Assigning Blame in the Army of the Potomac

December 22, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln sought to clarify responsibility for the defeat at Fredericksburg and console the Army of the Potomac.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit:

A few days after the battle, members of the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War visited Major General Ambrose E. Burnside at army headquarters in Falmouth, Virginia, to determine what caused such a lopsided defeat. The committee members found that, unlike his predecessor, Burnside accepted full responsibility and had no political aspirations. The members next interviewed Burnside’s Grand Division commanders:

  • Major General Edwin V. Sumner agreed with Burnside’s assessment of the defeat.
  • Major General William B. Franklin said that rumors of the army’s demoralization were unfounded.
  • Major General Joseph Hooker blamed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck for not sending the pontoons fast enough, and he also accused Burnside of incompetence.

Satisfied, the committee sided with the public and the press in blaming the Lincoln administration for the defeat more than Burnside or his commanders. Lincoln wanted to discuss this with Burnside, so he summoned the general to the White House. Burnside reiterated that he was solely responsible for the defeat, and he wrote another letter to Halleck repeating that assertion. Lincoln thanked him for setting the record straight and called him a “real friend.”

Lincoln then drafted a message to the Army of the Potomac, which stated in part, “The foe had learned the strength of an army of citizen soldiers striking for their country, for the cause of orderly government and human rights.” Those who lost their lives at Fredericksburg were hailed as “heroes, dead for Liberty,” and the survivors would continue to “fight the battle of Liberty, not in this land only, but throughout the world.” He added:

“All lands have looked to America as the home of freedom, as the refuge of the oppressed. Upon the courage of her sons now depend the hopes of the world, and wherever the story of Fredericksburg is read, will the lovers of Liberty take courage.”

Considering this message too broad for the army, he penned another that focused more on matters directly affecting the troops. This was read to the officers and men:

“To the Army of the Potomac: I have just read your Commanding General’s preliminary report of the battle of Fredericksburg. Although you were not successful, the attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than an accident. The courage with which you, in an open field, maintained the contest against an entrenched foe, and the consummate skill and success with which you crossed and re-crossed the river, in the face of the enemy, show that you possess all the qualities of a great army, which will yet give victory to the cause of the country and of popular government. Condoling with the mourners of the dead, and sympathizing with the severely wounded, I congratulate you that the number is comparatively so small.

“I tender to you, officers and soldiers, the thanks of the nation.


Meanwhile, the Federal and Confederate armies continued watching each other from across the Rappahannock River, with the Federals in winter quarters at Falmouth and Stafford Heights, and the Confederates at Fredericksburg. Eager to avenge his defeat, Burnside began planning to march his army past the Confederate flank, cross the river above Fredericksburg, and get behind the enemy. He requisitioned supplies for a 10-day expedition and issued orders for his men to cook three days’ rations and be ready to march on 12 hours’ notice.

Many officers, believing Burnside to be incompetent, contemplated mutiny. Two officers from Franklin’s Grand Division, Brigadier Generals John Newton and John Cochrane, secretly traveled to Washington to inform Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, chairman of the military committee, that Burnside was planning another offensive. They also wanted to warn Wilson that if it ended in another defeat, the army would crumble in dissension.

Newton and Cochrane arrived on the 29th to learn that Wilson had gone home for the holidays. They instead met with Secretary of State William H. Seward, whom Cochrane knew as a political ally when Cochrane was a U.S. congressman. Seward listened to the men and brought them to Lincoln, where they explained the situation again.

Lincoln, unaware that Burnside was planning another offensive so quickly, was skeptical because of the officers’ political backgrounds. Nevertheless, he wired Burnside, “I have good reason for saying that you must not make a general movement of the army without letting me know.” When Burnside was summoned to Washington to give court-martial testimony, he took the opportunity to personally meet with Lincoln again on New Year’s Day to learn the reason behind Lincoln’s wire.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 246; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8657, 8669; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 117; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 242; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 486; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 93-95; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 298-300, 302-03

One comment

Leave a Reply