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Union Rubicon

By William Marvel
7/27/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Ambrose Burnside’s strategy could have carried him, victorious, into Richmond. But poor communications doomed him to useless slaughter at Fredericksburg.

For several weeks after the Battle of Antietam, George McClellan let the Army of the Potomac rest. October 1862, he led seven corps across the Potomac into Virginia, hoping to catch Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But on November 7, with his army near Finally, in late Warrenton Junction on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, McClellan received notice he was being relieved of command, replaced by his reluctant sub ordinate Major General Ambrose Burnside. Over the next few days Burnside reorganized the army into three grand divisions of two corps each, sending one corps, the XI, back toward Washington. He also met with General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs and Herman Haupt, superintendent of military rail roads, to devise a plan for beating Lee to Richmond.

McClellan had anticipated moving down the Orange & Alexandria to the Confederate capital while the Army of Northern Virginia stayed on a parallel route to the west. Lee, however, had marched faster and managed to block the railroad. All the same, the O&A seemed too long and too vulnerable an umbilical for an army as large as Burnside’s. The new commanding general proposed side stepping east to Fredericksburg, where he could follow the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad across a series of tidal rivers, each of which would afford another new base for the more reliable delivery of sup plies by water. This was the route Ulysses S. Grant would adopt a year and a half later: If Burnside could get ahead of Lee on that line, he could theoretically keep ahead to the outskirts of Richmond, avoiding most of the deadly confrontations that would immortalize obscure spots such as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna and Cold Harbor during Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign.

Halleck agreed to the proposal halfheartedly, assuring Burnside that he had telegraphed for the army’s pontoon trains to be brought down from the upper Potomac so Burnside could bridge the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Lincoln approved the plan, but noted it would succeed only if the army moved quickly.

Speed was the essence of Burnside’s scheme, and the new commander did his part, moving so stealthily that Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner’s Right Grand Division reached Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, ahead of any enemy except a few pickets. Burnside sent a reminder to Washington to hurry the pontoons before the first troops left camp, but only after Sumner’s departure did word come back that the 21-foot-long, 5-foot-wide boats would take much longer than Halleck and Meigs had supposed. Burnside was already committed to the move, and as the rest of his army strode toward Fredericksburg autumn rains swelled the Rappahannock. Lee soon caught on to the movement. By November 21—six days after Sumner’s vanguard had arrived at Falmouth—two of James Longstreet’s Confederate divisions had drawn up across the river to challenge any crossing. With more Rebels coming all the time, Burnside apprised Halleck on the 22nd that he no longer believed his idea would work.

The Northern public and politicians were tired of procrastination, and Burnside felt pressure to act quickly. The only real choices left to him were to force his way over the Rappahannock or put the army aboard transports and attack Richmond from the James River. The latter option posed political difficulties, because it would seem to confirm that the administration had made a mistake in ordering McClellan to abandon his campaign the previous summer.

Lincoln came down from Washington to consider the alternatives with Burnside. A sizable new force was nearly ready for deployment, and the president suggested landing it below and behind Fredericksburg, to flank Lee out of the city. The idea had possibilities, but Burnside feared it would take too long to position those new troops. Another month would bring the rainy Virginia winter and its notorious mud. Although Burnside knew Halleck was pushing for immediate action, the president reassured him that he could take as much time as he needed. But when Lincoln returned to Washington, Halleck apparently talked him out of the proposed flanking column.

Presidential assurances notwithstanding, it was unlikely that the public would stand for another winter of inactivity. With support for the war in evident decline, every passing month seemed to bring the Confederacy closer to permanent survival, and some suspected that the game would be up if Richmond were not captured by the third spring of the conflict. So where McClellan might have jumped at the offer of reinforcements and the chance to postpone an advance, Burnside decided to move as soon as possible with the troops he had.

By the time the pontoons finally arrived, Longstreet’s entire corps occupied the intimidating heights a mile behind Fredericksburg. Burnside next considered crossing a dozen miles downstream, at Skinker’s Neck, but early in December “Stonewall” Jackson brought up the other half of Lee’s army and covered that route. General Sumner suggested bridging the river a mile or so below the city and marching completely around Lee’s right flank, to turn him out of his advantageous position. Burnside thought it might surprise the enemy most to cross directly at Fredericksburg, dashing up those daunting heights before Lee could concentrate enough men there to resist a massive assault. But finally he combined his own idea with Sumner’s.

Burnside’s six corps numbered about 115,000 men. Lee fielded nearly 80,000, with most of Jackson’s corps watching Skinker’s Neck. Burnside hoped to simultaneously bridge the river opposite the city and on the plain below town, sending Sumner against Marye’s Heights, behind Fredericksburg, while William Franklin attacked the lower range of hills downriver with the Left Grand Division. If it could be done before Jackson returned, Burnside hoped Lee’s line would be thin enough that either Sumner or Franklin could break through, allowing him to throw Joseph Hooker’s Center Grand Division in to push the advantage wherever it developed.

Clad in their pale blue overcoats against the severe cold, Union soldiers prepared for action in the wee hours of December 11 while engineers eased their pontoons down the steep face of Stafford Heights, across from Fredericksburg. The surprise Burnside sought might have been possible had he focused on the plain downstream, where several bridges could have been laid down in time to interpose a substantial force between the separated wings of the Confederate army. That would have forced Lee to take the offensive against a superior foe, but building the bridges at the toe of Stafford Heights brought Burnside’s design to grief. Daylight had come before those spans reached the far shore, and Mississippi marksmen opened up on the workmen as soon as they could see them through the fog.

The construction crews fled back to shore several times, and covering fire from infantry failed to suppress the sharpshooters. No sooner did the engineers run back out to add planks and pontoons than the Rebels picked off a few more—until the work stopped completely. A long line of Union artillery unlimbered atop Stafford Heights and began blasting away at the city’s buildings, but after several hours of bombardment the sniping resumed. Michigan and Massachusetts troops finally climbed into pontoons and poled across the river to ferret the Rebels out of their lairs, driving the last of them away in street fighting that continued until dusk.

By nightfall the bridges had been finished and the city secured, but an entire day had been lost. After another day spent transferring most of his army across the river, Burnside scheduled his attack for December 13. Committed once again to a movement for which the key ingredient of surprise had been lost, he made one last modification to his instructions.

He had intended Franklin to attack head-on into what he had hoped would be a thinner Confederate line on the hills beyond the plain, but the two-day delay had given Lee time to bring Jackson up from Skinker’s Neck. So Burnside envisioned a maneuver closer to Sumner’s original suggestion. Bolstered by two divisions from Hooker, Franklin would make an early assault to seize the artillery-crowned rise on the extreme Confederate right, at Hamilton’s Crossing, and once the fog lifted he would march his entire command down the Richmond Stage Road, so the Rebels could see they were being flanked. That should convince Lee to withdraw, and Sumner would launch his assault on Marye’s Heights in the expectation of smashing through and catching the Rebels in mid-flight.

A map glitch, however, would prove costly for Franklin. The Richmond Stage Road ran southeast from Hamilton’s Crossing, while the Mine Road turned southwest at that point, but on Franklin’s map the Mine Road was mistakenly labeled as the Stage Road. Burnside evidently expected Franklin to pass the extremity of Lee’s line and neutralize the artillery threat at Hamilton’s Crossing by striking the position in flank, ideally under cover of a morning fog that would screen his attack until the last moment. Franklin instead dallied until the fog had dissipated, and when he finally did move he stopped short of the Mine Road. That invited flank fire, which further delayed him. When the assault finally began, George Meade’s spearhead division found by pure luck an unguarded sector and opened a small rupture that Franklin could have widened with prompt support. Jackson eventually closed the gap and forced Meade back.

Battle smoke occluded the view from Burnside’s head quarters, but dispatches from Franklin indicated that Lee was shifting troops his way. Mistakenly supposing this was in reaction to Franklin’s nonexistent flanking maneuver, Burnside directed Sumner to make his attack, and thus began the day’s real carnage. Forming at the foot of the broad slope that rose from the city toward the Marye mansion, one blue division after another rolled gamely forward, funneled by canals and ditches directly into the path of converging Rebel artillery. Confederate infantry waited for them below the crest of the heights, well protected by the sunken Telegraph Road and its stone retaining wall.

Through the afternoon Union generals frittered their commands away in serial assaults by single brigades, each of which reeled beneath a tempest of shells and melted under sheets of musketry before any could reach the stone wall in effective force. A grand charge by an entire corps or more, in waves too close behind each other for artillery and musketry to reduce them all in time, might have worked. Such an attack would have been bloody, but relatively quick, while the piecemeal assaults produced only appalling casualties. The flotsam of successive brigades took cover 100 yards below the stone wall, mostly in a swale that provided shallow protection against bullets, if not from bursting shells. In that position they could only hug the ground, risking an occasional, futile round.

Four divisions had made the attempt by late afternoon, and all four lay pinned down behind Fredericksburg when Burnside learned that Franklin’s halfhearted assault on Lee’s right had failed. Low on ammunition and absent sufficient support, Meade had been forced to retire as Jackson launched a brutal counterattack. Reluctant to waste the valor his men had shown before Marye’s Heights, Burnside ordered both Franklin and Sumner to make one last push with everything they had.

Sumner didn’t have that much left. Most of the Right Grand Division had already gone in, and couldn’t move without deadly consequences. But Sumner obeyed like the old soldier he was, ordering up a division composed mostly of new nine-month militia. Franklin, meanwhile, did nothing. Facing less than half Lee’s army with most of Burnside’s troops in his control, Franklin insisted that his own left was in danger of being turned, and asked for reinforcements. Claiming his whole force had gone into action, he deemed another assault “impossible.”

James Hardie, a staff officer Burnside had sent to Franklin, telegraphed more optimistic news, and Burnside dared not relax pressure on Marye’s Heights while demanding a cooperative movement from Franklin, so Sumner’s nine-month division moved to attack. This one also went in a brigade at a time, sweeping into the deadly hail coming from the stone wall. But they only swelled the mob in the swale.

Sumner turned to another division for one final, fruitless assault, but Franklin remained on the defensive, and all Sumner’s efforts went for naught. Burnside had lost nearly 13,000 men by nightfall, mostly on the slope below Marye’s Heights, and as the din of battle receded, the keening of the wounded carried all the way back to town. Burnside contemplated personally leading a grand assault with his old IX Corps the next day but was dissuaded by Sumner; instead he sought a truce for burying his dead. At last he backed his army out of Fredericksburg altogether.

The ultimate cause of the disaster was universal impatience for prompt action, aggravated by 16 months of McClellan’s dilatory example, but Burnside’s two best chances for success foundered through miscommunication. Had Halleck and Meigs known better than to assure the pontoon trains could be dismantled and delivered within two or three days, Burnside could have delayed the march to Fredericksburg that long; that pause would have let him cross the Rappahannock when he arrived, and might have put him halfway to Richmond before Lee caught up. Barring that, had Franklin understood exactly where he was to attack on December 13, and made Burn side’s intended movements with enthusiasm, the assaults on Marye’s Heights might have borne better results.

Burnside’s next offensive, in January, succumbed to the Virginia mud. After 80 days in command of the Army of the Potomac he bequeathed it to Joe Hooker. Waiting until spring, when he faced better odds and weather, Hooker mimicked Burnside’s January strategy, which succeeded in prying Lee from his works. The only ingredient for victory Hooker would lack, when he most needed it, was Burnside’s dogged persistence.

 

William Marvel is an independent scholar specializing in Civil War history. His most recent book is Tarnished Victory: Finishing Lincoln’s War.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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