January 20, 1863 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside prepared to launch another offensive intended to restore his reputation and revitalize the demoralized Army of the Potomac.
Burnside made final preparations for his Federals to move out of Falmouth on the 19th. A recent report stated that General Robert E. Lee had sent Confederate troops to North Carolina and Tennessee, thus weakening his Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. The weather had been unseasonably warm in Virginia, making the roads dry and the river fordable. If Burnside was to atone for the disaster at Fredericksburg, now was the time.
While his superiors at Washington were cautiously optimistic, Burnside’s subordinates believed this operation would fail miserably. An officer wrote, “The general demoralization that had come upon us made two or three months of rest a necessity,” and he “came to the conclusion that Burnside was fast losing his mind.”
Major General William B. Franklin, one of Burnside’s Grand Division commanders, loudly opposed the plan, along with his subordinate, General William “Baldy” Smith. Franklin and Smith argued that Lee’s army had not been weakened enough to be defeated, especially by the dispirited men in this army. An artillery colonel claimed that Franklin “has talked so much and so loudly to this effect that he has completely demoralized his whole command.”
The plan called for the two Grand Divisions under Franklin and Major General Joseph Hooker to march north and cross the Rappahannock at the fords above Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Grand Division would feint toward Fredericksburg as a diversion, and Major General Franz Sigel’s reserve Grand Division would take the place of Franklin and Hooker on the original line. After crossing the river, Franklin and Hooker would move south against the Confederates’ left flank and force them into an open fight.
As the Federal troops prepared to move on the morning of the 20th, their officers read them a general order from Burnside:
“The commanding general announces to the Army of the Potomac that they are about to meet the enemy once more. The movements of our troops in N.C. and the Southwest had drawn off and divided the Rebel forces on the Rappahannock. The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country… a fame the most glorious awaits.”
Burnside urged “the firm and united action of officers and men, and, under the providence of God, the Army of the Potomac will have taken a great step toward restoring peace to the country and the Government to its rightful authority.”
Around 11 a.m., the Grand Divisions of Hooker and Franklin formed into columns and headed out of Falmouth as bands played “Yankee Doodle.” They marched up the north bank of the Rappahannock, arriving near Banks Ford that night. They would use pontoons to cross the Rappahannock at points above and below the ford the next day.
Meanwhile, the Confederates had conducted a two-day inspection and reported to Lee that Burnside would likely move upriver and try attacking their left. Lee dispatched a division from Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps under Major General George Pickett to occupy positions around Salem Church. These overlooked the fords and enabled the Confederates to oppose a crossing.
Rain began falling late that afternoon, which fell heavier as the night went on. A strong, icy wind blew in, and the previously beautiful weather quickly gave way to a harsh winter storm. A Pennsylvania soldier wrote that “it rained as if the world was coming to an end.” Burnside later said, “From that moment we felt that the winter campaign had ended.” The rain turned to snow farther north, blanketing Washington.
The rain continued into the next morning, and the roads were turning into quagmires. In some places, soldiers sank knee-deep in mud. Artillery wagons sank to their axles, as teams of men and horses struggled to pull them out. Many horses and mules died of exhaustion as the pontoon train fell two miles behind the army. The troops could advance no further until the pontoons could be brought to the front.
Pickett’s Confederates could see the Federals struggling across the river. They jeered their counterparts and held up signs reading, “This Way to Richmond,” and “Yanks, If You Can’t Place Your Pontoons Yourself, We Will Send Help.” The day ended with the Federal army hopelessly tangled and neutralized in the rain and muck. An officer wrote:
“An indescribable chaos of pontoons, vehicles, and artillery encumbered all the roads. Supply wagons upset by the roadside, guns stalled in the mud, ammunition trains ruined by the war, and hundreds of horses and mules buried in the liquid mud. The army, in fact, was embargoed; it was no longer a question of how to go forward–it was a question of how to get back.”
The troops bivouacked in the brutal cold that night, as Burnside relentlessly ordered the advance to resume the next morning. The incessant rain had made everything so wet that the troops could not even start fires to cook their dinners. The next day, Burnside tried lifting morale by issuing whiskey, but this only led to arguing and brawling among the frustrated, exhausted men.
Burnside finally saw he could advance no further in these conditions and, around noon on the 22nd, he ordered the army to return to its original camps at Falmouth. But Burnside issued the order from Aquia Creek, 15 miles away, where he expected to meet with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. The order to fall back did not reach the Grand Division commanders until that night, so the troops had to bivouac in the cold, wet mud one more night before turning back.
The return march proved just as exhausting as the advance, as troops struggled to pull themselves and their animals and equipment out of the deepening muck. The “mud march” ended in miserable failure, dropping the already low Federal morale even lower.
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