January 1, 1863 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss future military strategy and criticism of his generalship.
Burnside traveled up from Falmouth and met with Lincoln at the White House early on New Year’s Day. With his Army of the Potomac still 120,000 men strong, Burnside wanted to resume the offensive as soon as possible, and he asked Lincoln to explain why he had written that there was “good reason” not to do so.
Lincoln told Burnside that subordinates had complained about his leadership, but he rejected Burnside’s demand to know their names. Burnside then said, “It is my belief that I ought to retire to private life.” Lincoln also rejected this, seemingly emboldening Burnside to allege that several generals in the army lacked the confidence of their men and should be relieved of duty.
Burnside also suggested that General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton should resign because they had not shown “positive and unswerving support in (Lincoln’s) public policy,” or assumed “their full share of the responsibility for that policy.” Lincoln asked for time to consider the matter, and Burnside returned to Falmouth after reiterating his desire to launch another offensive soon.
Lincoln then asked Halleck for his professional opinion on Burnside resuming the offensive so quickly after the defeat at Fredericksburg. Halleck refused, as he had done in the past, on the grounds “that a General in command of an army in the field is the best judge of existing conditions.”
Frustrated, Lincoln wrote Halleck asking him to personally inspect the Army of the Potomac at Falmouth and provide his opinion on Burnside’s operations. Lincoln added, “If in such a difficulty as this you do not help, you fail me precisely in the point for which I sought your assistance. Your military skill is useless to me, if you will not do this.” Stanton handed this letter to Halleck during the New Year’s Day reception at the White House.
Halleck found the letter insulting because it seemed to infer that Lincoln no longer had confidence him. Halleck returned to his office after the reception and wrote his resignation. Halleck explained that he should resign because “a very important difference of opinion in regard to my relations toward generals commanding armies in the field” made him unable to do his duty “satisfactorily at the same time to the President and to myself.”
Stanton delivered the letter to Lincoln that afternoon. Unwilling to allow any further dissension among his advisors, Lincoln persuaded Halleck to stay on and added a note to his original letter: “Withdrawn, because considered harsh by General Halleck.” But Halleck still refused to render an opinion on Burnside as Lincoln hoped.
Four days later, Burnside wrote Lincoln stating that the army should try to cross the Rappahannock River again, even though most of Burnside’s top subordinates opposed such a move. Burnside also submitted a letter of resignation to both Lincoln and Halleck “to relieve you from all embarrassment in my case.” Burnside wrote:
“I do not ask you to assume any responsibility in reference to the mode or place of crossing, but it seems to me that, in making so hazardous a movement, I should receive some general directions from you as to the advisability of crossing at some point, as you are necessarily well informed of the effect at this time upon other parts of the army of a success or a repulse.”
Lincoln declined to accept Burnside’s resignation once more, and on the 7th, Halleck endorsed Burnside’s plan to cross the river, even though the army would be moving in winter. Halleck explained that “our first object was, not Richmond, but the defeat or scattering of Lee’s army.”
Halleck warned Burnside to “effect a crossing in a position where we can meet the enemy on favorable or even equal terms… If the enemy should concentrate his forces at the place you have selected for a crossing, make it a feint and try another place… The great object is… to injure him all you can with the least injury to yourself… I can only advise that an attempt be made, and as early as possible.”
Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8669-91; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 119, 121-23, 127-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 248, 251; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 497-98; 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. 306-09; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 583-84