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The reluctant general from Rhode Island nearly ruined the Army of the Potomac.

Weary of giving insubordinate George McClellan chances to prove his worth, Abraham Lincoln replaced him with Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862. But the dynamics between the citizen-soldiers who made up the bulk of the army and their leaders—often an uneven lot from the company level all the way to the general ranks—also had a huge bearing on the army’s effectiveness. So did its infrastructure, including the animals and wagons that made up its transportation system. After a dismal loss at Fredericksburg, the army teetered on the brink of ruin.

Dissatisfaction swept over the Army of the Potomac like a midwinter blizzard. Morale plummeted. Men grew bitter. Hope froze.

The chill was far worse than anything Rufus Dawes had seen back in Wisconsin, and it was only late December. The 24-year-old major of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, born on the Fourth of July in 1838, had watched conditions worsen ever since the debacle in Fredericksburg earlier in the month. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had led the army to its most lopsided defeat of the war thus far, and the ill winds began blustering shortly thereafter. The squall hit furiously, almost as soon as the army retreated across the Rappahannock River into Stafford County.

“The army seems to be overburdened with second rate men in high positions, from General Burnside down,” Dawes complained. “Common place and whisky are too much in power for the most hopeful future. This winter is, indeed, the Valley Forge of the war.”

Dawes, whose great-grandfather rode with Paul Revere on the famous midnight ride in 1775, wasn’t the only Union soldier to allude to the Revolution. “As something of the spirit of ’76 still continues to course through your veins, and as the heroic deeds of our ancestors still bring tinges of patriotic pride to your cheeks, whenever recounted, I will beg the liberty of giving you a short chapter clipped from this present age,” wrote Nathaniel Weede Brown of the 133rd Pennsylvania Infantry in a letter from “Camp near Fredericksburg.” As a so-called “War Democrat,” Brown struggled with conflicted feelings. “This rebellion,” he wrote, “concocted in iniquity and carried on for no other purpose than for the abolition of slavery and the aggrandizement of partisan spite, has cancelled the lives of thousands, destroyed property to the amount of millions.” To Brown, “the butchery and pillage” had just begun. He praised his comrades’ bravery in “fighting in a doubtful cause—for no one can tell what we are really fighting for….”

President Abraham Lincoln did what he could to bolster the army’s flagging spirits, but his praise seemed faint. “[T]he attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than an accident,” he said, congratulating the men on their bravery and expressing gratitude over the “comparatively” small number of casualties.

Ironically, on a December 18 nearly 85 years earlier, Congress had offered praise to another bedraggled American army, calling for a national day of Thanksgiving. General George Washington, leading his ragamuffin band into Valley Forge, paused the army’s march in recognition of the honor.

Now, in late 1862, the Army of the Potomac headed into its own Valley Forge, although the men who settled into their winter camps had no way to know it. It didn’t take long, though, for it to become a winter of discontent. Army morale plummeted precipitously in the days and weeks after Fredericksburg. Not even Christmas brightened spirits. “We are suffering very much with cold and hunger,” wrote Lt. Albert P. Morrow of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (known as Rush’s Lancers) on December 25. “The roads are in such wretched condition that we can’t transport supplies and we can’t buy a single article in this miserable poverty-stricken country.”

All across the North, things looked just as bleak, albeit for different reasons. “[The American people] have borne, silently and grimly, imbecility, treachery, failure, privation, the loss of friends and means, almost every suffering which can afflict a brave people,” wrote the venerable Harper’s Weekly. “But they cannot be expected to suffer that such massacres as this at Fredericksburg shall be repeated.” Indeed, though, unseemly as it appeared, the Union was apparently losing.

“In fact the day that McClellan was removed from the command of this Army the death blow of our existence as the finest army that the World ever saw was struck,” wrote Maj. Peter Keenan of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. “What was once, under that great leader, the ‘Grand Army of the Potomac’ is today little better that a demoralized and disorganized mass of men.”

The army hemorrhaged more than 200 deserters a day, sapping its strength and will. By month’s end, the first 2,000 of at least 25,000 deserters faded from the front. With Washington access tightly sealed at the Potomac River, most made it only as far as Alexandria, where they huddled around campfires with fellow “skedaddlers.” Burnside began the unpleasant but necessary process of rounding them up. On December 24, he issued General Orders No. 192. “In order to facilitate the return to duty of officers and men detained at the camp of convalescents, stragglers, &c., near Alexandria,” Burnside ordered an assistant provost marshal general to “repair to Alexandria and take charge of all such officers and men in the various camps of that vicinity as are reported ‘for duty in the field.’” Each corps sent an officer and armed troops to round up stragglers and ship them to Aquia Landing, where the returnees were systematically reclothed, reequipped and rearmed. Pointedly, Burnside used Regular Army troops to police up volunteer deserters and stragglers.

Although Burnside’s provost marshal force and infantry and cavalry patrols arrested men lacking passes, substantial numbers slipped through. The main desertion path flowed through Aquia-Dumfries-Occoquan. Soldiers walked or caught rides with sutlers, civilians or fellow soldiers; some brazenly stole wagons. In a common ruse, deserters posed as “telegraph repair work details.”

The wounded had a far easier desertion route through the numerous Washington general hospitals. Once sufficiently recovered, an injured soldier—frequently aided unwittingly by goodhearted U.S. Sanitary or Christian Commission workers or citizens—easily escaped. For the nonwounded, desertion from the army’s sector was best achieved by crossing the Potomac River into southern Maryland. Boats hired by deserters were almost certainly operated by men engaged in covert activities. The Confederate Signal Corps and Secret Service’s “Secret Line” operated throughout the war with impunity from Aquia and Potomac Creeks in Stafford all the way up to Maryland. Rebel boatmen were happy to row as many Yankee deserters across the river as possible, probably demanding substantial fees.

Compounding Union problems, Confederate Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart, famed for his June and October 1862 cavalry raids around George McClellan’s army, launched a large-scale raid to Dumfries and Fairfax Station on December 27-29, 1862. While of little direct threat to the Union defenses, this revealed the federal cavalry’s continued haplessness. Stuart’s ability to ride through and around his opponents at will frustrated top Union commanders. It also exposed the vulnerability of Aquia Landing, the main federal logistics center.

By December 30, the Union Army’s Quartermaster General, Montgomery C. Meigs, had seen enough—and he wrote to Burnside to say so. “In my position as Quartermaster-General much is seen that is seen from no other stand-point of the Army,” wrote Meigs, who was bureaucratic, patriotic, strategically sound and naive all at once. “I venture to say a few words to you which neither the newspapers nor, I fear, anybody in your army is likely to utter.” Meigs warned the treasury was rapidly being depleted, although prices, currency and credit remained intact. He sensibly worried about horse feed prices: “Hay and oats, two essentials for an army, have risen,” but it was “difficult to find men willing to undertake their delivery and the prices are higher than ever before.” Meigs feared supplies would fail. “Should this happen,” he noted, “your army would be obliged to retire, and the animals would be dispersed in search of food.” After repeating his warning that the war’s cost was leading to fiscal disaster, Meigs then turned to strategy. “General Halleck tells me that you believe your numbers are greater than the enemy’s, and yet the army waits!” he wrote. “Upon the commander, to whom all the glory of success will attach, must rest the responsibility of deciding the plan of campaign.”

Meigs finally arrived as his main point: “Every day weakens your army,” he wrote; “every good day lost is a golden opportunity in the career of our country—lost forever. Exhaustion steals over the country. Confidence and hope are dying.”

That the Army of the Potomac could be so weakened spoke volumes about the spiritual gangrene that infected it. “An entire army struck with melancholia,” was how one officer with the 140th New York Infantry described it. “Enthusiasm all evaporated—the Army of the Potomac never sings, never shouts, and I wish I could say, never swears.”

The Federals had been significantly bruised and undoubtedly humiliated by their loss at Fredericksburg in December, where the 135,000-man army suffered 12,353 casualties—1,180 killed, 9,028 wounded and 2,145 missing.

Even after some 25,000 men had left the ranks without permission to do so, about 97,647 after-battle effectives remained. And by the end of January 1863, army returns showed 147,144 combat-ready troops. Such a number suggests the army was able to replace and regenerate sufficient combat power, drawing on both troops manning the Washington defenses and new recruits from the various Northern states. It also suggests that personnel accountings may have been padded, confused or concealed. At any rate, there were sufficient men on hand for an “army of quantity”—especially since that army only had to engage an enemy roughly half its size.

Questions lingered over whether the “army of quantity” was also an “army of quality.” Two years of war had whittled most regiments down to an average of about 400 men each instead of their original 1,000. Many individual companies reported only 25-30 effectives. Units like the 110th Pennsylvania had so few effectives in early January 1863 that it consolidated its companies from eight to four. However, most of the army’s regiments had fought in at least five major battles, so the survivors had substantial combat experience.

The army was also well-armed. Fully 74 percent of its riflemen carried elite rifles: the .58-caliber Springfield Model 1861 Rifle Muskets [46 percent]; the .577/.58-caliber Enfield Rifle Muskets [25 percent]; or something comparable [3 percent]. However, when cumulative losses necessitated the redistribution of soldiers within a regiment—such as the 110th Pennsylvania, mentioned earlier—it frequently led to bizarre weapon combinations, since the soldiers typically kept their original weapons. Such hodgepodges were an ordnance sergeant’s nightmare. Company A of the 46th New York Infantry, for example, had eight different weapons with six different calibers.

Along with their individual armaments, soldiers had the backing of a strong technical specialist infrastructure: administration, ordnance, quartermaster and commissary, signal and railroad. The army was also backed by the North’s extensive technological, economic, transportation and industrial superiority.

But crowing about the Union’s materiel superiority as the end-all is woefully simplistic, just as it’s equally simplistic to categorically dismiss the quantity and quality of Southern troops’ weapons, equipment and clothing. Congress after antebellum Congress had chronically ignored military preparedness, creating institutionalized organization and mobilization issues. It wasn’t that the United States was unprepared for the Civil War; it was unprepared for any war.

Historian Fred A. Shannon, writing in the 1920s, suggested that poor food and supply practices made military life unnecessarily difficult. Shannon emphasized a “shortage of supply, poor methods of distribution, inferior materials and workmanship, and [the soldier’s] own improvidence—the latter being largely the result of poor army organization and worse discipline.” Poor leadership and administration resulted in excessive desertions. Pervasive sickness, aided by indifferent camp sanitation and hygiene, brought unnecessary deaths. It took half the war—until roughly the period of this study— for supplies to reach acceptable levels, although the quality of those supplies never fully made muster. Shoes, overcoats, uniforms and other equipment were all deficient in quality, and soldiers suffered.

By the end of 1862, these deficiencies had become readily apparent, and that is why Meigs had much to fret about. Combat readiness, unit cohesiveness, the effectiveness of equipment, the uniformity of armaments and ammunition, the condition of the army’s horses and mules, and the efficiency of its wagon train were all lacking. “In my position as Quartermaster-General much is seen that is seen from no other stand-point of the Army,” he had written.

Ninety-six years later, writing with the benefit of hindsight, the faculty of the U.S. Military Academy saw many of the same things. The faculty examined the army’s general military effectiveness at the end of Burnside’s tenure— which would last less than a month after Meigs wrote to the congenial but befuddled commander. In an understated, professional and telling historical judgment, the faculty wrote: “When Hooker had relieved Burnside after the disastrous Fredericksburg campaign, he found the Army of the Potomac in a low state of morale. Desertion was increasing, and the army’s own interior administration—never too good—had deteriorated.”

The military-bureaucratic term “interior administration” conceals a world of sin. The army was as political a beast as anything in Washington, and the intrigue, subterfuge and bickering that went on was at least as serious a threat to its survival as the Army of Northern Virginia. Poisonous and unproductive internal relations at every level of the army damned and delayed its progress as an effective field force.

Perhaps most significant, the Army of the Potomac’s “interior administration” was demonstrably inferior to that in Robert E. Lee’s army, where mission-type orders, civil social discourse, personal interaction, common purpose and trust, and comradely feelings were pervasive. The Army of the Potomac, at the beginning of January 1863, had a long way to go to achieve a level of basic military teamwork and cooperation remotely worthy of the terms.

Official records, especially correspondence between generals and officers of this period, shed necessary light on the problem. Seemingly, no commander could issue an order to a subordinate without including a snide or sarcastic comment or a vacuous tutorial on performing the simplest task. Phrases like “send a good brigade” or “have it commanded by an energetic officer” belied a force in which insecurity shadowed and distrust permeated every command. Similarly, officers could not share problems with their superiors without being legitimately concerned about rebuff or ridicule.

Analogous problems existed in the army’s external relations with Washington authorities. The political atmosphere of the capital clouded the text of even the simplest written orders. Commanders felt they were second-guessed or judged by higher authorities, politicians or inquiry boards. The army’s officer corps, infected with demonstrable careerists, political hobgoblins, opportunists and dysfunctional (or perceived) factions, could never presume loyalty from any quarter, above or below.

Fortunately, men of merit and conviction negotiated these obstacles and rose to more responsible positions. They just needed time. In fact, that was the one thing this entire army required: more time.

On January 25, 1863, Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was elevated to command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing the hapless Burnside. “His administration was a blunder, and worse than a blunder,” Hooker said of his predecessor, “for not less than one third of his Army had disappeared from the field, and those that remained were conspiring to destroy the patriotism and devotion of those that remained.” The rock-bottom morale and poor conditions “needed but a few weeks more to finish the Army of the Potomac,” Hooker contended. “Its end was close at hand.”

For once, Hooker—who was quite prone to bluster—was not exaggerating. “It was in view of those difficulties, that I trembled at the task before me, in entering upon so important a command,” he admitted.

Adapted from Seizing Destiny: The Army of the  Potomac’s Valley Forge and the Civil War Winter That Saved the Union by Albert Z. Conner Jr. with Chris Mackowski (Savas Beatie, 2013)