Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Potomac had begun moving out of its camps around Falmouth, Virginia, on January 20 to launch a new offensive against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. The plan was to move eastward up the Rappahannock River, cross above the Confederates, and advance on their left flank. The march had begun as planned, but by the end of the day, a steady rain had turned into an icy downpour, and the Federals became bogged down on roads that were quickly turning into impassable mud.
The rain continued into the morning of the 21st. A New York Times reporter noted that “the nature of the upper geologic deposits of this region affords unequaled elements for bad roads.” A soldier in the 63rd Pennsylvania wrote that “the whole country was an ocean of mud, the roads were rivers of deep mire, and the heavy rain had made the ground a vast mortar bed.”
In some places, soldiers sank knee-deep in the Virginia mud. Artillery wagons sank to their axles, as teams of men and horses struggled to pull them out. A soldier recalled:
“The army was accustomed to mud in its varied forms, knee-deep, hub-deep; but to have it so despairingly deep as to check the discordant, unmusical braying of the mules, as if they feared their mouths would fill, to have it so deep that their ears, wafted above the waste of mud, were the only symbol of animal life, were depths to which the army had now descended for the first time.”
Many horses and mules died of exhaustion as the pontoon train fell two miles behind the army. A soldier in the 37th Massachusetts wrote:
“Finally, after we had advanced only two or three miles, we filed into a woods and details were made of men to help pull the wheeled conveyances of the army out of the mire. At this we made very little progress. They seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper, and the rain showed little inclination to cease. Sixteen horses could not move one pontoon with men to help.”
The Times reporter described how multiple teams of horses and mules tried to pull the pontoons from the muck: “It was in vain. Long powerful ropes were then attached to the teams, and 150 men were put to the task on each boat. The effort was but little more successful. They would flounder through the mire for a few feet–the gang of Lilliputians with their huge-ribbed Gulliver–and then give up breathlessly.”
The troops could advance no further until the pontoons could be brought to the front. Many of the men broke down in laughter at the ridiculousness of the situation. A soldier wrote, “Over all the sounds might be heard the dauntless laughter of brave men who summon humor as a reinforcement to their aid and as a brace to their energies.” Another called out to Burnside as he passed (in reference to Burnside’s order for the march), “General, the auspicious moment has arrived.”
The Confederates who had been re-positioned to block the Federal movement were highly entertained at the sight of enemy troops struggling across the river. They laughed and held up makeshift signs reading, “This Way to Richmond,” and “Yanks, If You Can’t Place Your Pontoons Yourself, We Will Send Help.” One sign revealed that the Confederates knew exactly what the Federals were planning: “Burnside and his pontoons stuck in the mud. Move at 1 o’clock, 3 days’ rations in haversacks.”
The day ended with the Federal army hopelessly tangled and neutralized in the rain and muck. An officer recalled the scene:
“An indescribable chaos of pontoons, vehicles, and artillery encumbered all the roads. Supply wagons upset by the roadside, guns stalled in the mud, ammunition trains ruined by the war, and hundreds of horses and mules buried in the liquid mud. The army, in fact, was embargoed; it was no longer a question of how to go forward–it was a question of how to get back.”
The troops bivouacked in the brutal cold that night, as Burnside relentlessly ordered the advance to resume the next morning. The incessant rain had made everything so wet that the troops could not even start fires to cook their dinners.
Things were very different at the headquarters of Major-General William B. Franklin, who had loudly opposed this movement. Visitors stated that Franklin was “in quite a comfortable camp; doing nothing to help things on, but grumbling and talking in a manner to do all the harm possible.” Franklin believed that the storm had prevented another disastrous defeat, and called it “almost a providential interference in our behalf.” Major-General George G. Meade, commanding a division under Franklin, wrote his wife, “I am sorry to say there were many men, and among them generals high in command, who openly rejoiced at the storm and the obstacle it presented.”
The driving rain continued into the 22nd, as the Times reporter described dawn “struggling through an opaque envelope of mist.” He claimed to have ridden past 150 dead horses and mules that morning alone, and added:
“One might fancy that some new geologic cataclysm had overtaken the world, and that he saw around him the elemental wrecks left by another Deluge. An indescribable chaos of pontoons, wagons, and artillery encumbered the road down to the river–supply wagons upset by the roadside–artillery ‘stalled’ in the mud–ammunition trains mired by the way.”
A chaplain in the 24th Michigan recalled, “The scenes on the march defy description. Here a wagon mired and abandoned; there a team of six mules stalled, with the driver hallooing and cursing; dead mules and horses on either hand; ten, twelve, and even twenty-six horses vainly trying to drag a twelve-pounder through the mire.”
Despite all this, Burnside insisted that the movement continue. He tried to lift morale by issuing whiskey rations, but this only led to arguing and fighting, climaxing with a tremendous brawl among the men in a Fifth Corps brigade.
Burnside finally saw he could advance no further in these conditions and, around noon, he ordered the army to return to its original camps at Falmouth. But Burnside issued the order from Aquia Creek, 15 miles away, where he expected to meet with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. The order to fall back did not reach the Grand Division commanders until that night, so the troops had to bivouac in the cold, wet mud one more night before turning back.
The return march proved just as exhausting as the advance, as troops struggled to pull themselves and their animals and equipment out of the deepening muck. A Wisconsin solider compared this miserable winter to Valley Forge in the War for Independence. A soldier in the 3rd Michigan wrote, “I never knew so much discontent in the army before. A great many say that they ‘don’t care whether school keeps or not,’ for they think there is a destructive fate hovering over our army.” The “mud march” ended in miserable failure, dropping the already low Federal morale even lower.
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