January 15, 1863 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside moved forward with plans to launch another offensive in northern Virginia, despite reservations by his officers and men.
By mid-January, morale had sunk to an all-time low in the Army of the Potomac. Soldiers huddled in their freezing camps at Falmouth, as rampant sickness from the bitter cold and poor sanitation added to the general depression afflicting the rank and file. Some men had not been paid in months due to paymaster inefficiency. Most had no confidence in their superiors, especially Burnside, and desertions soared.
Despite this, Burnside still insisted on resuming the offensive as soon as possible. He personally reconnoitered the area around Falmouth to determine where best to advance his army. President Abraham Lincoln had been reluctant to allow him to put the troops in motion so soon after the defeat at Fredericksburg, but intelligence indicated that General Robert E. Lee had sent some of his Confederate troops to North Carolina and to General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, making the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg vulnerable to a renewed attack.
Burnside resolved to advance north and cross the Rappahannock River at Banks and United States fords. The army would then turn south, moving along the Rappahannock, and attack Lee’s left flank. Burnside dispatched troops on the 15th to begin building corduroy roads strong enough to haul the artillery and other equipment needed to sustain a 120,000-man army.
The plan called for Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Grand Division to divert the Confederates’ attention by threatening to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and attack that town once more. Meanwhile, the other two Grand Divisions under Major Generals Joseph Hooker and William B. Franklin would move north and cross the Rappahannock at the two fords as soon as the corduroy roads were ready.
Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck approved the plan, leaving the specifics on how to execute it to Burnside. But most army officers believed this was another disaster in the making. On the 17th, the day before the movement was scheduled to begin, Sumner protested the move to Burnside. Sumner doubted the roads would be ready by the 19th, the day the army would reach them. Franklin voiced an even stronger doubt, declaring that there was no way the roads could be ready so soon.
When Sumner asked for a written assurance they would be ready, Burnside agreed to postpone the launch for a day. Sumner and Franklin then questioned the viability of the fords, which Burnside had personally scouted. Burnside proceeded regardless, directing Provost Marshal Marsena Patrick to strengthen guard units in the camps, “In view of the alarming frequency of desertion from this army of late.”
During the march, cavalrymen would ride along the infantry columns to ensure that nobody dropped out. The troopers were to “drive up every loiterer, straggler, and skulker to his company, or placing him under guard.” Once combat operations began, the provost marshals were to stay out of enemy fire range but stay close enough so that “stragglers and skulkers may be gathered and forced to return to their regiments.”
Burnside then dispatched cavalrymen to scout the marching route and determine whether the Confederates had any idea of what the Federals were planning. On the 18th, cavalry commander General Alfred Pleasonton informed Burnside, “My pickets at United States Ford report the enemy throwing up a great many rockets at that place last night, also the moving of their artillery wagons nearly the whole night, evidently expecting a move on our part.”
United States Ford had been the focal point of Burnside’s plan because it would allow the Federals to land on the Confederate flank. The only alternative was Banks Ford, which would place the Federals in between the Confederates rather than on their flank. The Grand Division commanders opposed using Banks Ford, prompting Burnside to change his plan: “If any movement is made in the direction of United States Ford, it will be simply a feint, with a view to an actual move in another direction.”
Burnside offered no specifics on what “another direction” would be. He ordered the troops to discard their knapsacks, and then instructed the commanders receiving this order, after passing it along, to “please make this entirely confidential, and burn it.” Burnside then postponed the advance for another day.