November 28, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade tried launching one more offensive before winter, leading his Federal Army of the Potomac against General Robert E. Lee’s formidable Confederate defenses along Mine Run. Continue reading
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November 21, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade received intelligence that his Federal Army of the Potomac now held a major numerical advantage over General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Meade therefore looked to launch another offensive.
Following the Bristoe campaign in October, Meade had settled his army into camps between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, presumably until the spring. However, this changed when a detailed report, partly derived from information provided by Confederate deserters, stated that Lee had less than 40,000 effectives in his army, while Meade had 84,274.
Lee actually had 48,586 effectives, but Meade still vastly outnumbered him, and his Federals had been emboldened by their recent, albeit minor, victories at Bristoe and Rappahannock stations. Moreover, the report indicated that Lee’s two corps were spread out across 35 miles and unable to guard the lower fords on the Rapidan. Meade therefore planned to hurry his five infantry corps down the Rapidan, move down the Orange Turnpike, and overwhelm Lee’s right and rear before the remaining Confederates came up in support.
While Meade planned, Lee hosted President Jefferson Davis for a four-day military conference at Lee’s headquarters. Lee once more stressed the importance of having shoes for his barefooted men, as well as adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the upcoming winter. On the night of the 24th, Lee received word that Meade had requisitioned large amounts of rations for his troops, indicating he would soon be in motion again.
Lee alerted his outposts. Guessing that Meade would cross the Rapidan and try advancing through either the Wilderness or Spotsylvania toward the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, Lee prepared to move his army to block the Federals. A cavalry clash near Ely’s Ford on the 25th seemed to confirm Lee’s guess.
Meade had planned to move out on the 23rd, but rains turned the roads to mud. He announced to his corps commanders, “On account of the unfavorable appearances of the morning,” the advance would not begin until the 24th. But rain caused postponements for another two days, during which time Federal cavalry reported that the major thoroughfares were still passable. The troopers also noted that Confederates were not guarding Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan.
On the 25th, Meade issued orders for the movement to begin the next morning, Thanksgiving Day. The Federals were to make a wide swing around the Confederate right to land on the enemy flank and rear. Meade explained that speed and stealth were of the utmost importance, therefore each man would carry 10 days’ rations and leave their supply trains behind.
Major General William French’s III Corps was to cross the Rapidan at Jacob’s Ford, opposite Mine Run, with Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps following. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s II Corps was to cross farther downstream at Germanna Ford. Major General George Sykes’s V Corps would cross even farther down at Culpeper Mine, followed by Major General John Newton’s I Corps. The five corps would then unite, with French in the lead, and move west to hit the Confederate right with overwhelming force.
The Federals mobilized at 6 a.m., a half-hour before sunrise, on the 26th. A heavy fog hid their movement from the Confederates as they moved down their assigned paths to the Rapidan fords. However, French’s corps started late and experienced traffic delays. Upon reaching Jacob’s Ford, engineers did not bring enough pontoons to span the river. Consequently, French did not cross until near sundown. By day’s end, French, Warren, and Sykes had crossed the Rapidan, but the element of speed was lost, as Meade had covered only half the distance he expected to cover that day.
The element of stealth was also lost when Confederate signalmen atop Clark’s Mountain, along with cavalry, spotted the movement. Lee had expected the Federals to attack the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, but their movement against his right worked even more to his advantage. He held strong positions, and the Federal delays gave him time to shift more troops to that sector of his line.
Lee pulled elements of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps east to bolster the Second Corps under Major General Jubal Early (temporarily replacing the ailing Lieutenant General Richard Ewell) on the right. Lee directed Early to cross Mine Run and move east to face Meade’s advance.
Early’s three divisions moved along three parallel roads leading to Robertson’s Tavern, with Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s men the farthest north (the Confederate left), Major General Robert Rodes in the center, and Brigadier General Harry Hays’s men moving along the Orange Turnpike to the south. Hill’s corps moved about a mile south on parallel roads.
Meade directed the Federals to begin moving at 7 a.m., with French holding the right (unknowingly moving directly toward Johnson), Warren holding the center on the Orange Turnpike (unknowingly moving toward Hays), and Sykes holding the left (unknowingly moving toward Hill). Sedgwick and Newton were in reserve.
French and Warren were supposed to converge at Robertson’s Tavern, but French took a wrong fork in the road and had to countermarch for several hours. Warren’s corps reached the tavern unsupported, where they were confronted by Hays’s Confederates around Locust Grove. French informed Meade that he was waiting for Warren, but Meade’s chief of staff, Major General Andrew Humphreys, responded:
“What are you waiting for? No orders have been sent you to wait for General Warren anywhere upon your Route… He is waiting for you. The commanding general directs that you move forward as rapidly as possible to Robertson’s Tavern, where your corps is wanted.”
French finally came up on Warren’s right and met resistance from Johnson’s Confederate division near Payne’s Farm. French deployed his lead division under Brigadier General Joseph B. Carr to face Johnson as both he and Hays began linking with Rodes in the middle.
The Confederates repelled two Federal charges and then counterattacked. As Johnson reported, “The resistance of the enemy was stubborn, but he was steadily driven back for a considerable distance through the woods and pursued across an open field.” The Confederates soon advanced into heavy woods and became disorganized. They were then hit by heavy Federal canister fire. Johnson ultimately withdrew and repelled more Federal attacks before nightfall ended the fighting.
The Confederates lost 545 men, including Brigadier Generals George Steuart and John M. Jones (both wounded). On their right, Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry barely held Sykes at bay. As Stuart’s line appeared to be breaking and the Federals were about to turn the Confederate flank, Hill’s corps arrived to link with Early and drive the Federals back. Lee then pulled his main force back to defenses on a ridge along the west bank of Mine Run.
Federal losses were unrecorded, but this engagement ruined the element of surprise that Meade so desperately needed. Meade blamed French for his delays crossing the Rapidan on the 26th and taking the wrong road on this day. With Lee entrenched behind Mine Run, Meade now could only attack (and most likely fail) or retreat.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19153; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 346; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 873-74; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 378; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6488, 6499-511; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 497; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 28-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 438-39; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 563-64
January 23, 1863 – The defeat at Fredericksburg and the failed “Mud March” sparked recriminations among the Federal army command, leading to wholesale changes.
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.”
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.
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
December 22, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln sought to clarify responsibility for the defeat at Fredericksburg and console the Army of the Potomac.
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.
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.
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