiors in Washington on the 9th. First he would concentrate his army on the road to Gordonsville to the southwest, then he would quickly shift his forces southeast toward Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. This would move the Federals closer to a new supply base at Belle Plain while staying between the enemy and Washington. Fredericksburg would also be a good point from which to advance on Richmond.
Recognizing that this plan could only succeed if executed quickly, Burnside proposed to attack Fredericksburg “as soon as the army arrives in front of the place.” To facilitate speed, he intended to reorganize the army by placing the various corps under three “grand divisions” of two corps and a staff each. The grand division commanders would be Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner, William B. Franklin, and Joseph Hooker.
Burnside also requested pontoons to bridge the Rappahannock and enable his men to attack Fredericksburg. Moreover, the Federal movement and attack would require wagon trains and 30 ships to carry supplies to Belle Plain, and a herd of beef cattle to be transferred from Alexandria.
Three days later, Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck visited Burnside at his Warrenton headquarters. Although Halleck gave no official opinion, but both he and President Lincoln expressed skepticism about the new commander’s elaborate plan. Burnside explained that a Federal feint toward the Blue Ridge would allow him to “accumulate a four or five days’ supply for the men and animals; then make a rapid move of the whole force to Fredericksburg, with a view to a movement upon Richmond from that point.”
Lincoln liked the Blue Ridge feint idea because it blocked a potential Confederate advance on Washington. But marching on Fredericksburg en route to Richmond violated Lincoln’s guideline that destroying the Confederate army, not the Confederate capital, should be the main objective.
Nevertheless, Burnside apparently told Halleck he intended to march along the Rappahannock’s north bank, then cross at Falmouth to attack Fredericksburg. Halleck later stated that Burnside said he intended to cross upstream from Fredericksburg and march along the south bank. This proved important because the pontoon bridges would not be needed as urgently under Halleck’s interpretation of the plan as they would under Burnside’s.
As Lincoln pondered whether to approve this offensive, General Robert E. Lee commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began suspecting that the Federals would move down the Rappahannock toward Fredericksburg. He based this on the fact that they had not resumed their southward movement since Burnside took command. To Lee, this meant that the new commander had another plan in mind besides a southern thrust.
On the 14th, Halleck notified Burnside: “The President has just assented to your plan. He thinks that it will succeed, if you move very rapidly; otherwise not.” Although Lincoln preferred that Burnside attack Lee instead, he would not overrule his new commander’s first plan. Burnside then officially regrouped his army into Right, Center, and Left “Grand Divisions” of two corps each, with the seventh corps in “independent reserve” under General Franz Sigel. Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury received the requisition for the pontoons needed to cross the Rappahannock.
Sumner’s Right Grand Division began moving out of Warrenton on November 15, with Lee learning of the movement that same day. The other Grand Divisions and the Federal cavalry left on the 16th, with the north bank of the Rappahannock covering their exposed flank. Sumner’s Federals began arriving at Falmouth the next day. This put them about a mile upriver from Fredericksburg. A violent storm erupted, rising the levels of the 400-foot waterway and rendering the Federals unable to advance any further until the pontoon bridges arrived.
Confederate scouts reported the Federal advance, along with news of Federal transports and gunboats entering nearby Aquia Creek. Lee deployed a division from Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps to defend Fredericksburg, then wrote to Confederate Secretary of War George W. Randolph that night, “I do not know whether this movement on Fredericksburg is intended as a feint or a real advance upon Richmond, (but) this whole army will be in position.”
By the 18th, the Army of the Potomac had reached its marching objectives on schedule. According to a New York Tribune reporter, “Officers wont to believe that a great command cannot move more than six miles a day, and accustomed to our old method of waiting a week for the issue of new clothing or a month for the execution of an order to advance, rub their eyes in mute astonishment. We have marched from Warrenton 40 miles, in two days and a half.”
After receiving a report that only Sumner’s Federals were advancing on Fredericksburg, Lee resolved to block him and protect the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg to Confederate supply points downriver. He dispatched two of Longstreet’s divisions from Culpeper, urged Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to move his Confederates east of the Blue Ridge, and sent cavalry under Major General Jeb Stuart to scout Federal positions.
When Stuart reported that the entire Federal army was moving on Fredericksburg, Lee ordered the rest of Longstreet’s corps to the town. Meanwhile, the Federal pontoon bridges arrived at the Belle Plain supply base, but nobody was there to coordinate transporting them from the base to the river at Falmouth.
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 87
- Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 271
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 765-66
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4960, 4972-84
- Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30-33, 35
- Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 111-12
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 286-88
Tagged: Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose E. Burnside, Army of Northern Virginia, Army of the Potomac, Edwin V. Sumner, Fredericksburg Campaign, Henry W. Halleck, Joseph Hooker, Robert E. Lee, William B. Franklin