A New Offensive for a Demoralized Army

By mid-January, morale had sunk to an all-time low in the Federal Army of the Potomac. Soldiers huddled in their freezing camps around Falmouth, Virginia, as rampant sickness from the bitter cold and poor sanitation added to the general depression afflicting the rank and file. Some men had not been paid in months due to paymaster inefficiency. Most had no confidence in their superiors, and desertions soared.

Among these desertions was an alarming number of officers. A Senate report alleged that over 400 commissioned officers in the Potomac army were absent without leave. According to Captain John T. Boyle of the 96th Pennsylvania, “The men have caught the infection from the officers and seem to have lost much of their fire and energy.” Brigadier-General Carl Schurz reported that “the spirit of the men is systematically broken by officers high in command.” These desertions were making “this great army melt away with frightful rapidity.”

Those who did not desert were deprived of basic necessities because corrupt quartermasters were getting rich by selling commissary goods on the side. Those needing medical care were subjected to filthy hospitals that were not adequately equipped or heated. A War Department official reported, “I do not believe I have ever seen greater misery from sickness than now exists in our Army of the Potomac.”

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Despite this, Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the army, still insisted on resuming the offensive as soon as possible. He personally reconnoitered the area around Falmouth to determine where best to advance. President Abraham Lincoln had been reluctant to allow him to put the troops in motion so soon after the defeat at Fredericksburg, but intelligence indicated that General Robert E. Lee had sent some of his Confederate troops to North Carolina and to General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, making the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg vulnerable to a renewed attack.

In reality, Lee moved some of his troops to United States Ford, which he expected Burnside to use to cross the Rappahannock River and move around the Confederates’ left flank. Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, commanding one of Lee’s two corps, wrote, “I am almost convinced that the enemy will not make another effort against our line before spring. The relative condition of the two armies would not warrant any such effort on his part. Our line is stronger now than it was when he advanced before.” Longstreet asserted that Burnside “cannot be as strong in numbers, and he must be exceedingly weak in morale.” Once United States Ford was guarded, “we will be secure against attack.”

While Longstreet was correct in assessing Federal morale, he was mistaken if he thought that Burnside would stay put until spring. Burnside resolved to move north and cross the Rappahannock at both Banks and United States fords. The army would then turn south, moving along the riverbank, and attack Lee’s left flank. Burnside dispatched troops on January 15 to begin building corduroy roads strong enough to haul the artillery and other equipment needed to sustain a 120,000-man army.

The plan called for Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Grand Division to divert the Confederates’ attention by threatening to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and attack that town once more. Meanwhile, the other two Grand Divisions under Major Generals Joseph Hooker and William B. Franklin would move north and cross the Rappahannock at the two fords as soon as the corduroy roads were ready.

Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck approved the plan, leaving the specifics on how to execute it to Burnside. But most army officers believed that this was another disaster in the making. On the 17th, the day before the movement was scheduled to begin, Sumner told Burnside that he opposed the move because he doubted the roads would be ready by the 19th, the day the army would reach them. Franklin voiced even stronger doubts, declaring that there was no way the roads could be ready so soon.

When Sumner asked for a written assurance that they would be ready, Burnside agreed to postpone the launch for a day. Sumner and Franklin then questioned the viability of the fords, which Burnside had personally scouted. Burnside proceeded regardless, directing Provost Marshal Marsena Patrick to strengthen guard units in the camps, “In view of the alarming frequency of desertion from this army of late.”

During the march, cavalry troopers would ride along the infantry columns to ensure that nobody dropped out. The troopers were to “drive up every loiterer, straggler, and skulker to his company, or placing him under guard.” Once combat operations began, the provost marshals were to stay out of enemy fire range but stay close enough so that “stragglers and skulkers may be gathered and forced to return to their regiments.”

Burnside then dispatched cavalrymen to scout the marching route and determine whether the Confederates had any idea of what the Federals were planning. On the 18th, cavalry commander Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton informed Burnside, “My pickets at United States Ford report the enemy throwing up a great many rockets at that place last night, also the moving of their artillery wagons nearly the whole night, evidently expecting a move on our part.”

United States Ford had been the focal point of Burnside’s plan because it would allow the Federals to land on the Confederate flank. The only alternative was Banks Ford, which would place the Federals in between the Confederates rather than on their flank. The Grand Division commanders opposed using Banks Ford, prompting Burnside to change his plan: “If any movement is made in the direction of United States Ford, it will be simply a feint, with a view to an actual move in another direction.”

Burnside offered no specifics on what “another direction” would be. He ordered the troops to discard their knapsacks, and then instructed the commanders receiving this order, after passing it along, to “please make this entirely confidential, and burn it.” Burnside then postponed the advance for another day.


  • Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1996.

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