Burnside Proposes a Bold New Strategy

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside issued General Order Number 1, officially taking command of the Army of the Potomac at Warrenton, Virginia. Burnside tried to boost plummeting army morale by reminding the troops that he had been good friends with the outgoing commander, George B. McClellan. Burnside declared that he “fully identified with them in their feeling of respect and esteem for General McClellan, entertained through a long and most friendly association with him.”

Knowing that the main reason for McClellan’s dismissal had been a lack of aggressiveness, Burnside resolved to launch a new offensive as quickly as possible. At this time, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was split in two: one corps under Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was stationed at Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, while the other corps under Lieutenant General James Longstreet was southwest of Warrenton at Culpeper Court House. Before his removal, McClellan had been in the process of moving the army down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to confront Longstreet.

Burnside studied McClellan’s plans and decided that going through with them would be too risky. If he moved on Longstreet at Culpeper, then the area in his rear (and possibly even Washington) would be vulnerable to a thrust by Jackson’s 35,000 Confederates from the Valley, just as he had done in the Second Bull Run campaign. So Burnside halted all movements while he developed a completely different course of action.

Burnside ultimately submitted an elaborate plan to his superiors at Washington:

  • The Federals would start moving southwest toward Gordonsville to make the Confederates think they would threaten from that direction.
  • The Federals would then suddenly veer southeast, get around the Confederates’ right (east) flank, and march on Falmouth, on the Rappahannock River.
  • Federal engineers under Colonel Herman Haupt would repair all track and bridges on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and open a supply line from Falmouth to the wharves at Aquia Creek.
  • The Federals would then lay pontoon bridges on the Rappahannock and capture Fredericksburg across the river.
  • If the Federals moved before Lee could block them, they would have a clear path from Fredericksburg to the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Under this plan, Burnside would stay close to his supply base, and he could protect Washington as he moved. But the plan was predicated on the assumptions that 1) the Federal army would be driving on Falmouth and Fredericksburg before Lee knew what was happening, and 2) the Federal engineers would restore the supply line and keep it protected from enemy raids.

Moreover, the objective of this plan was to capture Richmond, not destroy Lee’s army, which had been President Abraham Lincoln’s primary goal all along. Burnside conceded that he lacked the ability to destroy the enemy, but capturing Richmond “would tend more to cripple the rebel cause than almost any other military event, except the absolute breaking up of their army.”

To put his plan into motion, Burnside wrote that he would need nearly two weeks’ worth of supplies sent to his new base at Belle Plain, 10 miles northeast of Fredericksburg on the Potomac River. These included transports to deliver food and clothing, a herd of beef cattle, and pontoons to build bridges across the Rappahannock. Burnside would then attack Fredericksburg “as soon as the army arrives in front of the place.”

Burnside tested the feasibility of his plan by allowing a Federal cavalry force under Colonel Ulric Dahlgren to raid Fredericksburg. The Federals successfully rode through the small Confederate detachment guarding the town and took 54 prisoners. This proved to Burnside that the town could be captured. He submitted his plan to his superiors on November 9 and awaited their approval.

Burnside also proposed grouping six of his seven army corps into three “grand divisions.” This was intended to facilitate communications by reducing the number of Burnside’s direct reports. The Grand Divisions would become the army’s right, center, and left wings:

  • The right wing was led by Major General Edwin V. Sumner; it consisted of the Second and Ninth corps under Major Generals Darius N. Couch and Orlando B. Wilcox respectively.
  • The center was led by Major General Joseph Hooker; it consisted of the Third and Fifth corps under Major Generals George Stoneman and Daniel Butterfield respectively.
  • The right wing was led by Major General William B. Franklin; it consisted of the First and Sixth corps under Major Generals John F. Reynolds and William F. “Baldy” Smith respectively.
  • Major General Franz Sigel’s Eleventh Corps would be left as an “independent reserve.”
  • The cavalry was to be led by General Alfred Pleasonton, and the artillery by General Henry J. Hunt.

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck reviewed the plan and had doubts. But by this time, President Lincoln had worked long enough with Halleck to know that the general-in-chief never gave full support to any plan in case it failed. He sent Halleck to confer with Burnside while he took a look at the plan.

Halleck arrived at Burnside’s headquarters on the 12th. Burnside recalled that Halleck was “strongly in favor” of McClellan’s original plan of moving down the Orange & Alexandria to Culpeper, where Burnside could attack Lee’s army while it was divided. Burnside staunchly defended his strategy, explaining that upon making his feint southwest, he would “accumulate a four or five days’ supply for the men and animals; then make a rapid move of the whole force to Fredericksburg, with a view to a movement upon Richmond from that point.”

Colonel Haupt supported Burnside. He had warned in late October that the O & A could not supply such a large army, and he repeated that assertion now. And being supplied by water would make the quartermaster’s job much easier. Sumner, second in command in the Potomac army, supported Burnside as well. Halleck, cautious by nature, deferred to Lincoln for a final decision on the matter.

Meanwhile, Major Ira Spaulding, commanding the 50th New York Engineers, received a message dated November 6 requesting that the pontoon bridge at Berlin and boats on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal be sent to Washington. The bridge was disassembled and 36 boats were sent down the canal on the night of the 12th. Another 40 boats were sent the next day. At Burnside’s request, Halleck notified Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, commanding the engineers in Washington, to forward the supplies to Aquia Landing.

But for Burnside’s plan to succeed, time was of the essence, and Halleck did not impart this to Woodbury. And Lee was already beginning to suspect that since Burnside had not yet made a thrust toward Culpeper, he could very well be preparing to move southeast down the Rappahannock.


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