The Federal Army of the Potomac remained stationary on the north-east bank of the Rappahannock River in northeastern Virginia. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the army, was still waiting for pontoons to arrive from Washington so that his men could build bridges that would enable them to cross and capture the key town of Fredericksburg. But while Burnside could do nothing but wait, the enemy got there first.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had hurried Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps over from Culpeper to take up defenses on the high ground outside Fredericksburg. Lee’s other corps, led by Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, was in the Shenandoah Valley, poised to move east and bolster those defenses. Lee wondered why Burnside’s Federals had not yet crossed the Rappahannock and attacked, but he welcomed the delay.
Meanwhile, Burnside was growing increasingly frustrated. His entire army had arrived outside Falmouth on November 17, five days prior, when there was nothing but a token force guarding both that town and Fredericksburg. Burnside notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:
“Had the pontoon bridge arrived even on the 19th or 20th, the army could have crossed with trifling opposition. But now the opposite side of the river is occupied by a large rebel force under General Longstreet, with batteries ready to be placed in position to operate against the working parties building the bridge and the troops in crossing. I deem it my duty to lay these facts before you, and to say that I cannot make the promise of probable success with the faith that I did when I supposed that all the parts of the plan would be carried out… The President said that the movement, in order to be successful, must be made quickly, and I thought the same.”
On the night of November 22, several of Burnside’s generals discussed strategy. They all agreed that “our march to Richmond will be contested inch by inch.” Major General Edwin V. Sumner, Burnside’s second-in-command, warned that trying to cross the river in front of Fredericksburg would result in heavy casualties, and thought it better to place batteries downstream to get a clean sweep of the field the Confederates were defending. The Confederates held the high ground behind Fredericksburg, but Sumner argued that if the Federals marched downstream, crossed the river, “then by a determined march, turn their right flank, is it not possible that we should force them from the field?” This plan was sent for Burnside’s consideration.
Meanwhile, as Longstreet’s Confederates settled into defenses, Jackson’s 38,000-man corps had been stationed at Winchester, keeping the Federals in constant fear that he might attack Harpers Ferry again or sabotage the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Jackson skirmished with various Federal commands in the area, including a fierce engagement near Shepherdstown on the Potomac River.
Jackson then received a message from Lee stating that he should “remain in the valley as long as you see your presence there cripples and embarrasses the general movement of the enemy, and yet leaves you free to unite with Longstreet for a battle.” On the 22nd, Jackson resolved to pull his men out of their camps and move to join Lee’s main army. As the Confederates mobilized, he told nobody where they were headed, not even Lee.
Back at Fredericksburg, four of Longstreet’s five divisions had arrived, but the force was still too small to stop an all-out Federal thrust across the river. Lee reported to his superiors, “If the enemy attempt to cross the river, I shall resist it, though the ground is favorable to him.” He could only hope to fight a delaying action until Jackson came up on Burnside’s right flank and rear.
Lee knew that since Burnside had advanced this far, he would not turn back without a fight. But he still wondered why Burnside had not yet started the fight. Lee said, “I think, therefore, he will persevere in his present course, and the longer we can delay him, and throw him into the winter, the more difficult will be his undertaking.” By the 23rd, Longstreet’s last division was coming up to take positions on the long wooded ridge behind Fredericksburg. Jackson’s Confederates began arriving the next day.
On the 24th, the second Federal pontoon shipment finally arrived at the Belle Plain supply base, after having been shipped from Washington five days ago. But the railroad from the base to Falmouth was not yet functional, and the horses that were needed to haul the pontoons had not yet arrived. The engineers were able to commandeer other horses at the base to begin hauling; the men and horses worked through the night.
When Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, in charge of army pontoons, arrived at Falmouth with the first shipment, Burnside ordered him arrested unless he could provide a “satisfactory explanation” for the delays. Burnside later released him, but the press blamed Woodbury and Halleck for the apparent pontoon mix-up that had caused the delay.
Burnside accused Halleck and administration officials of not being “impressed with the importance of speed.” Halleck told Burnside that he “ought not to have trusted them in Washington for the details.” The whole point of Burnside’s plan was to quickly cross the Rappahannock so as to avoid having to fight for Fredericksburg. But that was now impossible, as the Confederates continued to gather in strength outside the town.
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- 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.