Fredericksburg: Pontoons Delayed

November 22, 1862 – Federal Major General Ambrose E. Burnside continued waiting for his pontoons to arrive, while Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate corps hurried east from the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce General Robert E. Lee’s army outside Fredericksburg.

By this time, Lee was wondering why Burnside’s Federals had not yet crossed the Rappahannock and attacked. Burnside grew increasingly frustrated, expecting the pontoons to arrive before the Confederates took up defenses across the river. He notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“Had the pontoon bridge arrived even on the 19th or 20th, the army could have crossed with trifling opposition. But now the opposite side of the river is occupied by a large rebel force under General (James) Longstreet, with batteries ready to be place in position to operate against the working parties building the bridge and the troops in crossing. I deem it my duty to lay these facts before you, and to say that I cannot make the promise of probable success with the faith that I did when I supposed that all the parts of the plan would be carried out… The President said that the movement, in order to be successful, must be made quickly, and I thought the same.”

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

While Longstreet’s corps settled into defenses, Jackson’s 38,000-man corps had been stationed at Winchester, keeping the Federals in constant fear that he might attack Harpers Ferry again or sabotage the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Jackson skirmished with various Federal commands in the area, including a fierce engagement near Shepherdstown on the Potomac River.

Jackson then received a message from Lee stating that he should “remain in the valley as long as you see your presence there cripples and embarrasses the general movement of the enemy, and yet leaves you free to unite with Longstreet for a battle.” On the 22nd, Jackson resolved to pull his men out of their camps and move to join Lee’s main army. As the Confederates mobilized, he told nobody where they were headed, not even Lee.

Back at Fredericksburg, four of Longstreet’s five divisions had arrived, but the force was still too small to stop an all-out Federal thrust across the river. Lee reported to his superiors, “If the enemy attempt to cross the river, I shall resist it, though the ground is favorable to him.” He could only hope to fight a delaying action until Jackson came up on Burnside’s right flank and rear.

Lee knew that since Burnside had advanced this far, he would not turn back without a fight. But he still wondered why Burnside had not yet started the fight. Lee said, “I think, therefore, he will persevere in his present course, and the longer we can delay him, and throw him into the winter, the more difficult will be his undertaking.” By the 23rd, Longstreet’s last division was coming up to take positions on the long wooded ridge behind Fredericksburg. Jackson’s Confederates began arriving the next day.

The second Federal pontoon shipment finally arrived at Belle Plain late on the afternoon of the 24th, after having been shipped from Washington five days ago. When Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, in charge of army pontoons, arrived at Falmouth with the first shipment, Burnside ordered him arrested unless he could provide a “satisfactory explanation” for the delays. Burnside later released him, but the press blamed Woodbury and Halleck for the apparent pontoon mix-up that had caused such a fateful delay.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit:

Burnside accused Halleck and administration officials of not being “impressed with the importance of speed.” Halleck told Burnside that he “ought not to have trusted them in Washington for the details.” The railroad to Falmouth finally became functional on the 26th to supply the Federals.

Federal teams loaded the pontoons onto wagons and began hauling them to the army at Falmouth the next day. Due to bureaucratic mismanagement, they arrived too late for Burnside to take Fredericksburg without a hard fight, as he had hoped to do with his quick movement there. However, the continuing rain was turning the roads to mud and raising the river, making it nearly impossible for Burnside to proceed with his plan, even with the pontoons.

Burnside received a message from President Abraham Lincoln on the 25th: “If I should be in a boat off Aquia Creek at dark tomorrow evening, could you, without inconvenience, meet me and pass an hour or two with me?” Lincoln arrived on the night of the 26th and met briefly with Burnside aboard the steamer U.S.S. Baltimore.

Burnside assured Lincoln that he, unlike George McClellan, did not need reinforcements and was ready to attack immediately. However, it was clear that things were not going as planned; the pontoons had been late, the river continued swelling, all nearby fords could no longer be used, and Lee now had a strong hold on Fredericksburg. Burnside had no alternative plan.

The next day, the men met again to discuss the upcoming offensive in detail. Burnside proposed laying the pontoon bridges and launching a full-scale assault. He acknowledged it would be “somewhat risky,” but it would satisfy Halleck’s repeated urgings to attack. Lincoln overrode Halleck by telling Burnside that he was willing to wait until the army had a better chance for success. Lincoln and Burnside then returned to Washington, where Lincoln outlined an alternate strategy to both Burnside and Halleck:

  • A second force raised from the Federals defending Washington would assemble on the south bank of the Rappahannock at Port Royal, about 30 miles downriver from Burnside.
  • A third force would move via transports up the York River to the Pamunkey River and debark in Lee’s rear.
  • Burnside’s army would then advance on Lee with support from the other two forces.

This three-pronged advance would block Lee’s line of retreat to Richmond, pinning him in Fredericksburg. Halleck and Burnside rejected this proposal because it would take too long to raise the troops, transports, and supplies. Lincoln then instructed Burnside to use his own judgment regarding the final plan of attack. Burnside began looking to cross his Federals downriver from Fredericksburg at Skinker’s Neck.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s troops were on the march, averaging about 20 miles per day. Several men marched barefoot through the snow and ice. Lee, unaware that Jackson was already on his way, was fearful that a pre-winter storm could block the roads and sent him a message on the 26th: “I desire you to pursue the best route, by easy marches, to this place, advising me of your approach so that your march may be hastened, if necessary.”

Lee added what he guessed was Burnside’s plan: “I think the probability is that he will attempt to cross either here or at some other point down the river; in which case it would be desirable that the whole army should be united.” By the end of the 27th, five days after leaving Winchester, Jackson concentrated his forces around Orange Court House.

Two days later, Jackson reported to Lee’s headquarters tent at Hamilton’s Crossing during a heavy snow. Jackson announced that his men were on the move, and Lee reiterated prior orders for Jackson to position his men to Longstreet’s right and rear, around Guiney’s Station. This would enable Jackson to reinforce Longstreet, shift to the right, or move further down the Rappahannock as needed.

By month’s end, all remaining pontoons and equipment needed for Burnside’s offensive against Fredericksburg finally arrived at Falmouth. Burnside now prepared to move his army across the Rappahannock, but the extensive delays had allowed Lee to place Longstreet’s 35,000 Confederates on the high ground behind Fredericksburg, and Jackson’s men were quickly arriving in support.


References; Cullen, Joseph P., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 287; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 766-67; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 35-37, 39; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 232-34; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5006-18; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 290; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 288-90

One comment

Leave a Reply