November 15, 1862 – The Army of the Potomac mobilized for its march on Fredericksburg under its new commander, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.
The Federals began moving out of Warrenton, led by Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division. Burnside could have tried attacking General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia while it was divided (one corps was at Culpeper Court House and the other was at Winchester), but he planned to instead feint southwest and then hurry southeast to the lightly defended town of Fredericksburg. After capturing that town, he would drive on Richmond.
The sudden swiftness of the Federal army after being so sluggish for so long under George B. McClellan shocked the Confederates. Federal cavalry seized the bridge at Rappahannock Station before the enemy could destroy it, and Federal artillery began shelling Confederate positions at Culpeper. This confused Lee, who thought that Burnside would target Fredericksburg; he did not yet know that the Federal “attack” was part of Burnside’s feint.
By evening, the Federals had disengaged and Lee figured out what was happening. He notified Colonel William Ball, commanding the Confederate defenses at Fredericksburg, “It is reported that the enemy is moving from Warrenton today, and it is probable that he is marching upon Fredericksburg.” Lee then dispatched cavalry to Fredericksburg. The troopers were to defend the town if Federals had not captured it already. If the town was captured, the Confederates were to “take position on the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad, where it crosses the North Anna.”
Lee instructed Ball, “The bridges and culverts must be thoroughly destroyed,” with the cross-ties “removed and piled, with the rails placed across them, and, when the timber is sufficiently dry, fired; the weight of the bars will thus cause them to bend, and prevent their being relaid.” Lee then awaited Burnside’s next move.
The Federal Left and Center Grand Divisions under Major Generals Joseph Hooker and William B. Franklin left Warrenton the next day. Sumner’s Grand Division marched along the Rappahannock’s north bank and arrived at Falmouth, across the river about a mile upstream from Fredericksburg, on the 17th. The Federals had covered 40 miles in just two days, a remarkable feat for such an enormous army.
Sumner’s Federals met light Confederate resistance from the small garrison outside Fredericksburg. Seeing that the town could be easily captured, he requested permission to cross the river at Falmouth Ford and attack. Burnside refused, ordering Sumner to stay put until the pontoons arrived.
That night, Lee received word that Federal infantry had reached Falmouth, with Federal transports and gunboats entering nearby Aquia Creek. Lee wrote the secretary of war, “I do not know whether this movement on Fredericksburg is intended as a feint or a real advance upon Richmond,” but “before it (the Federal army) could move from Fredericksburg, I think this whole army will be in position.” Lee directed one of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s divisions at Culpeper to go to Fredericksburg, with the rest of Longstreet’s corps to follow once it was confirmed that Fredericksburg was indeed the Federal target.
The other two Federal Grand Divisions reached Falmouth on the 18th. A New York Tribune correspondent traveling with the Federals reported:
“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.”
Burnside did not want to attack immediately due to fall rains making the 400-foot-wide Rappahannock impossible to cross without pontoon bridges. His Federals took up positions on the heights across the river from Fredericksburg. The first 48 pontoons arrived at Belle Plain via steam transport, but no wagons or teams were available to haul them to Falmouth.
Lee directed one of Longstreet’s divisions to go to Fredericksburg, and another to advance farther south to block any Federal advance toward Richmond from Fredericksburg. He sent Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry north to reconnoiter enemy positions, and Stuart reported that the entire Federal army was advancing on Fredericksburg. Lee ordered Longstreet’s remaining divisions to hurry directly there without blocking any other routes. He also notified Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at Winchester:
“Unless you think it is advantageous for you to continue longer in the valley, or can accomplish the retention and division of the enemy’s forces by so doing, I think it would be advisable to put some of your divisions in motion across the mountains, and advance them at least as far as Sperryville or Madison Court-House.”
Lee was determined to hold the region south of the Rappahannock because, having not yet been ravaged by war, it provided much needed harvests for his army.
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 271; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 234; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 766; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 230-31; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 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. 287-88; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 288-90