Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside was preparing to move his Federal Army of the Potomac out of its camps around Falmouth, Virginia. Many of his subordinates opposed his plan to mount a winter offensive, but the weather had been balmy and dry, well suited for a march. Plus, Burnside was recently informed that General Robert E. Lee had sent Confederate troops to North Carolina and Tennessee, thus weakening his Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. With the good weather, a weakened enemy, and a fordable Rappahannock River, it seemed time for Burnside to atone for his defeat in December.
The plan for called two Grand Divisions under Major-Generals William B. Franklin and Joseph Hooker to move north and cross the Rappahannock at the fords above Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Major-General Edwin V. Sumner’s Grand Division would feint toward Fredericksburg as a diversion, and Major-General Franz Sigel’s reserve Grand Division would take Franklin’s and Hooker’s positions on the original line. After crossing the river, Franklin and Hooker would move south against the Confederates’ left flank and force them into an open fight.
It was a sound plan, and Burnside’s superiors at Washington were cautiously optimistic that it would succeed. But most of Burnside’s subordinates believed this operation would fail miserably. An officer wrote, “The general demoralization that had come upon us made two or three months of rest a necessity,” and he “came to the conclusion that Burnside was fast losing his mind.”
Franklin and one of his top subordinates, Major-General William F. “Baldy” Smith, were very vocal in their opposition to Burnside’s plan. They argued that Lee’s army had not been weakened enough to be defeated considering how dispirited the Federal army was. An officer wrote that Franklin’s staff “and Smith’s are talking outrageously, only repeating though, no doubt, the words of their generals… Franklin has talked so much and so loudly to this effect ever since the present move was decided on, that he has completely demoralized his whole command, and so rendered failure doubly sure. His conduct is such that he certainly deserves to be broken. Smith and they say Hooker are almost as bad.”
Burnside rejected pleas from Franklin and Smith to call off the advance. On the morning of January 20, a general order was read to the men of the Potomac army:
“The commanding general announces to the Army of the Potomac that they are about to meet the enemy once more. The movements of our troops in N.C. and the Southwest had drawn off and divided the Rebel forces on the Rappahannock. The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country… a fame the most glorious awaits.”
Burnside urged “the firm and united action of officers and men, and, under the providence of God, the Army of the Potomac will have taken a great step toward restoring peace to the country and the Government to its rightful authority.”
Around 11 a.m., the Grand Divisions of Hooker and Franklin formed into columns and headed out of Falmouth as bands played “Yankee Doodle.” But the men were not inspired, as the officer who had been with Franklin the previous night noted that “the disaffection produced by Franklin’s and others’ talk was very evident. The whole army seems to know what they have said, and their speeches condemning the move were in the mouths of everyone.” The Federals marched up the north bank of the Rappahannock, arriving near Banks Ford that night. They would use pontoons to cross the Rappahannock at points above and below the ford the next day.
Meanwhile, the Confederates had conducted a two-day inspection and reported to Lee that Burnside would likely move upriver and try attacking their left. Lee dispatched a division from Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s corps under Major-General George Pickett to occupy positions around Salem Church. These overlooked the fords and enabled the Confederates to oppose a crossing.
January had been warm and dry so far, but rain began falling late that afternoon. It started light but then turned heavier as night fell. Then a strong, icy wind blew in, and the unseasonably balmy weather had given way to a brutal winter storm. The men bivouacked for the night in pup tents and struggled to keep warm and dry. A Pennsylvania soldier wrote that “it rained as if the world was coming to an end.” Burnside later said, “From that moment we felt that the winter campaign had ended.”
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