Category Archives: Virginia

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.

—–

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

Advertisements

Fredericksburg: Federals Cross the Rappahannock

December 12, 1862 – The Federal Army of the Potomac crossed pontoon bridges and looted Fredericksburg, while the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia awaited the enemy’s advance from the heights west of town.

Federal teamsters began building the pontoon bridges at 2 a.m. on the 11th. The plan was to lay six bridges in three pairs, with one pair north of Fredericksburg, one south, and one farther downstream. This had to be done by mooring flat-bottomed boats in a line and securing pontoons on top of them across the freezing 400-foot-wide Rappahannock River.

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

General John Bell Hood’s Confederates contested bridge construction downstream, but Federal artillery drove them off. These bridges were completed by 11 a.m., to be used by Major General William B. Franklin’s Grand Division. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Federal army, had ordered Franklin earlier, “After your command has crossed, you will move down the Old Richmond Road, in the direction of the railroad, being governed by circumstances as to the extent of your movements.”

When Franklin informed headquarters that the bridges had been built, Burnside seemingly contradicted himself by ordering him to stay put and await further orders. Burnside did not order Franklin to begin crossing until 4 p.m., five hours after the bridges were ready. By that time, Franklin’s troops could have easily been across the river and ready to confront the Confederates.

Meanwhile, General Henry Hunt, commanding the Federal artillery, positioned 147 guns on Stafford Heights to protect the engineers as they worked on the four bridges in front of Fredericksburg. Heavy fog initially hid the workers, but the Confederates finally realized what was happening and fired artillery rounds from Marye’s Heights at 4:45 a.m. to signal that the enemy was forcing a river crossing.

Sharpshooters from General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade hurried into position to fire on the pontoniers once they came within range. The Confederates took up positions in rifle pits, houses, and brick buildings along the riverside to stop the four crossings north and south of Fredericksburg.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, watched the action from a ridge that became known as Lee’s Hill. The rising sun enabled the Confederates to see the bridge workers through the fog and drive them off under fire. The workers then returned to the bridges under Federal covering fire. Three more times the Confederates drove them off, and they came back after each time.

As the fog lifted around 10 a.m., Burnside ordered the artillerists on Stafford Heights to bombard Fredericksburg. The guns hurled 5,000 rounds into the town in two hours, demolishing buildings, churches, and houses, and setting much of Fredericksburg on fire.

A correspondent witnessing the action wrote that “the earth shook beneath the terrific explosions of the shells, which went howling over the river, crashing into houses, battering down walls, splintering doors, ripping up floors.” Civilians who had not already evacuated hurried out of town; many left their homes in ruins. Some who could not flee huddled in cellars or any other shelter they could find.

Following the bombardment, the Confederate sharpshooters returned and continued firing on the teamsters. Federal troops from three regiments finally crossed in boats and drove the Confederates out of town, fighting from block to block, street to street, and house to house. The first bridge was finally completed by 4:30 p.m., allowing more Federal troops to cross and join the fray. The Confederates put up a fight before falling back to their defenses on the hills west of Fredericksburg around 7 p.m.

Barksdale’s Confederates had held the Federals off for over 15 hours, stopping nine attempts to span the river. This gave Lee more than enough time to finalize preparations to defend against the general Federal advance coming soon. Lee directed two of Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s nearby divisions to move closer to Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps on the ridges west of town.

Burnside remained unaware that four of his six crossings were at the Confederates’ strongest point. He received information from scouts in observation balloons that the Confederates downriver were making no effort to reinforce those at Fredericksburg. This convinced Burnside that the Confederate defenses outside town were weak and emboldened him to spend another day organizing his forces for an attack.

As his Grand Divisions began crossing the river and entering Fredericksburg, one soldier wondered aloud why it had been so easy getting into the town. Another replied, “They want to get us in. Getting out won’t be quite so smart and easy. You’ll see if it will.”

The Left and Right Grand Divisions under Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner and Franklin continued crossing the Rappahannock on the morning of the 12th. They took up positions both in and southeast of town. The area was shrouded in heavy fog until around noon, making it too late for Burnside to launch his attack. He instead spent the day planning to attack tomorrow. Both sides exchanged sporadic artillery fire.

Federal troops looted what was left of Fredericksburg, taking artwork, furniture, pianos, china, jewelry, and anything else they could find. They vandalized nearly every private residence and destroyed whatever they did not want. This marked the first instance of urban warfare in America, and the first time an American town had been looted since the British plundered Washington in the War of 1812. A correspondent from the New York Tribune wrote of the spectacle:

“We destroyed by fire nearly two whole squares of buildings, chiefly used for business purposes, together with the fine residences of O. McDowell, Dr. Smith, J.H. Kelly, A.S. Cott, William Slaughter, and many other smaller dwellings. Every store, I think, without exception, was pillaged of every valuable article. A fine drug-store, which would not have looked badly on Broadway, was literally one mass of broken glass and jars.”

Most officers seemed unable or unwilling to stop the destruction. Some even joined in the ransacking with their men. Only Major General Darius N. Couch, commanding II Corps, posted guards at the bridges to stop troops from trying to bring their loot back across the river to their camps.

Lee called on Jackson’s last two divisions at Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck to come support the rest of the army outside Fredericksburg. Longstreet held Marye’s Heights with his corps, which covered five miles. To his right, Jackson’s corps took positions on Prospect Hill and along the wooded ridges south of town. A swampy region caused a 1,000-yard gap in Jackson’s line, but the Confederates did not expect the Federals to test it.

The Confederate line stretched seven miles. Lee’s ranks had swelled to over 75,000 effectives in nine divisions grouped into two corps (five in one and four in another), along with 275 guns. Lee said, “I shall try to do them all the damage in our power when they move forward.”

Burnside set up headquarters in Chatham Mansion, where Lee had courted his future wife 30 years before. Burnside next inspected Sumner’s lines, which faced Longstreet, and then Franklin’s, which faced Jackson. Franklin persuaded Burnside to begin the attack in his front because the Confederates seemed weakest at that point. Part of Major General Joseph Hooker’s Grand Division, which was still crossing the river, would reinforce Franklin.

By nightfall, Burnside had nearly 120,000 effectives in three Grand Divisions of two corps each, and three divisions within each corps; he also had 312 guns. He planned to attack at dawn.

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 87; 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; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17663; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 240; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 21-22, 26-30; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 237-38; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5030-63; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51-58; 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. 294-95; 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. 571; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 539-40, 548; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 169; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 288-90

Fredericksburg: Confederates Strengthen Defenses

December 2, 1862 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside proposed a plan to move his Federal Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River, while General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia continued strengthening its defenses west of Fredericksburg.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As December began, Lee now had his entire army at his disposal, with Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps massing to Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s right. Jackson’s men had endured one of the most grueling marches of the war, moving 175 miles from Winchester to Fredericksburg in 12 days. Many men lacked adequate clothing or footwear; one in six were barefoot. Nevertheless, morale in the Confederate army was high.

Jackson complained about the army’s position to Lee. He argued that while the Confederates could easily repel the Federals when they tried crossing the river, nothing could be gained from such a victory. The Confederates could not counterattack from where they were, leaving them in a purely defensive posture while the Federals could regroup and try attacking again and again. As Jackson told Major General D.H. Hill, “We will whip the enemy but gain no fruits of victory.”

Lee rejected Jackson’s urgings to move to the North Anna River, where they had a better chance to counterattack. Lee reasoned that merely stopping Burnside’s superior army would be enough of a victory for the time being. He had 78,511 officers and men to face Burnside’s 116,683 Federals across the Rappahannock. This threatened to become the largest confrontation of the war to date.

Fredericksburg residents who had not already left town began rushing to do so. They took trains to Richmond and sent their slaves farther south to prevent either escape or Federal confiscation. On the 4th, skirmishing broke out between Federals and D.H. Hill’s men near Port Royal, about 20 miles downriver (east) from Fredericksburg. This marked the Confederates’ easternmost position.

Burnside met with his top commanders and shared his plan to cross the army at Skinker’s Neck, about 15 miles downstream from Fredericksburg. Burnside contended that the Confederates were not guarding that ford, and if the Federals could secure it, they could set up a supply base at Port Royal and enjoy gunboat support from the Potomac Flotilla. All but Major General Joseph Hooker supported the plan.

Burnside issued orders for the plan to proceed, unaware that Jackson’s corps had arrived and D.H. Hill now held both Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck. Hill’s Confederates waited in rifle pits supported by artillery to stop gunboats from moving upriver to aid the Federal army. The Confederates exchanged fire with the gunboats on the 4th and forced them to withdraw that night.

Federal infantry moved out on the morning of the 5th, marching through rain that turned to sleet and snow. As they struggled to advance through freezing winds, Burnside finally realized that the Confederate line extended from Fredericksburg to Port Royal. He now saw no alternative other than crossing the river directly in front of Fredericksburg in the hopes that Lee would not expect such a bold move.

Burnside’s Grand Division commanders (Major Generals Hooker, Edwin V. Sumner, and William B. Franklin) received orders on the 9th to supply their men with three days’ cooked rations and 60 rounds of ammunition. The pontoons would be brought up, and engineers would build six bridges across the river on the 11th. The troops would then cross, landing in front of and below Fredericksburg. They were not to stop to aid wounded comrades. Musicians were to be armed as well.

Burnside explained the plan to his commanders at a 12 p.m. council of war. He said that since Confederates were lined up all the way to Port Royal, Lee must have divided his forces, leaving him vulnerable at Fredericksburg. Burnside believed the town could be taken because Lee “did not expect us to cross here.” Once the Federals crossed the river, they could defeat the small portion of Lee’s army outside the town and then turn to defeat what Burnside thought was the main Confederate force downriver.

The commanders had reservations, but Burnside declared that “all the influence on the face of the earth” would not change his mind. They all finally agreed to the plan after five hours of discussion. When the Grand Division commanders imparted the orders to their subordinates, many openly questioned the plan. Major General Darius N. Couch told Sumner that it would not work, and when Burnside learned of this, he directed Sumner to “say to General Couch that he is mistaken.”

Burnside wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck late that night:

“I think now that the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than in any other part of the river. The commanders of Grand Divisions coincide with me in this opinion, and I have accordingly ordered the movement… We hope to succeed.”

Burnside sought President Abraham Lincoln’s endorsement, writing Halleck, “The movement is so important that I feel anxious to be fortified by his approval. Please answer.” Lincoln did not respond.

West of Fredericksburg, Lee continued strengthening his defenses. This included building a road to connect all the troops on the various hills overlooking the town and installing telegraphic communications. President Jefferson Davis wrote Lee, “You will know best when it will be proper to make a masked movement to the rear, should circumstances require you to move nearer to Richmond.”

Burnside called a meeting with Sumner and all his corps and division commanders to confront those who opposed his plan. Many objected to the idea of crossing a river in the face of the enemy, entering a hostile town, and then charging up steep hills to attack defenses. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding a division in Couch’s corps, was particularly vocal.

Burnside singled out Hancock for his criticisms and demanded obedience. Hancock explained that his dissent was not personal and pledged to obey Burnside’s orders to the death. Couch then declared that he would put forth twice the effort he had ever given in combat before. Major General William French, commanding another division in Couch’s corps, broke the tension with some light humor.

Burnside reiterated that he had not wanted to be army commander, but since he was in charge, “Your duty is not to throw cold water, but to aid me loyally with your advice and hearty service.” Burnside explained that there was more to the plan than simply storming into the town and up the hills. Federal gunboats were firing on Confederates at Port Royal while Federal troops built a false road to Skinker’s Neck to deceive the Confederates into thinking they would cross there. All commanders agreed to do their duty as ordered.

Officers confirmed that everything was ready for the advance. An enormous Federal supply train assembled on Stafford Heights, ready to cross with the army and supply the men once they secured the town and drove the Confederates off.

A lady from Falmouth relayed to the Confederates that the Federals were collecting large quantities of rations and ammunition, indicating that they would be moving very soon. The Confederates placed artillery on the hills beyond Fredericksburg, and sharpshooters came up to fire on the engineers as soon as they started building the pontoon bridges. Lee’s telegraph network could relay orders to move his men to wherever needed.

That night, a Federal band set up on the banks of the Rappahannock and played music for both armies. Songs included “Hail, Columbia,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Yankee Doodle,” and even “Dixie.”

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17727; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 237-39; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 782; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 5-6, 25-26; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 234; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5018; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 39-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 292, 294; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 539

Fredericksburg: Pontoons Delayed

November 22, 1862 – Federal Major General Ambrose E. Burnside continued waiting for his pontoons to arrive, while Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate corps hurried east from the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce General Robert E. Lee’s army outside Fredericksburg.

By this time, Lee was wondering why Burnside’s Federals had not yet crossed the Rappahannock and attacked. Burnside grew increasingly frustrated, expecting the pontoons to arrive before the Confederates took up defenses across the river. He notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“Had the pontoon bridge arrived even on the 19th or 20th, the army could have crossed with trifling opposition. But now the opposite side of the river is occupied by a large rebel force under General (James) Longstreet, with batteries ready to be place in position to operate against the working parties building the bridge and the troops in crossing. I deem it my duty to lay these facts before you, and to say that I cannot make the promise of probable success with the faith that I did when I supposed that all the parts of the plan would be carried out… The President said that the movement, in order to be successful, must be made quickly, and I thought the same.”

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

While Longstreet’s corps settled into defenses, Jackson’s 38,000-man corps had been stationed at Winchester, keeping the Federals in constant fear that he might attack Harpers Ferry again or sabotage the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Jackson skirmished with various Federal commands in the area, including a fierce engagement near Shepherdstown on the Potomac River.

Jackson then received a message from Lee stating that he should “remain in the valley as long as you see your presence there cripples and embarrasses the general movement of the enemy, and yet leaves you free to unite with Longstreet for a battle.” On the 22nd, Jackson resolved to pull his men out of their camps and move to join Lee’s main army. As the Confederates mobilized, he told nobody where they were headed, not even Lee.

Back at Fredericksburg, four of Longstreet’s five divisions had arrived, but the force was still too small to stop an all-out Federal thrust across the river. Lee reported to his superiors, “If the enemy attempt to cross the river, I shall resist it, though the ground is favorable to him.” He could only hope to fight a delaying action until Jackson came up on Burnside’s right flank and rear.

Lee knew that since Burnside had advanced this far, he would not turn back without a fight. But he still wondered why Burnside had not yet started the fight. Lee said, “I think, therefore, he will persevere in his present course, and the longer we can delay him, and throw him into the winter, the more difficult will be his undertaking.” By the 23rd, Longstreet’s last division was coming up to take positions on the long wooded ridge behind Fredericksburg. Jackson’s Confederates began arriving the next day.

The second Federal pontoon shipment finally arrived at Belle Plain late on the afternoon of the 24th, after having been shipped from Washington five days ago. When Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, in charge of army pontoons, arrived at Falmouth with the first shipment, Burnside ordered him arrested unless he could provide a “satisfactory explanation” for the delays. Burnside later released him, but the press blamed Woodbury and Halleck for the apparent pontoon mix-up that had caused such a fateful delay.

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

Burnside accused Halleck and administration officials of not being “impressed with the importance of speed.” Halleck told Burnside that he “ought not to have trusted them in Washington for the details.” The railroad to Falmouth finally became functional on the 26th to supply the Federals.

Federal teams loaded the pontoons onto wagons and began hauling them to the army at Falmouth the next day. Due to bureaucratic mismanagement, they arrived too late for Burnside to take Fredericksburg without a hard fight, as he had hoped to do with his quick movement there. However, the continuing rain was turning the roads to mud and raising the river, making it nearly impossible for Burnside to proceed with his plan, even with the pontoons.

Burnside received a message from President Abraham Lincoln on the 25th: “If I should be in a boat off Aquia Creek at dark tomorrow evening, could you, without inconvenience, meet me and pass an hour or two with me?” Lincoln arrived on the night of the 26th and met briefly with Burnside aboard the steamer U.S.S. Baltimore.

Burnside assured Lincoln that he, unlike George McClellan, did not need reinforcements and was ready to attack immediately. However, it was clear that things were not going as planned; the pontoons had been late, the river continued swelling, all nearby fords could no longer be used, and Lee now had a strong hold on Fredericksburg. Burnside had no alternative plan.

The next day, the men met again to discuss the upcoming offensive in detail. Burnside proposed laying the pontoon bridges and launching a full-scale assault. He acknowledged it would be “somewhat risky,” but it would satisfy Halleck’s repeated urgings to attack. Lincoln overrode Halleck by telling Burnside that he was willing to wait until the army had a better chance for success. Lincoln and Burnside then returned to Washington, where Lincoln outlined an alternate strategy to both Burnside and Halleck:

  • A second force raised from the Federals defending Washington would assemble on the south bank of the Rappahannock at Port Royal, about 30 miles downriver from Burnside.
  • A third force would move via transports up the York River to the Pamunkey River and debark in Lee’s rear.
  • Burnside’s army would then advance on Lee with support from the other two forces.

This three-pronged advance would block Lee’s line of retreat to Richmond, pinning him in Fredericksburg. Halleck and Burnside rejected this proposal because it would take too long to raise the troops, transports, and supplies. Lincoln then instructed Burnside to use his own judgment regarding the final plan of attack. Burnside began looking to cross his Federals downriver from Fredericksburg at Skinker’s Neck.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s troops were on the march, averaging about 20 miles per day. Several men marched barefoot through the snow and ice. Lee, unaware that Jackson was already on his way, was fearful that a pre-winter storm could block the roads and sent him a message on the 26th: “I desire you to pursue the best route, by easy marches, to this place, advising me of your approach so that your march may be hastened, if necessary.”

Lee added what he guessed was Burnside’s plan: “I think the probability is that he will attempt to cross either here or at some other point down the river; in which case it would be desirable that the whole army should be united.” By the end of the 27th, five days after leaving Winchester, Jackson concentrated his forces around Orange Court House.

Two days later, Jackson reported to Lee’s headquarters tent at Hamilton’s Crossing during a heavy snow. Jackson announced that his men were on the move, and Lee reiterated prior orders for Jackson to position his men to Longstreet’s right and rear, around Guiney’s Station. This would enable Jackson to reinforce Longstreet, shift to the right, or move further down the Rappahannock as needed.

By month’s end, all remaining pontoons and equipment needed for Burnside’s offensive against Fredericksburg finally arrived at Falmouth. Burnside now prepared to move his army across the Rappahannock, but the extensive delays had allowed Lee to place Longstreet’s 35,000 Confederates on the high ground behind Fredericksburg, and Jackson’s men were quickly arriving in support.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cullen, Joseph P., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 287; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 766-67; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 35-37, 39; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 232-34; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5006-18; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 290; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 288-90

Fredericksburg: The Army of the Potomac Mobilizes

November 15, 1862 – The Army of the Potomac mobilized for its march on Fredericksburg under its new commander, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.

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

The Federals began moving out of Warrenton, led by Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division. Burnside could have tried attacking General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia while it was divided (one corps was at Culpeper Court House and the other was at Winchester), but he planned to instead feint southwest and then hurry southeast to the lightly defended town of Fredericksburg. After capturing that town, he would drive on Richmond.

The sudden swiftness of the Federal army after being so sluggish for so long under George B. McClellan shocked the Confederates. Federal cavalry seized the bridge at Rappahannock Station before the enemy could destroy it, and Federal artillery began shelling Confederate positions at Culpeper. This confused Lee, who thought that Burnside would target Fredericksburg; he did not yet know that the Federal “attack” was part of Burnside’s feint.

By evening, the Federals had disengaged and Lee figured out what was happening. He notified Colonel William Ball, commanding the Confederate defenses at Fredericksburg, “It is reported that the enemy is moving from Warrenton today, and it is probable that he is marching upon Fredericksburg.” Lee then dispatched cavalry to Fredericksburg. The troopers were to defend the town if Federals had not captured it already. If the town was captured, the Confederates were to “take position on the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad, where it crosses the North Anna.”

Lee instructed Ball, “The bridges and culverts must be thoroughly destroyed,” with the cross-ties “removed and piled, with the rails placed across them, and, when the timber is sufficiently dry, fired; the weight of the bars will thus cause them to bend, and prevent their being relaid.” Lee then awaited Burnside’s next move.

The Federal Left and Center Grand Divisions under Major Generals Joseph Hooker and William B. Franklin left Warrenton the next day. Sumner’s Grand Division marched along the Rappahannock’s north bank and arrived at Falmouth, across the river about a mile upstream from Fredericksburg, on the 17th. The Federals had covered 40 miles in just two days, a remarkable feat for such an enormous army.

Sumner’s Federals met light Confederate resistance from the small garrison outside Fredericksburg. Seeing that the town could be easily captured, he requested permission to cross the river at Falmouth Ford and attack. Burnside refused, ordering Sumner to stay put until the pontoons arrived.

That night, Lee received word that Federal infantry had reached Falmouth, with Federal transports and gunboats entering nearby Aquia Creek. Lee wrote the secretary of war, “I do not know whether this movement on Fredericksburg is intended as a feint or a real advance upon Richmond,” but “before it (the Federal army) could move from Fredericksburg, I think this whole army will be in position.” Lee directed one of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s divisions at Culpeper to go to Fredericksburg, with the rest of Longstreet’s corps to follow once it was confirmed that Fredericksburg was indeed the Federal target.

The other two Federal Grand Divisions reached Falmouth on the 18th. A New York Tribune correspondent traveling with the Federals reported:

“Officers wont to believe that a great command cannot move more than six miles a day, and accustomed to our old method of waiting a week for the issue of new clothing or a month for the execution of an order to advance, rub their eyes in mute astonishment. We have marched from Warrenton 40 miles, in two days and a half.”

Burnside did not want to attack immediately due to fall rains making the 400-foot-wide Rappahannock impossible to cross without pontoon bridges. His Federals took up positions on the heights across the river from Fredericksburg. The first 48 pontoons arrived at Belle Plain via steam transport, but no wagons or teams were available to haul them to Falmouth.

Lee directed one of Longstreet’s divisions to go to Fredericksburg, and another to advance farther south to block any Federal advance toward Richmond from Fredericksburg. He sent Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry north to reconnoiter enemy positions, and Stuart reported that the entire Federal army was advancing on Fredericksburg. Lee ordered Longstreet’s remaining divisions to hurry directly there without blocking any other routes. He also notified Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at Winchester:

“Unless you think it is advantageous for you to continue longer in the valley, or can accomplish the retention and division of the enemy’s forces by so doing, I think it would be advisable to put some of your divisions in motion across the mountains, and advance them at least as far as Sperryville or Madison Court-House.”

Lee was determined to hold the region south of the Rappahannock because, having not yet been ravaged by war, it provided much needed harvests for his army.

—–

References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 271; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 234; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 766; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 230-31; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4972-84; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30-33, 35; 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. 287-88; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 288-90

Burnside Begins the Fredericksburg Campaign

November 9, 1862 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside issued General Order No. 1 assuming command of the Army of the Potomac. He followed this up with a new plan to capture Richmond.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Upon officially taking command at Warrenton, Burnside tried boosting army morale by reminding the troops that he had been good friends with the outgoing commander, George B. McClellan. Burnside declared that he “fully identified with them in their feeling of respect and esteem for General McClellan, entertained through a long and most friendly association with him.”

Burnside also knew that the Lincoln administration had been unhappy with McClellan’s slowness, so he resolved to begin a new offensive as quickly as possible. He submitted an elaborate plan to his superiors at Washington in which the army would move southwest toward Gordonsville to deceive the Confederates into thinking he would threaten from that direction. The Federals would then suddenly veer southeast and march on Fredericksburg, on the Rappahannock River.

Fredericksburg placed the Federals close to their supply base. It also gave them a clearer path to Richmond and enabled them to protect Washington along the way. However, the plan did not include destroying the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which had been President Abraham Lincoln’s main objective all along. Burnside conceded that he lacked the ability to destroy the enemy, but capturing Richmond “would tend more to cripple the rebel cause than almost any other military event, except the absolute breaking up of their army.”

Burnside also proposed grouping six of his seven army corps into three “grand divisions.” This was intended to facilitate communications because it reduced the number of Burnside’s direct reports. The Grand Divisions would become the army’s right, center, and left wings, respectively led by Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner (II and IX corps), Joseph Hooker (III and V corps), and William B. Franklin (I and VI corps). Major General Franz Sigel’s XI Corps would be left in “independent reserve.”

To put his plan into motion, Burnside wrote that he would need an enormous amount of supplies sent to his new base at Belle Plain, 10 miles northeast of Fredericksburg on the Potomac River. These included transports to deliver food and clothing, a herd of beef cattle, and pontoons to build bridges across the Rappahannock. Burnside would then attack Fredericksburg “as soon as the army arrives in front of the place.”

Burnside tested the feasibility of his plan by allowing a Federal cavalry force under Colonel Ulric Dahlgren to raid Fredericksburg. The Federals successfully rode through the small Confederate detachment guarding the town and took 54 prisoners. This proved to Burnside that the town could be captured. He submitted his plan to his superiors and awaited their approval.

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck visited Burnside’s headquarters three days later. Halleck did not give his opinion on Burnside’s strategy, but he told the general that Lincoln had doubts. Burnside defended the plan, explaining that upon making his feint southwest, he would “accumulate a four or five days’ supply for the men and animals; then make a rapid move of the whole force to Fredericksburg, with a view to a movement upon Richmond from that point.”

Lincoln liked Burnside’s idea of keeping Washington protected throughout the movement. But his main objection was that Burnside would be targeting Richmond instead of Lee’s army. Burnside offered more details, including his plan to march along the north bank of the Rappahannock and cross at Falmouth. Somehow, Halleck interpreted this to mean Burnside would cross the river farther upstream and march on Fredericksburg from the south bank. As such, he did not immediately submit Burnside’s requisition order for pontoons when he returned to Washington.

Halleck forwarded Lincoln’s official approval to Burnside on the 14th: “The President has just assented to your plan. He thinks that it will succeed, if you move very rapidly; otherwise not.” Lincoln still had doubts, but he appreciated Burnside’s eagerness to quickly take the offensive and he did not want to cause animosity by rejecting the general’s strategy so soon after taking command. Lincoln also approved Burnside’s Grand Division proposal.

Burnside immediately reorganized the Army of the Potomac and concentrated the forces at Warrenton. His requisition for pontoons was submitted to Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, who supervised pontoon materials and distribution for the army. It was quickly discovered that most of the materials needed were at Harpers Ferry, not Washington, so it would take extra time to get them shipped to Burnside’s base at Belle Plain.

Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was divided, with Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps at Culpeper Court House and Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at Winchester. Lee knew the Federals had advanced to Warrenton and then stopped. After learning of the Federal cavalry raid on Fredericksburg, he began suspecting that the enemy would target that town. Lee had no specific intelligence on this, but the simple fact that the Federals had stopped moving south made him think that the new commander would introduce a new strategy.

Lee told Jackson to be ready to hurry east if needed. He sent reinforcements to the Confederate garrison at Fredericksburg and told them to stay on alert. He then directed “the railroad from Fredericksburg to Aquia Creek to be entirely destroyed; the bridges, culverts, &c, to be broken; the cross-ties piled and fired, with the rails piled on top, so as to prevent their future use.”

In a letter to Secretary of War George W. Randolph, Lee proposed destroying the railroad from Fredericksburg to Hanover Junction, along with the Orange & Alexandria Railroad from Gordonsville to the Rappahannock. Lee acknowledged that he was merely acting on a hunch, and, “Were I certain of the route he will pursue, I should commence immediately to make it as difficult as possible.”

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 87; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 233-34; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 765-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 229-30; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4960, 4972; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30, 35; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 286-87; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 598-99

McClellan Finally Moves

October 26, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac crossed from Maryland to Virginia, nearly 40 days after the Battle of Antietam.

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Besides ordering some minor scouting expeditions, McClellan effectively ignored President Abraham Lincoln’s order to move against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, McClellan requested reinforcements despite having 133,433 men “present for duty” as of October 20. On that same day, Lee reported having just 68,033 effectives.

After McClellan charged Lincoln with doing an “injustice” to the army by stating that the Confederate cavalry was superior, Lincoln wired the general:

“Most certainly I intend no injustice to any, and if I have done any I deeply regret it. To be told, after more than five weeks’ total inaction of the army… that the cavalry horses were too much fatigued to move, presents a cheerless, almost hopeless, prospect for the future, and it may have forced something of impatience in my dispatch.”

That same day, McClellan’s army finally began crossing the Potomac River into Virginia. They crossed on a pontoon bridge at Berlin (now Brunswick), Maryland, five miles downstream from Harpers Ferry. The Federals then moved along the “inside track” toward Richmond that Lincoln had urged McClellan to take weeks earlier.

McClellan ignored the president’s message of regret, instead complaining that the army regiments were “skeletons” that needed filling “before taking them again into action.” McClellan asked “that the order to fill up the old regiments with drafted men may at once be issued.”

Lincoln quickly asked, “Is it your purpose not to go into action again until the men now being drafted in the States are incorporated into the old regiments?” McClellan replied that the statement “before taking them again into action” had been added by a staffer thinking that was what McClellan meant. He explained, “This phrase was not authorized or intended by me. It has conveyed altogether an erroneous impression as to my plans and intentions.”

McClellan assured Lincoln that he did not have “any idea of postponing the advance until the old regiments are filled by drafted men… The crossing will be continued as rapidly as the means at hand will permit. Nothing but the physical difficulties of the operation shall delay it.” Lincoln replied, “I am much pleased with the movement of the Army. When you get entirely across the river let me know. What do you know of the enemy?”

By the 28th, Lee had begun shifting his Confederates in anticipation that McClellan would drive toward Richmond via Culpeper Court House and Manassas Junction. Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps would guard the Blue Ridge passes while Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps moved toward Culpeper, and Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry harassed the Federal right flank.

McClellan left troops behind to guard various towns on the Potomac, but he told General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that these would not be “as sufficient to prevent cavalry raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania.” Halleck promised to send reinforcements from Washington as McClellan moved farther south, but “no new regiments can be sent from here to the Upper Potomac. The guarding of that line is left to your own discretion with the troops now under your command.”

McClellan next wrote Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin stating that he did not consider the force along the Potomac “sufficient to prevent raids and have so represented to General Halleck, who informed me that he has no more troops to send.” He urged Curtin to hurry his state’s militia draft and send the new troops “with the least possible delay to Chambersburg, Hagerstown, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, and Hancock to prevent the possibility of raids.”

McClellan claimed that if he had gotten the reinforcements he requested, “I could have left men enough to have made your frontier reasonably safe. As it is I cannot do it with due regard to the success of the main Army, and beg to warn you in time.”

Turning to the militia draft, McClellan complained to Lincoln about the process of creating new regiments rather than filling shorthanded old regiments with new recruits. McClellan argued that “no greater mistake has been made than the total failure to reinforce the old regiments.” McClellan wrote his wife:

“I have just been put in excellent humor by seeing that instead of sending the drafted men to fill the old rgts (as had been promised me) they are forming them into new rgts. Also that in the face of the great want of cavalry… they are sending the new cavalry rgts from Penna to Louisville instead of hither!! Blind & foolish they will continue to the end.”

As McClellan grumbled, Lincoln made note that his path to Richmond was shorter than Lee’s, who was reorganizing his men west of the Blue Ridge. Lincoln privately resolved that if Lee shifted his forces eastward to block the Federals without McClellan putting up a fight, Lincoln would remove the commander.

Lee left Jackson’s corps in the Valley on the 30th and rode east with Longstreet. The Confederates swiftly marched 60 miles southeast through the Blue Ridge passes and reached Culpeper Court House before McClellan could establish his position at Warrenton, 20 miles to the northeast. As Lincoln feared, Lee blocked McClellan without a fight.

—–

References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164-68; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 227; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 752-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 225-26; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 281-82; 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. 569