The Existing State of Despondency and Desperation

News of the Federal disaster at Fredericksburg quickly spread throughout the North, producing shock and horror among the people. The northern press howled with indignation and outrage:

  • Murat Halstead wrote in the Cincinnati Commercial, “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor, or Generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day.”
  • Henry Villard of the New York Tribune stressed “as strongly as possible that the Army of the Potomac had suffered another, great general defeat; that an inexcusable blunder had been made in attempting to overcome the enemy by direct attack.”
  • William Swinton of the New York Times stated, “The Nation will stand aghast at the terrible price which has been paid for its life when the realities of Fredericksburgh are spread before it… and absolutely nothing gained.”

Several members of the Radical-dominated Committee on the Conduct of the War visited the Potomac army at Falmouth and spoke with the top brass. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, army commander, blamed the defeat mainly on the failure of getting the pontoon bridges needed to cross the Rappahannock River in a timely manner. For this he said, “I understood that General (in-Chief Henry W.) Halleck was to give the necessary orders.” Of Burnside’s three grand division commanders:

  • Major General William B. Franklin refused to acknowledge any responsibility for the defeat, despite failing to put his entire command into the fight as Burnside had instructed. He simply said, “I put in all the troops that I thought it proper and prudent to put in.”
  • Major General Edwin V. Sumner said that Burnside had an excellent strategy that was foiled by the pontoon delay.
  • Major General Joseph Hooker said that he had proposed a plan of moving his Federals across United States Ford and getting into the Confederate rear that had been rejected. He also blamed Franklin for not having “swept everything before him… I have understood that a large portion of Franklin’s force was not engaged at all.”

Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler pointed to the fact that the Potomac army never had effective leadership: “We must have men in command of our armies who are anxious to crush the rebellion or it will never be crushed… The truth is the heart of our Generals is not in the work.” But Indiana Congressman George W. Julian had a conversation with Burnside and found another possible impediment to the army’s success:

“General Burnside told me our men did not feel toward the Rebels as they felt toward us, and he assured me that this was the grand obstacle to our success. Our soldiers, he said, were not sufficiently fired by resentment, and he exhorted me, if I could, to breathe into our people at home the same spirit toward our enemies which inspired them toward us.”

The press was reluctant to put too much blame on Burnside because he was still new to his job, he had tried to show aggression where his predecessor had not, and he was generally not hostile to correspondents. Instead they went straight to the top, condemning President Abraham Lincoln and his top subordinates (i.e., Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General-in-Chief Halleck) unmercifully.

The Radicals joined the press in their criticism. Chandler declared, “The fact is that the country is done for unless something is done at once… The President is a weak man, too weak for the occasion, and those fool or traitor generals are wasting time and yet more precious blood in indecisive battles and delays.” Prominent historian George Bancroft called Lincoln “ignorant, self-willed, and is surrounded by men some of whom are as ignorant as himself.”

Lincoln offered his view of the situation of the time: “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”

Joseph Medill, the pro-Radical editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote an editorial that summed up why the public was so irate: “Failure of the army, weight of taxes, depreciation of money, want of cotton… increasing national debt, deaths in the army, no prospect of success, the continued closure of the Mississippi… all combine to produce the existing state of despondency and desperation.”

Medill alleged that the “central imbecility” of the Fredericksburg campaign belonged to Lincoln, who often received bad counsel from cabinet members that were too conservative to effectively wage war against the Confederacy. Medill singled out Secretary of State William H. Seward: “Seward must be got out of the Cabinet. He is Lincoln’s evil genius. He has been President de facto, and has kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose.”

Many Radicals agreed with Medill, based on Seward’s tendency toward moderation in the war effort:

  • He had tried to negotiate with the Confederate envoys during the Fort Sumter crisis before the war.
  • He had opposed supplying the Federals at Fort Sumter.
  • He had consistently backed Major General George B. McClellan despite all his shortcomings.
  • In a recent letter, he had blamed “the extreme advocates of African slavery and its most vehement opponents (i.e., the abolitionists)” for starting and prolonging the war.
  • He had long resisted allowing blacks to take up combat duty in the military.
  • His political benefactor, Thurlow Weed, had worked to defeat Radical Republican James Wadsworth for governor in Seward’s home state of New York.

Wild rumors began circulating that Lincoln would resign, he would reorganize his cabinet, he would reinstate George B. McClellan as a sort of military dictator, and so on. The terrible defeat at Fredericksburg had sparked what was fast becoming the greatest crisis of the Lincoln presidency to date.


  • Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Jackson, Donald Dale, Twenty Million Yankees: The Northern Home Front. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • 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.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

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