November 9, 1862 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside issued General Order No. 1 assuming command of the Army of the Potomac. He followed this up with a new plan to capture Richmond.
Upon officially taking command at Warrenton, Burnside tried boosting army morale by reminding the troops that he had been good friends with the outgoing commander, George B. McClellan. Burnside declared that he “fully identified with them in their feeling of respect and esteem for General McClellan, entertained through a long and most friendly association with him.”
Burnside also knew that the Lincoln administration had been unhappy with McClellan’s slowness, so he resolved to begin a new offensive as quickly as possible. He submitted an elaborate plan to his superiors at Washington in which the army would move southwest toward Gordonsville to deceive the Confederates into thinking he would threaten from that direction. The Federals would then suddenly veer southeast and march on Fredericksburg, on the Rappahannock River.
Fredericksburg placed the Federals close to their supply base. It also gave them a clearer path to Richmond and enabled them to protect Washington along the way. However, the plan did not include destroying the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which had been President Abraham Lincoln’s main objective all along. Burnside conceded that he lacked the ability to destroy the enemy, but capturing Richmond “would tend more to cripple the rebel cause than almost any other military event, except the absolute breaking up of their army.”
Burnside also proposed grouping six of his seven army corps into three “grand divisions.” This was intended to facilitate communications because it reduced the number of Burnside’s direct reports. The Grand Divisions would become the army’s right, center, and left wings, respectively led by Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner (II and IX corps), Joseph Hooker (III and V corps), and William B. Franklin (I and VI corps). Major General Franz Sigel’s XI Corps would be left in “independent reserve.”
To put his plan into motion, Burnside wrote that he would need an enormous amount of supplies sent to his new base at Belle Plain, 10 miles northeast of Fredericksburg on the Potomac River. These included transports to deliver food and clothing, a herd of beef cattle, and pontoons to build bridges across the Rappahannock. Burnside would then attack Fredericksburg “as soon as the army arrives in front of the place.”
Burnside tested the feasibility of his plan by allowing a Federal cavalry force under Colonel Ulric Dahlgren to raid Fredericksburg. The Federals successfully rode through the small Confederate detachment guarding the town and took 54 prisoners. This proved to Burnside that the town could be captured. He submitted his plan to his superiors and awaited their approval.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck visited Burnside’s headquarters three days later. Halleck did not give his opinion on Burnside’s strategy, but he told the general that Lincoln had doubts. Burnside defended the plan, explaining that upon making his feint southwest, he would “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 Burnside’s idea of keeping Washington protected throughout the movement. But his main objection was that Burnside would be targeting Richmond instead of Lee’s army. Burnside offered more details, including his plan to march along the north bank of the Rappahannock and cross at Falmouth. Somehow, Halleck interpreted this to mean Burnside would cross the river farther upstream and march on Fredericksburg from the south bank. As such, he did not immediately submit Burnside’s requisition order for pontoons when he returned to Washington.
Halleck forwarded Lincoln’s official approval to Burnside on the 14th: “The President has just assented to your plan. He thinks that it will succeed, if you move very rapidly; otherwise not.” Lincoln still had doubts, but he appreciated Burnside’s eagerness to quickly take the offensive and he did not want to cause animosity by rejecting the general’s strategy so soon after taking command. Lincoln also approved Burnside’s Grand Division proposal.
Burnside immediately reorganized the Army of the Potomac and concentrated the forces at Warrenton. His requisition for pontoons was submitted to Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, who supervised pontoon materials and distribution for the army. It was quickly discovered that most of the materials needed were at Harpers Ferry, not Washington, so it would take extra time to get them shipped to Burnside’s base at Belle Plain.
Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was divided, with Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps at Culpeper Court House and Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at Winchester. Lee knew the Federals had advanced to Warrenton and then stopped. After learning of the Federal cavalry raid on Fredericksburg, he began suspecting that the enemy would target that town. Lee had no specific intelligence on this, but the simple fact that the Federals had stopped moving south made him think that the new commander would introduce a new strategy.
Lee told Jackson to be ready to hurry east if needed. He sent reinforcements to the Confederate garrison at Fredericksburg and told them to stay on alert. He then directed “the railroad from Fredericksburg to Aquia Creek to be entirely destroyed; the bridges, culverts, &c, to be broken; the cross-ties piled and fired, with the rails piled on top, so as to prevent their future use.”
In a letter to Secretary of War George W. Randolph, Lee proposed destroying the railroad from Fredericksburg to Hanover Junction, along with the Orange & Alexandria Railroad from Gordonsville to the Rappahannock. Lee acknowledged that he was merely acting on a hunch, and, “Were I certain of the route he will pursue, I should commence immediately to make it as difficult as possible.”
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