Tag Archives: Edwin V. Sumner

Dissension in the Army of the Potomac

January 23, 1863 – The defeat at Fredericksburg and the failed “Mud March” sparked recriminations among the Federal army command, leading to wholesale changes.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

By the 22nd, nearly everyone in the Army of the Potomac acknowledged that Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s second offensive had failed, just as many of his subordinates had predicted. Army morale plummeted to new depths. The desertion rate continued rising, along with the number of men on the sick list due to lack of adequate rations or sanitary living conditions.

Some loudly condemned Burnside, especially Major General Joseph Hooker. Possibly drunk (along with many other commanders), Hooker raged to a New York Times reporter that Burnside was incompetent, and President Abraham Lincoln was an imbecile for keeping Burnside in command. Calling the administration “all played out,” Hooker declared that the country needed a dictator to win the war.

All this finally caused Burnside’s frustration to boil over. His extraordinary General Order No. 8 charged Hooker with:

“… unjust and unnecessary criticisms of the actions of his superior officers, and of the authorities, and having, by the general tone of his conversation, endeavored to create distrust in the minds of officers who have associated with him, and having, by omissions and otherwise, made reports and statements which were calculated to create incorrect impressions, and for habitually speaking in disparaging terms of other officers.”

Federal Major General Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: Sonofthesouth.net

Consequently, Hooker was “hereby dismissed from the service of the United States as a man unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present, when so much patience, charity, confidence, consideration and patriotism are due from every soldier in the field.”

Burnside also dismissed division commanders W.T.H. Brooks and John Newton, and brigade commander John Cochrane. Burnside had learned that Newton and Cochrane were the ones who went to Washington in late December to complain about him by verifying which officers had passes to leave during that time.

Six other officers were ordered relieved of their command but not dismissed from the army: Grand Division commander William B. Franklin, VI Corps commander William “Baldy” Smith, division commander Samuel Sturgis, brigade commander Edward Ferrero, and Right Grand Division assistant adjutant general Lieutenant Colonel John H. Taylor. For some reason, Burnside added Cochrane to this list as well.

Burnside’s aides persuaded him to discuss the order with Lincoln before issuing it, especially since dismissing an officer from the army required a court-martial. Burnside wrote Lincoln on the night of the 23rd, “I have prepared some very important orders, and I want to see you before issuing them. Can I see you alone if I am at the White House after midnight?” Lincoln replied, “Will see you any moment when you come.” Burnside left his headquarters at 9 p.m. and took a train to a steamer at Aquia Creek.

Burnside met Lincoln at the White House in mid-morning on the 24th and presented him with both General Order No. 8 and his resignation. Lincoln would have to approve one or the other. Burnside reminded Lincoln that he had not wanted the army command in the first place, having turned it down twice before finally accepting.

When Burnside explained the officers’ duplicity, Lincoln said, “I think you are right, but I must consult with some of my advisers about this.” He told Burnside he needed a day to think it over. Burnside said, “If you consult with anybody, you will not do it, in my opinion.” But Lincoln consulted with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck nonetheless.

At a White House levee that night, Lincoln met with Henry J. Raymond, a New York Republican who had discussed the matter with Burnside earlier that day. Raymond said he thought the main problem was Hooker’s insubordinate rhetoric. Lincoln said, “This is all true, Hooker does talk badly; but the trouble is stronger with the country to-day than any other man.” When Raymond asked how the public might react when they learn about what Hooker said, Lincoln replied, “The country would not believe it; they would say it is all a lie.”

Burnside met with Lincoln again on Sunday morning the 25th, where Lincoln informed him that he would be replaced as commander. Burnside said, “I suppose you accept my resignation, and all I have to do is go to my home.” Lincoln replied, “General, I cannot accept your resignation. We need you, and I cannot accept your resignation.”

Burnside argued that he had private business to handle, and Lincoln said, “You can have as much time as you please for your private business, but we cannot accept your resignation.” Burnside would instead await reassignment; in the meantime, Lincoln told him, “General, make your application for a leave of absence, and we will give it to you.”

After Burnside left, Lincoln directed Halleck to issue orders relieving Burnside from command. Major General Edwin V. Sumner, one of Burnside’s Grand Division commanders, was also relieved at his own request, along with Franklin. The order concluded “that Maj. Gen. J. Hooker be assigned to command the Army of the Potomac.”

Lincoln had weighed several options except the most popular one: reinstating George B. McClellan. Lincoln considered bringing Major Generals William S. Rosecrans or Ulysses S. Grant from the west to command. He also considered officers within the army, but he believed Sumner was too old, and both Franklin and “Baldy” Smith were too loyal to McClellan. So Lincoln reluctantly picked Hooker.

Lincoln was well aware of Hooker’s disparaging comments about his superiors, including the president himself. However, Lincoln wanted a fighter to lead the army, and his combat record on the Peninsula and at Antietam was excellent. And nobody seemed more confident in his own ability to bring the fight to the Confederates than “Fighting Joe.”

Burnside, who had managed the Federal debacles at Fredericksburg and the “Mud March,” was out. Having offered to resign several times before, Burnside could have very well welcomed this move. But he could not have been pleased to learn that Hooker, a man whom he despised, would replace him.

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 125; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 257; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8701-11; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 129-32; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 257; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95-98; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 314-15; 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. 583-85; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 127-29

Advertisements

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.

—–

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.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.

—–

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.”

—–

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.

—–

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

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