Category Archives: Virginia

Hooker Reorganizes the Army of the Potomac

February 5, 1863 – Major General Joseph Hooker worked to reorganize and revitalize the demoralized Federal Army of the Potomac.

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Hooker began the main part of his reorganization with General Order No. 6, which declared that former commander Ambrose E. Burnside’s “Grand Division” structure was “impeding rather than facilitating the dispatch of its current business.” He therefore replaced it with a traditional nine-corps organization:

  • Major General John F. Reynolds commanded I Corps
  • Major General Darius N. Couch commanded II Corps
  • Major General Daniel E. Sickles commanded III Corps
  • Major General George G. Meade commanded V Corps
  • Major General John Sedgwick commanded VI Corps
  • Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith commanded IX Corps
  • Major General Franz Sigel commanded XI Corps
  • Major General Henry W. Slocum commanded XII Corps
  • Major General George Stoneman commanded the new Cavalry Corps

IV Corps was stationed at Fort Monroe, on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers, detached from the Army of the Potomac. The VII, VIII, and X corps were also detached. Hooker arranged for IX Corps, which had been Burnside’s, to be transferred to Fort Monroe along with IV Corps. He also arranged for Smith to command that corps, knowing that Smith had been one of the conspirators against Burnside and not wanting him around to conspire against himself (Hooker).

For the first time, the army’s cavalry would be combined into a single unit; previously it had been scattered among the various divisions, brigades, and regiments, making it difficult for commanders to concentrate their horsemen against the swarming Confederate troopers. Hooker envisioned using Stoneman just as Robert E. Lee used Jeb Stuart in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Hooker did the opposite for the artillery, dispersing the batteries throughout the corps, divisions, and brigades as needed.

Hooker’s new chief of staff was General Daniel Butterfield, who had composed the song “Taps,” by slightly modifying the “Tattoo” composed by General Winfield Scott in 1835. His father had formed the Butterfield Overland Mail Company.

Army morale sank to a new low in early February, as 10 percent of the troops deserted. Hooker worked to change this by improving army sanitation, health care, food, clothing, shelter, and discipline. He cracked down on corruption in the quartermaster’s department, saw to it that soldiers received their back pay, and granted homesick soldiers furloughs.

Hooker also directed all troops to wear badges signifying the corps to which they belonged. This was similar to the “Kearny” patches that General Philip Kearny had his men wear to better identify them during the Peninsula campaign. Each corps had its own badge shape, and the colors indicated the division numbers (i.e., red was the first division of the corps, white was the second, blue was the third, etc.). The badges were sewn onto the men’s caps, and they helped instill a new sense of pride in their fighting units.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 260; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 233; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 262; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 102-03; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 318-19; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 585

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The “Mud March”

January 20, 1863 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside prepared to launch another offensive intended to restore his reputation and revitalize the demoralized Army of the Potomac.

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

Burnside made final preparations for his Federals to move out of Falmouth on the 19th. A recent report stated that General Robert E. Lee had sent Confederate troops to North Carolina and Tennessee, thus weakening his Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. The weather had been unseasonably warm in Virginia, making the roads dry and the river fordable. If Burnside was to atone for the disaster at Fredericksburg, now was the time.

While his superiors at Washington were cautiously optimistic, 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.”

Major General William B. Franklin, one of Burnside’s Grand Division commanders, loudly opposed the plan, along with his subordinate, General William “Baldy” Smith. Franklin and Smith argued that Lee’s army had not been weakened enough to be defeated, especially by the dispirited men in this army. An artillery colonel claimed that Franklin “has talked so much and so loudly to this effect that he has completely demoralized his whole command.”

The plan called for the two Grand Divisions under Franklin and Major General Joseph Hooker to march 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 the place of Franklin and Hooker 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.

As the Federal troops prepared to move on the morning of the 20th, their officers read them a general order from Burnside:

“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.” They 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.

Rain began falling late that afternoon, which fell heavier as the night went on. A strong, icy wind blew in, and the previously beautiful weather quickly gave way to a harsh winter storm. 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.” The rain turned to snow farther north, blanketing Washington.

The rain continued into the next morning, and the roads were turning into quagmires. In some places, soldiers sank knee-deep in mud. Artillery wagons sank to their axles, as teams of men and horses struggled to pull them out. Many horses and mules died of exhaustion as the pontoon train fell two miles behind the army. The troops could advance no further until the pontoons could be brought to the front.

The Federal “mud march” | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Pickett’s Confederates could see the Federals struggling across the river. They jeered their counterparts and held up signs reading, “This Way to Richmond,” and “Yanks, If You Can’t Place Your Pontoons Yourself, We Will Send Help.” The day ended with the Federal army hopelessly tangled and neutralized in the rain and muck. An officer wrote:

“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. The next day, Burnside tried lifting morale by issuing whiskey, but this only led to arguing and brawling among the frustrated, exhausted men.

Burnside finally saw he could advance no further in these conditions and, around noon on the 22nd, 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. The “mud march” ended in miserable failure, dropping the already low Federal morale even lower.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 123-25; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cullen, Joseph P., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 97-98; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 256-57; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8691-8701; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 128-30; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 255-57; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5241; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 93, 95-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 312-14; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 583-84; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 184

Burnside Plans a New Offensive

January 15, 1863 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside moved forward with plans to launch another offensive in northern Virginia, despite reservations by his officers and men.

By mid-January, morale had sunk to an all-time low in the Army of the Potomac. Soldiers huddled in their freezing camps at Falmouth, 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, especially Burnside, and desertions soared.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Despite this, Burnside still insisted on resuming the offensive as soon as possible. He personally reconnoitered the area around Falmouth to determine where best to advance his army. 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.

Burnside resolved to advance north and cross the Rappahannock River at Banks and United States fords. The army would then turn south, moving along the Rappahannock, and attack Lee’s left flank. Burnside dispatched troops on the 15th 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 this was another disaster in the making. On the 17th, the day before the movement was scheduled to begin, Sumner protested the move to Burnside. Sumner doubted the roads would be ready by the 19th, the day the army would reach them. Franklin voiced an even stronger doubt, declaring that there was no way the roads could be ready so soon.

When Sumner asked for a written assurance 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, cavalrymen 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 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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Army of the Potomac: Burnside Meets with Lincoln

January 1, 1863 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss future military strategy and criticism of his generalship.

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

Burnside traveled up from Falmouth and met with Lincoln at the White House early on New Year’s Day. With his Army of the Potomac still 120,000 men strong, Burnside wanted to resume the offensive as soon as possible, and he asked Lincoln to explain why he had written that there was “good reason” not to do so.

Lincoln told Burnside that subordinates had complained about his leadership, but he rejected Burnside’s demand to know their names. Burnside then said, “It is my belief that I ought to retire to private life.” Lincoln also rejected this, seemingly emboldening Burnside to allege that several generals in the army lacked the confidence of their men and should be relieved of duty.

Burnside also suggested that General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton should resign because they had not shown “positive and unswerving support in (Lincoln’s) public policy,” or assumed “their full share of the responsibility for that policy.” Lincoln asked for time to consider the matter, and Burnside returned to Falmouth after reiterating his desire to launch another offensive soon.

Lincoln then asked Halleck for his professional opinion on Burnside resuming the offensive so quickly after the defeat at 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 wrote Halleck asking him to personally inspect the Army of the Potomac at Falmouth and provide his opinion on Burnside’s operations. Lincoln 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. 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 him. Halleck returned to his office after the reception and wrote his resignation. Halleck explained that he should resign because “a very important difference of opinion in regard to my relations toward generals commanding armies in the field” made him unable to do his duty “satisfactorily at the same time to the President and to myself.”

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 General Halleck.” But Halleck still refused to render an opinion on Burnside as Lincoln hoped.

Four days later, Burnside wrote Lincoln stating that the army should try to cross the Rappahannock River again, even though most of Burnside’s top subordinates opposed such a move. Burnside also submitted a 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 to accept Burnside’s resignation once more, and on the 7th, Halleck endorsed Burnside’s plan to cross the river, even though the army would be moving in winter. Halleck explained that “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.”

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References

Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8669-91; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 119, 121-23, 127-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 248, 251; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 497-98; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 93-95; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 306-09; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 583-84

Assigning Blame in the Army of the Potomac

December 22, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln sought to clarify responsibility for the defeat at Fredericksburg and console the Army of the Potomac.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

A few days after the battle, members of the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War visited Major General Ambrose E. Burnside at army headquarters in Falmouth, Virginia, to determine what caused such a lopsided defeat. The committee members found that, unlike his predecessor, Burnside accepted full responsibility and had no political aspirations. The members next interviewed Burnside’s Grand Division commanders:

  • Major General Edwin V. Sumner agreed with Burnside’s assessment of the defeat.
  • Major General William B. Franklin said that rumors of the army’s demoralization were unfounded.
  • Major General Joseph Hooker blamed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck for not sending the pontoons fast enough, and he also accused Burnside of incompetence.

Satisfied, the committee sided with the public and the press in blaming the Lincoln administration for the defeat more than Burnside or his commanders. Lincoln wanted to discuss this with Burnside, so he summoned the general to the White House. Burnside reiterated that he was solely responsible for the defeat, and he 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 Army of the Potomac, 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, he 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.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN.”

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 flank, cross the river above Fredericksburg, and get behind the enemy. He requisitioned supplies for a 10-day expedition and issued orders for his men to cook three days’ rations and be ready to march on 12 hours’ notice.

Many officers, believing Burnside to be incompetent, contemplated mutiny. Two officers from Franklin’s Grand Division, Brigadier Generals John Newton and John Cochrane, secretly traveled to Washington to inform Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, chairman of the military committee, that Burnside was planning another offensive. They also wanted to warn Wilson that if it ended in another defeat, the army would crumble in dissension.

Newton and Cochrane arrived on the 29th to learn that Wilson had gone home for the holidays. They instead met with Secretary of State William H. Seward, whom Cochrane knew as a political ally when Cochrane was a U.S. congressman. Seward listened to the men and brought them to Lincoln, where they explained the situation again.

Lincoln, unaware that Burnside was planning another offensive so quickly, was skeptical because of the officers’ political backgrounds. Nevertheless, he wired Burnside, “I have good reason for saying that you must not make a general movement of the army without letting me know.” When Burnside was summoned to Washington to give court-martial testimony, he took the opportunity to personally meet with Lincoln again on New Year’s Day to learn the reason behind Lincoln’s wire.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 246; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8657, 8669; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 117; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 242; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 486; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 93-95; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 298-300, 302-03

The Battle of Fredericksburg: Aftermath

December 14, 1862 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside planned to renew the Federal attacks following yesterday’s terrible defeat, but his subordinates strongly objected.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee strengthened his defenses even more throughout the night and early morning of the 14th. Since yesterday’s charges had been so easily repulsed, Lee feared that another, larger attack was forthcoming. Just after midnight on the 14th, Confederates obtained a dispatch from a captured Federal messenger confirming that Burnside planned to renew the assault.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Burnside wired his superiors at 4 a.m., “I have just returned from the field. Our troops are all over the river. We hold the first ridge outside the town, and 3 miles below. We hope to carry the rest today.” Despite 14 futile charges against Marye’s Heights, Burnside planned to personally lead his old IX Corps in another attack on the position at dawn, with V Corps in support.

Heavy fog covered the field, hiding the thousands of Federal soldiers (either wounded or pinned down by Confederates) still laying in the freezing cold in front of Marye’s Heights. As word of Burnside’s plan circulated, many commanders refused to obey. Major General Edwin V. Sumner pleaded with Burnside to reconsider. Burnside responded by calling a council of war with his three Grand Division commanders (Sumner, Joseph Hooker, and William B. Franklin).

Hooker voiced such strong opposition to this plan that some witnesses considered him insubordinate. Franklin suggested they attack Lee’s extreme right flank as he had previously recommended. Burnside finally agreed to abort his planned assault, but instead of trying to attack at another point on Lee’s line, he would withdraw the Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock River.

Lee had accomplished his initial goal of stopping the Federal drive on Richmond. But when the Federals showed no signs of renewing the contest, Lee tried to coax them into a fight so he could achieve his overall goal of destroying the Federal army. He opened a visible gap in his line that he hoped Burnside would try charging through, but the Federals would not take the bait.

Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson urged Lee to counterattack, and Lee later faced southern criticism for not charging into the demoralized Federals. But the Confederates were still vastly outnumbered, and the Federals were under the protection of massed artillery on Stafford Heights across the river. Moreover, Lee discovered that the Federals had dug entrenchments outside Fredericksburg, which would be very difficult to overtake. A counterattack could have been easily repulsed, or the Federals could have easily withdrawn across the river and dismantled their pontoon bridges before the Confederates could use them.

As the sun set on the 14th, the Federals still living on the ground in front of Marye’s Heights had to endure a second night of exposure to freezing cold. The aurora borealis appeared in the evening sky, which was an unusual sight so far south. Confederates who had never seen them before claimed that the dancing lights represented God celebrating their victory.

The Federal withdrawal back to Falmouth began during the night. Lee granted Burnside’s request for a truce to collect the wounded and bury the dead on the battlefield. Over a thousand Federals lay dead in one square acre in front of Marye’s Heights. Most died in combat, but some died of exposure, having been lying in freezing cold for two days.

Burnside spent most of the 15th consulting with officers on what he should do. He also considered resigning, but Sumner thought that was an overreaction. As news of the defeat reached Washington, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck urged Burnside to hold his ground and renew the attack. But then he relented and told Burnside to use his own discretion. Burnside decided to leave 12,000 men to hold Fredericksburg, but when Hooker informed him that the army could not hold both the town and the pontoon crossings, Burnside pulled all his men out of Fredericksburg.

The Army of the Potomac returned to Falmouth by the night of the 15th, crossing the river in a terrible thunderstorm. The Federals were humiliated and demoralized by their latest defeat. Many officers and men openly questioned not only Burnside’s judgment but his competence. Hooker became the most vocal of Burnside’s critics in the army by openly denouncing his leadership.

Confederate Major General D.H. Hill informed Lee that the Federals had escaped. The Confederates did not celebrate their victory; they only wondered whether they let an opportunity slip away. Lee did not pursue the retreating enemy. He and most southerners knew that the Federals would soon regroup and reequip themselves for another drive against Lee’s army and Richmond.

The Confederates entered Fredericksburg on the 16th and were horrified to see that the entire town had been looted and pillaged. Even some Federals wrote home complaining about their comrades’ behavior. Lee and Jackson expressed outrage, with Lee writing:

“Yesterday evening I had my suspicions that they might retire during the night, but could not believe they would relinquish their purpose after all their boasting & preparations, & when I say the latter is equal to the former, you will have some idea of its magnitude. This morning they were all safe on the north side of the Rappahannock. Those people delight to destroy the weak & those who can make no defense; it just suits them.”

Some Confederate soldiers organized a relief fund for those who lost their homes and belongings at the hands of the Federal marauders. The Federals took up winter quarters at Falmouth and on Stafford Heights. They stripped the region of its vegetation and wood, making it a wasteland for many years after the war.

Although Lee faced some criticism for refusing to pursue the Federals, most southerners celebrated the Battle of Fredericksburg as a tremendous victory. The Richmond Examiner proclaimed a “stunning defeat to the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil.” The Charleston Mercury wrote that “General Lee knows his business and the army has yet known no such word as fail.”

Conversely, northerners were horrified to learn of this disaster. The Cincinnati Commercial stated, “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day.” Federal soldiers had displayed tremendous bravery for no gain, leading officers and soldiers to openly question Burnside’s decisions.

In Burnside’s report to Halleck, he complained about the late arrival of the pontoons but ultimately accepted full blame for the disaster:

“The fact that I decided to move from Warrenton onto this line, rather against the opinion of the President, Secretary of War, and yourself, and that you left the whole movement in my hands without giving me orders, makes me responsible.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 337-38; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 87-88; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 266; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 58-61; Cullen, Joseph P., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 287; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17718; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 242-43; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 40-45; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 240; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5194-5207; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63-91; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 111-12; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 296-97; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 573; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 545; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 288-90

The Battle of Fredericksburg

December 13, 1862 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside launched a doomed Federal assault on General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate defenses south and west of Fredericksburg.

By this date, the two corps of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia held a line seven miles long on high ground overlooking the town. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps held the Confederate left, west of town, which included Marye’s Heights, a sunken road, and a stone wall. Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps held the Confederate right, south of town, which included Prospect Hill and other ridges. Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry covered Jackson’s right flank.

Burnside ordered Major General William B. Franklin to lead his Grand Division in an attack on Jackson’s positions before dawn, using the darkness to hide their advance across the open plain. Major General Joseph Hooker’s Grand Division would come up in support. Burnside expected Franklin’s assault to force Longstreet to reinforce Jackson, thus leaving the Confederate left vulnerable. Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Grand Division was to exploit this weakness by attacking Longstreet’s positions.

Franklin’s pre-dawn assault did not happen because Franklin did not receive the order until after sunrise. By that time, Burnside had changed the plan so that Hooker would support Sumner and not Franklin. The early morning fog lifted around 10 a.m., and artillery opened on both sides before Franklin’s Federals marched toward the hills south of Fredericksburg.

The Federals advanced on the Old Richmond Stage road and onto the plain to attack Jackson’s defenders at Hamilton’s Crossing. The fighting intensified and the Confederate line wavered, but Jackson assured an aide, “My men have sometimes failed to take a position, but to defend one–never.”

On the Confederate right, Stuart announced that he was “going to crowd ‘em with artillery.” Major John Pelham, Stuart’s promising young artillery chief, expertly placed his cannons so their fire enfiladed the Federals’ left and stalled their advance for nearly two hours. Lee complimented Pelham, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.”

Around 1 p.m., Major General George G. Meade’s Federal division broke through the enemy line and separated two brigades in thick woods; Confederate Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg was killed and his South Carolinians routed during the action. However, Franklin did not send reinforcements to follow up his advantage; of the two corps under his command, a division of I Corps and the entire VI Corps did not get into the fight at all.

Meanwhile, Confederates under Generals Jubal Early and William Taliaferro hurried forward to knock the Federals back and shore up the line. More Confederates under Major General D.H. Hill also hurried from their positions further south along the Rappahannock to reinforce Jackson. Fighting ended when the Confederates finally pushed the Federals back to their original positions.

A mile northwest, Sumner’s II and IX corps began moving west out of Fredericksburg around noon to attack Longstreet’s corps holding Marye’s Heights and other high ground. The only way to take the enemy positions was to advance across open ground, exposed to the Confederate guns. As the Federals approached, a Confederate artilleryman told Longstreet, “General, a chicken could not live in that field when we open on it.”

The Confederate fire cut down rows of Federal soldiers as they tried coming forward. Survivors struggled for two hours to take the heights before either falling back or seeking cover on the field. Every Federal charge was repelled at a terrible cost of human life. Lee watched the carnage from atop Marye’s Heights and said, “It is well that war is so terrible; we should grow too fond of it.”

Federals charge Marye’s Heights | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Hooker’s III and IV corps began another advance near nightfall, but this was repulsed in a similarly murderous fashion. The Confederates easily fought off 14 assaults, with no Federals coming within 20 yards of their line. When word spread that Burnside might order another attack, many officers announced that they would not obey. Burnside then planned to personally lead one more assault, but his subordinates talked him out of it.

This was the worst defeat ever sustained by the U.S. army, as the Federals lost 12,653 men (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, and 1,769 missing). The Confederates reportedly lost 5,309 men, but this was later adjusted to 4,201 when it was discovered that the figure included over 1,000 soldiers who went home for Christmas just after the battle. Most of the Confederate casualties were sustained in Franklin’s attack. This stunning and decisive Confederate victory solidified the reputation of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as the premier fighting force of the war.

Jackson tried counterattacking near dusk, but Federal artillery on Stafford Heights across the Rappahannock stopped him. The Federal troops in front of Marye’s Heights were pinned down on the battlefield, unable to retreat without being exposed to Confederate sharpshooters above them. Many men remained there overnight with no shelter in the freezing cold. Some froze to death.

Journalist Henry Villard rushed from the battlefield to relay news of the battle to President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Arriving late that night, Villard warned Lincoln that nearly every officer believed the army could be destroyed if the troops were not pulled back across the Rappahannock. Lincoln, not yet aware of the defeat’s magnitude, said, “I hope it is not so bad as all that.”

Lee met with his top commanders that night, and nearly all of them expected Burnside to attack again. Lee telegraphed Richmond at 9 p.m.: “I expect the battle to be renewed at daylight.” Around midnight, this seemed confirmed when Confederates captured one of the Federal messengers delivering Burnside’s order to attack in the morning. Lee hoped to repel these assaults and then launch a counterattack that would destroy the Army of the Potomac once and for all.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 278-79; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 58-61; Cullen, Joseph P., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 287; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17718-27; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 241; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8443-54; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 33-39, 41, 44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 238-39; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5159-71; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 58-59, 66-67, 80, 86-91; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 111-12; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 295-96; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 573; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 543, 546; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 168-74; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 288-90