The Federal Army of the Potomac, 130,000 men strong and now led by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, was moving as rapidly as it ever had in northern Virginia. Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commanding Burnside’s Right Grand Division, moved out of Warrenton on November 15, with the Left and Center Grand Divisions under Major Generals William B. Franklin and Joseph Hooker following the next day.
Burnside’s plan to was to march southeast to Falmouth, on the Rappahannock River, and then build pontoon bridges to cross over into the key town of Fredericksburg. The pontoons that Burnside needed were in Washington, but Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, commanding the engineers, sent them down the Potomac River to Belle Plain, which would be Burnside’s new supply base. Another round of pontoons was sent overland, and those would take much longer to arrive.
Sumner’s Grand Division, marching along the north bank of the Rappahannock, arrived at Falmouth, across the river about a mile upstream from Fredericksburg, on the 17th. The Federals had covered 40 miles in just two days, a remarkable achievement for the Potomac army. Fredericksburg was guarded by just a token force under Colonel William Ball. Burnside had done what George B. McClellan and John Pope had never done: he had stolen a march on General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Sumner’s men could have waded across the river, seized Fredericksburg, and built the pontoon bridges to enable the rest of the army to cross. But Burnside would not allow this; he ordered Sumner to stay put until Federal communications were secured, the army was concentrated, and the pontoons were there. Ball, facing a third of the entire Federal army with just a couple regiments and some cannon, ordered Fredericksburg evacuated.
Lee received word from Ball that Federal infantry had reached Falmouth, with Federal transports and gunboats entering nearby Aquia Creek. Lee wrote the secretary of war, “I do not know whether this movement on Fredericksburg is intended as a feint or a real advance upon Richmond,” but “before it (the Federal army) could move from Fredericksburg, I think this whole army will be in position.” Lee directed one of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s divisions at Culpeper to go to Fredericksburg, with the rest of Longstreet’s corps to follow once it was confirmed that Fredericksburg was indeed the Federal target.
The other two Federal Grand Divisions reached Falmouth on the 18th. A New York Tribune correspondent traveling with the Federals reported, “Officers wont to believe that a great command cannot move more than six miles a day, and accustomed to our old method of waiting a week for the issue of new clothing or a month for the execution of an order to advance, rub their eyes in mute astonishment. We have marched from Warrenton 40 miles, in two days and a half.”
Burnside did not want to attack immediately due to fall rains making the 400-foot-wide Rappahannock impossible to cross without pontoon bridges. His Federals took up positions on the heights across the river from Fredericksburg. The first 48 pontoons that Woodbury had sent via water arrived at Belle Plain, but no wagons or teams were available to haul them overland to Falmouth. The second set of pontoons to be sent overland had not even left Washington yet.
Lee directed another of Longstreet’s divisions to advance south beyond Fredericksburg to block any attempted Federal advance from there to Richmond. He sent Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry north to reconnoiter enemy positions, and Stuart reported that the entire Federal army was advancing on Fredericksburg. Lee ordered Longstreet’s remaining divisions to hurry directly there without blocking any other routes.
Lee also notified Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at Winchester: “Unless you think it is advantageous for you to continue longer in the valley, or can accomplish the retention and division of the enemy’s forces by so doing, I think it would be advisable to put some of your divisions in motion across the mountains, and advance them at least as far as Sperryville or Madison Court-House.”
Lee was determined to hold the tidewater region south of the Rappahannock because, having not yet been ravaged by war, it provided much needed harvests for his army.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
- Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Longstreet, James, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. (Kindle Edition), 1895.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.