Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Potomac was positioned around Falmouth and Stafford Heights, across the Rappahannock River from the key Virginia town of Fredericksburg. Burnside’s advance had been delayed due to a lack of pontoon bridges that he needed to cross the river. This enabled General Robert E. Lee to hurry his Confederates into strong defensive positions south and west of Fredericksburg.
Lee now had his entire Army of Northern Virginia at his disposal. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps was formed in the heights west of Fredericksburg, with Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps massing to Longstreet’s right, south of town. Jackson’s men had endured one of the most grueling marches of the war, moving 175 miles from Winchester to Fredericksburg in 12 days. Many men lacked adequate clothing or footwear; one in six were barefoot. Nevertheless, morale in the Confederate army was high.
Jackson was not happy with the army’s positioning. He told Lee that while the Confederates could easily repel the Federals when they tried to cross the Rappahannock, nothing could be gained from such a victory. The Confederates could not counterattack from where they were, while the Federals could regroup and attack again and again. As Jackson told Major General D.H. Hill, one of his division commanders, “We will whip the enemy but gain no fruits of victory.”
Jackson urged Lee to move the army to the North Anna River, where they had a better chance to counterattack. Lee declined, telling Jackson that merely stopping Burnside’s superior army would be enough of a victory for now. He had 78,511 officers and men to face Burnside’s 116,683 Federals across the Rappahannock. With nearly 200,000 total men available for deployment, this threatened to become the largest confrontation of the war to date.
Fredericksburg residents who had not already left town began rushing to do so. They packed the trains to Richmond and sent their slaves farther south to prevent escape or Federal confiscation.
Now that the element of surprise was lost, Burnside was looking for other places to cross the Rappahannock besides a head-on crossing against the main Confederate army at Fredericksburg. He called his top commanders together and announced that they would cross at Skinker’s Neck, about 15 miles downstream. Burnside contended that the Confederate line was not long enough to guard that ford, and if the Federals could secure it, they could set up a supply base at Port Royal and enjoy gunboat support from the Potomac Flotilla.
All commanders except Major General Joseph Hooker supported Burnside’s new plan. Hooker had been going over Burnside’s head to complain about his strategy to Washington. He did so again, this time telling Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that if he had been allowed to cross his grand division at United States Ford, above Fredericksburg, when he first proposed it, the Federals would not be dealing with “the embarrassments arising from the passage of that river, the greatest obstacle between this and Richmond.”
Burnside issued orders for the plan to proceed, unaware that Jackson’s arrival meant that the Confederate line was now extended all the way to Port Royal, some five miles farther downstream from Skinker’s Neck. D.H. Hill’s men held this sector, positioned in rifle pits supported by artillery to stop gunboats from moving upriver to aid the Federal army. Gunboats trying to enter these waters were driven back on December 4. That same day, Federals reconnoitering both Skinker’s Neck and Port Royal skirmished with the Confederates and discovered that a river crossing in this sector was no longer practical.
Federal infantry moved out on the morning of the 5th, marching through rain that turned to a driving sleet and snow. As they struggled to advance through the freezing winds, Burnside finally realized that the Confederate line now extended from Fredericksburg to Port Royal. He now saw that he had no choice but to cross the river directly in front of Fredericksburg in the hopes that Lee would not expect such a bold move.
Burnside’s grand division commanders (Major Generals Hooker, Edwin V. Sumner, and William B. Franklin) received orders on the 9th to supply their men with three days’ cooked rations and 60 rounds of ammunition. The pontoons would be brought up, and engineers would build six bridges across the river on the 11th. The troops would then cross, landing in front of and below Fredericksburg. They were not to stop to aid wounded comrades. Musicians were to be armed as well.
Burnside explained the plan to his commanders at a 12 p.m. council of war. He said that since Confederates were lined up all the way to Port Royal, Lee must have divided his forces, leaving him vulnerable at Fredericksburg. Burnside believed the town could be taken because Lee “did not expect us to cross here.” Once the Federals crossed the river, they could defeat the small portion of Lee’s army outside the town and then turn to defeat what Burnside thought was the main Confederate force downriver.
The commanders had reservations, but Burnside declared that “all the influence on the face of the earth” would not change his mind. They all finally agreed to the plan after five hours of discussion. When the grand division commanders imparted the orders to their subordinates, many openly questioned the plan. Major General Darius N. Couch told Sumner that it would not work, and when Burnside learned of this, he directed Sumner to “say to General Couch that he is mistaken.” Sumner passed it on along with an admonition: “Your duty is not to throw cold water, but to aid me loyally with advice and hearty service.”
Burnside wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck late that night: “I think now that the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than in any other part of the river. The commanders of Grand Divisions coincide with me in this opinion, and I have accordingly ordered the movement…We hope to succeed.” Burnside also sought President Abraham Lincoln’s endorsement, writing Halleck, “The movement is so important that I feel anxious to be fortified by his approval. Please answer.” Lincoln did not respond.
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