Major Ira Spaulding, commanding the 50th New York Engineers, reported to the headquarters of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, on November 25 that all the pontoons requested had arrived. They were hauled from the Federal supply base at Belle Plain to the Rappahannock River in northeastern Virginia. Pontoon bridges would then be assembled that would enable the Federals to cross and capture the key town of Fredericksburg.
But it had been six days since the second shipment of pontoons had left Washington. During that time, much of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had rushed to take up strong defensive positions on the heights behind Fredericksburg. Due to bureaucratic mismanagement, the pontoons arrived too late for Burnside to take Fredericksburg without a hard fight, as he had hoped to do with his quick movement there. However, the continuing rain was turning the roads to mud and raising the river, making it nearly impossible for Burnside to proceed with his plan, even with the pontoons.
Burnside received a message from President Abraham Lincoln on the 25th: “If I should be in a boat off Aquia Creek at dark tomorrow evening, could you, without inconvenience, meet me and pass an hour or two with me?” Lincoln arrived on the night of the 26th and met briefly with Burnside aboard the steamer U.S.S. Baltimore.
Burnside assured Lincoln that he, unlike his predecessor George McClellan, did not need reinforcements and was ready to attack immediately. However, it was clear that things were not going as planned; the pontoons had been late, the river continued to swell, none of the nearby fords could be used, and Lee now had a strong hold on Fredericksburg. Burnside had no alternate plan.
The next day, the men met again to discuss the upcoming offensive in detail. Burnside proposed laying the pontoon bridges and launching a full-scale assault. He acknowledged it would be “somewhat risky,” but it would satisfy the administration’s repeated urgings to attack. Lincoln told Burnside that he was willing to wait until the army had a better chance for success.
Lincoln was also willing to allow Burnside to proceed, but the river crossing had to be “nearly free from risk,” and Lee must not be allowed to fall back into the Richmond defenses before his army could be destroyed. Lincoln and Burnside then returned to Washington, where the president outlined an alternate strategy to both Burnside and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:
- A second force raised from the Federals defending Washington would assemble on the south bank of the Rappahannock at Port Royal, about 30 miles downriver from Burnside.
- A third force would move via transports up the York River to the Pamunkey River and debark in Lee’s rear.
- Burnside’s army would then advance on Lee with support from the other two forces. If “Gen. B. succeeds in driving the enemy from Fredericksburg, he the enemy no longer has the road to Richmond.”
This three-pronged advance would block Lee’s line of retreat to Richmond, pinning him in Fredericksburg. Lincoln wrote that his plan “was rejected by Gen. Halleck & Gen. Burnside, on the ground that we could not raise and put in position, the Pamunkey force without too much waste of time.” Lincoln then instructed Burnside to use his own judgment regarding the final plan of attack. Burnside began looking to cross his Federals downriver from Fredericksburg at Skinker’s Neck.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps of Lee’s army was on the march, averaging about 20 miles per day. Several men marched barefoot through the snow and ice. Lee, unaware that Jackson was already on his way, wrote him on the 26th: “I desire you to pursue the best route, by easy marches (due to chances of a pre-winter storm), to this place, advising me of your approach so that your march may be hastened, if necessary.”
Lee added what he guessed was Burnside’s plan: “I think the probability is that he will attempt to cross either here or at some other point down the river; in which case it would be desirable that the whole army should be united.” By the end of the 27th, five days after leaving Winchester, Jackson concentrated his forces around Orange Court House.
Two days later, Jackson reported to Lee’s headquarters tent at Hamilton’s Crossing in heavy snow. Jackson announced that his men were on the move, and Lee reiterated prior orders for Jackson to position his men to the right and rear of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps, around Guiney’s Station. This would enable Jackson to reinforce Longstreet, shift to the right, or move further down the Rappahannock as needed.
By month’s end, all remaining pontoons and equipment needed for Burnside’s offensive against Fredericksburg had finally arrived at Falmouth. Burnside now prepared to move his army across the Rappahannock, but the extensive delays had allowed Lee to place Longstreet’s 35,000 Confederates on the high ground behind Fredericksburg, and Jackson’s men were quickly arriving in support.
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