The Attempt Was Not an Error

As northern politicians and the press raged against the Lincoln administration for the recent military disaster at Fredericksburg, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, to the White House for a meeting on December 22.

Burnside had recently submitted his official report on the battle to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. In it, Burnside took full responsibility for the defeat, and he reiterated this to Lincoln during their meeting. He also wrote another letter to Halleck repeating that assertion. Lincoln thanked him for setting the record straight and called him a “real friend.”

Lincoln then drafted a message to the Potomac army, which stated in part, “The foe had learned the strength of an army of citizen soldiers striking for their country, for the cause of orderly government and human rights.” Those who lost their lives at Fredericksburg were hailed as “heroes, dead for Liberty,” and the survivors would continue to “fight the battle of Liberty, not in this land only, but throughout the world.” He added, “All lands have looked to America as the home of freedom, as the refuge of the oppressed. Upon the courage of her sons now depend the hopes of the world, and wherever the story of Fredericksburg is read, will the lovers of Liberty take courage.”

Considering this message too broad for the army, Lincoln penned another that focused more on matters directly affecting the troops. This was read to the officers and men:

“To the Army of the Potomac: I have just read your Commanding General’s preliminary report of the battle of Fredericksburg. Although you were not successful, the attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than an accident. The courage with which you, in an open field, maintained the contest against an entrenched foe, and the consummate skill and success with which you crossed and re-crossed the river, in the face of the enemy, show that you possess all the qualities of a great army, which will yet give victory to the cause of the country and of popular government. Condoling with the mourners of the dead, and sympathizing with the severely wounded, I congratulate you that the number is comparatively so small.

“I tender to you, officers and soldiers, the thanks of the nation.


Meanwhile, the Federal and Confederate armies continued watching each other from across the Rappahannock River, with the Federals in winter quarters at Falmouth and Stafford Heights, and the Confederates at Fredericksburg. Eager to avenge his defeat, Burnside began planning to march his army past the Confederate left (northern) flank, cross the river above Fredericksburg, and get behind the enemy. But he was unaware that some of his generals were conspiring against him.

Major General William B. Franklin, commanding Burnside’s Left Grand Division, teamed with Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, Sixth Corps commander under Franklin, to write a letter to Lincoln. The generals asserted that Burnside’s “plan of campaign which has already been commenced cannot possibly be successful.”

It was no secret that Franklin and Smith had been close friends with former army commander George B. McClellan, and they proposed a new campaign based on McClellan’s failed attempt to move the army up the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers. Under this new plan, the army would move up both banks of the James toward Richmond. With this movement, they argued, “the war will be on a better footing than it now or has any present prospect of being.”

Franklin and Smith explained that they had gone over Burnside’s head out of a sense of duty to provide “suggestions to some other military mind in discussing plans for the future operations of our armies in the east.” Lincoln merely replied, “If you go to James River, a large part of the army must remain on or near the Fredericksburg line, to protect Washington. It is the old difficulty.” The matter was dropped, but this unprofessional breach in military protocol marked the beginning of a widespread revolt against Burnside.

Part of the army’s aversion to Burnside was not his fault because the troops had not gotten over the fact that their beloved McClellan had been removed, and the Fredericksburg disaster only reinforced the notion that only McClellan could lead them to victory. A Michigan officer stated, “Burnside is liked of course, who could not help liking Burnside but they feel as though McClellan was their man.” An Indiana soldier agreed: “McClellan is the man is a great deal more unanimous now than it was before this grand failure.” And Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren declared, “We must have McClellan back with unlimited and unfettered powers. His name is a tower of strength to everyone here.”

As Burnside continued planning a new offensive, many of his top officers were contemplating mutiny.


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
  • Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1996.
  • 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.

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