Fredericksburg: Federals in Motion

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, continued to strengthen his defenses outside Fredericksburg in northeastern Virginia. This included building a road to connect all the troops on the various hills overlooking the town and installing telegraphic communications. President Jefferson Davis wrote Lee, “You will know best when it will be proper to make a masked movement to the rear, should circumstances require you to move nearer to Richmond.”

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, announced to his subordinates that the army would cross the Rappahannock River and seize Fredericksburg on December 11. He directed commanders to distribute three days’ rations for the troops and horses, and 60 rounds of ammunition to each man. Several generals expressed doubt that Burnside’s plan–which amounted to a head-on drive into the town while the Confederates held the high ground behind it–would succeed.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit:

On the 9th, Burnside called a meeting with Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commanding the Right Grand Division, and Sumner’s corps and division commanders, because they had been the most critical about the plan. Many objected to the idea of crossing a river in the face of the enemy, entering a hostile town, and then charging up steep hills to attack defenses. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding a division, was particularly vocal.

Burnside singled out Hancock for his criticisms and demanded obedience. Hancock explained that his dissent was not personal and pledged to obey Burnside’s orders to the death. Hancock’s commander, Major General Darius N. Couch, then declared that he would put forth twice the effort he had ever given in combat before. Major General William French, commanding another division in Couch’s corps, broke the tension with some light humor.

Burnside reiterated that he had not wanted to be army commander, and he explained that there was more to the plan than simply storming into the town and up the hills. Federal gunboats were firing on Confederates at Port Royal while Federal troops built a false road to Skinker’s Neck to deceive the Confederates into thinking they would cross there. All commanders agreed to do their duty as ordered.

Many troops in the Potomac army were still hopeful that Major General George B. McClellan would be reinstated and find a way to lead them to victory. On the night of the 9th, troops of a New England regiment received their orders and then gathered to offer a toast “To the health of Little Mac!”

Officers confirmed that everything was ready for the advance. Federal infantry units began shuffling, guns started shifting, and an enormous Federal supply train assembled on Stafford Heights, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, ready to cross with the army and supply the men once they secured the town and drove the Confederates off. Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the corps in Lee’s army behind Fredericksburg, recalled:

“The stir and excitement about the enemy’s camps on the 10th of December, as well as the reports of scouts, gave notice that important movements were pending. Notice was given the commands, and the batteries were ordered to have their animals in harness an hour before daylight of the next morning, and to continue to hitch up daily at that hour until further orders.”

A lady from Falmouth relayed to the Confederates that the Federals were collecting large quantities of rations and ammunition, indicating that they would be moving very soon. The Confederates placed artillery on the hills beyond Fredericksburg, and sharpshooters came up to fire on the engineers as soon as they started building the pontoon bridges. Lee’s telegraph network could relay orders to move his men to wherever needed.

That night, a Federal band set up on the banks of the Rappahannock and played music for both armies. Songs included “Hail, Columbia,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Yankee Doodle,” and even “Dixie.”


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