Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, traveled up from Falmouth in northern Virginia to meet with President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck at the War Department. The purpose of the meeting was to continue the strategy session that Burnside and Lincoln had begun the previous day, but with input from Stanton and Halleck this time around. Burnside also wanted to address charges that virtually no one in his army had any faith in his leadership.
Burnside began by handing Lincoln the letter of resignation he had written the previous night. The letter contained allegations that both Stanton and Halleck should also resign due to a lack of public confidence, and Burnside candidly told them so. Lincoln read the letter and then silently handed it back; he was not ready to accept Burnside’s resignation at this time.
Lincoln then told Burnside that two officers (Brigadier Generals John Newton and John Cochrane) had come to Washington to warn that if Burnside’s upcoming offensive ended like it did as Fredericksburg, the Potomac army would be ruined. Burnside angrily demanded to know their names, but Lincoln refused. Burnside stated that the officers should be cashiered from the army for insubordination. Halleck agreed.
Next came the topic of launching another offensive. Burnside, with a command that was still 120,000 strong, wanted approval to start immediately. Lincoln already knew what Burnside was going to present and wanted Stanton and Halleck to give their opinions. But Stanton said that endorsing strategy was beyond his scope, and Halleck said that it was not his responsibility to tell Burnside when and where to move his army. Thus, as Burnside later wrote, “No definite conclusion was come to, during the conference, in reference to the subject of a movement.”
It seemed that the Potomac army and the Lincoln administration were stalemated. The army commander was eager to resume the offensive to make up for the defeat at Fredericksburg, but neither his subordinates nor his superiors seemed confident that he could succeed. Later that day, Lincoln asked Halleck for his professional opinion of Burnside moving the army so quickly after Fredericksburg. Halleck refused, as he had done in the past, on the grounds “that a General in command of an army in the field is the best judge of existing conditions.”
Frustrated, Lincoln asked Halleck to personally inspect Burnside’s army at Falmouth, and added, “If in such a difficulty as this you do not help, you fail me precisely in the point for which I sought your assistance.” He pleaded with Halleck to “gather all the elements for forming a judgment of your own; and then tell Gen. Burnside that you do approve, or that you do not approve his plan. Your military skill is useless to me, if you will not do this.” Stanton handed this letter to Halleck during the New Year’s Day reception at the White House.
Halleck found the letter insulting because it seemed to infer that Lincoln no longer had confidence in him. Halleck returned to his office after the reception and wrote his resignation: “I am led to believe that there is a very important difference of opinion in regard to my relations toward generals commanding armies in the field” which made him unable to do his duty “satisfactorily at the same time to the President and to myself… I therefore respectfully request that I may be relieved from further duties as General-in-Chief.”
Stanton delivered the letter to Lincoln that afternoon. Unwilling to allow any further dissension among his advisors, Lincoln persuaded Halleck to stay on and added a note to his original letter: “Withdrawn, because considered harsh by Gen. Halleck.” But Halleck still refused to give an opinion on Burnside as Lincoln hoped. The president may have averted the resignations of his general-in-chief and his Potomac army commander, but the stalemate continued.
Burnside returned to headquarters, and four days later he wrote his superiors asking for some guidance regarding any upcoming moves. Burnside suggested trying to cross the Rappahannock River again, even though most of his top subordinates still opposed such a move. Burnside also submitted another letter of resignation to both Lincoln and Halleck “to relieve you from all embarrassment in my case.” Burnside wrote:
“I do not ask you to assume any responsibility in reference to the mode or place of crossing, but it seems to me that, in making so hazardous a movement, I should receive some general directions from you as to the advisability of crossing at some point, as you are necessarily well informed of the effect at this time upon other parts of the army of a success or a repulse.”
Lincoln declined Burnside’s resignation again: “I do not yet see how I could profit by changing the command of the Army of the Potomac.” Halleck finally responded to Burnside’s request for guidance on the 7th. Halleck agreed that Burnside should cross the river, but he would offer no specifics as to how it should be done: “The character of the movement… must depend upon circumstances which may change any day and almost any hour.”
Halleck did advise that once Burnside was across the Rappahannock, he should give battle since “our first object was, not Richmond, but the defeat or scattering of Lee’s army.” Halleck warned Burnside to “effect a crossing in a position where we can meet the enemy on favorable or even equal terms… If the enemy should concentrate his forces at the place you have selected for a crossing, make it a feint and try another place… The great object is… to injure him all you can with the least injury to yourself… I can only advise that an attempt be made, and as early as possible.”
Lincoln told Burnside that he agreed with Halleck’s assessment, with assurances that he was not trying to pressure Burnside into moving prematurely. But there was pressure on Burnside, and while many urged him not to move yet, some demanded immediate action. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs wrote Burnside, “I begin to apprehend a catastrophe… Exhaustion steals over the country. Confidence and hope are dying… I begin to doubt the possibility of maintaining the contest beyond the winter, unless the popular heart is encouraged by victory on the Rappahannock.”
Meigs told Burnside, “Rest at Falmouth is death to our nation–is defeat, border warfare, hollow truce, barbarism, ruin for ages, chaos!” In hopes of making up for the disaster at Fredericksburg and restoring army morale, Burnside resolved to defy the traditionally harsh and muddy Virginia winter by pushing his men into another battle.
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