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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville

March to Fredericksburg

‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz

Why Burnside chose to send the Army of the Potomac this way in 1862

Third in a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

GEN. AMBROSE E. BURNSIDE felt as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, and, in a manner of speaking, it did, for on Nov. 7, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had appointed the affable Indiana native to command the Army of the Potomac.

At 115,000 men, the Army of the Potomac was, by far, the Union’s largest body of men. For more than a year, it had been fighting Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederates in Virginia and Maryland and rarely had it won. As the army’s new commander, it was Burnside’s job to change that. The question was how?

Burnside had accepted the command with the utmost reluctance, but once in the job he moved with uncharacteristic energy. His first step was to reorganize the army. At the time he took command, seven corps comprised the Army of the Potomac. Burnside felt that this was too many for one man to effectively wield in combat, and he promptly reorganized the army into three “grand divisions” of two corps apiece. (One corps, the 11th, remained unattached on duty in Northern Virginia.)

To command the grand divisions, Burnside selected his three highest-ranking officers: William B. Franklin, Edwin Sumner and Joseph Hooker. Of the three, only Hooker had shown any aptitude for high command. Franklin was a protégé of McClellan’s and, like his mentor, was cautious and slow. Sumner, by contrast, was a gallant old soldier of 65 winters, a former dragoon who would charge hell itself if ordered to do so. At Fredericksburg, he would do just that.

Opposing Burnside was a Confederate army of 78,000 men led by Lee. The Southern army was dangerously divided. Half of it, under James Longstreet, occupied Culpeper, blocking a direct advance by Burnside on Richmond. The other half, led by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, lay across the Blue Ridge in the Shenandoah Valley, looking for an opportunity to sweep through the mountain passes onto Burnside’s vulnerable lines of supply.

Conventional military wisdom dictated that Burnside attack and overwhelm Longstreet’s corps before Jackson could come to its assistance. That was the plan of action McClellan would have taken-or at least so he later claimed. But Burnside had other ideas.

Even if he defeated Longstreet, the Union commander reasoned, the Confederates would simply retreat to a new line closer to Richmond. The closer Longstreet got to Richmond, the stronger he would become. Burnside, by contrast, would grow weaker as he advanced south because he would have to detail troops to protect his growing line of supply.

It was that line of supply that troubled Burnside the most. To feed, clothe, and supply his massive army, Burnside relied on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, which ran south from Alexandria to Gordonsville, then south and east to Richmond. The railroad was barely able to supply his army under the best of conditions. If Jackson, or Confederate cavalry, managed to cut the railroad even for a few days, Burnside’s men and animals would face the prospect of starvation.

Then there was Washington. As commander of the Army of the Potomac, Burnside’s top priority was to protect the Union capital. Advancing down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, via Gordonsville, would pull Burnside west, away from the capital, making it vulnerable to a quick Confederate thrust.

In light of these difficulties, the new commander determined to shift his army to Fredericksburg, and advance toward Richmond by way of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. The Fredericksburg route had much to recommend it. It would keep Burnside closer to the Union-controlled rivers, thereby making it easier and safer to supply his army; it kept him between Lee’s army and Washington, and it got him away from Jackson’s menacing presence.

In fact, there was only one drawback to the Fredericksburg route: the Rappahannock River. At Culpeper, the Rappahannock is little more than a stream, fordable at any number of spots. By the time it reaches Fredericksburg, however, it broadens to a sizable river, 400 feet in width, making it necessary to use bridges. And that was the problem, for there were no bridges at Fredericksburg. The Confederates had destroyed them all earlier in the war.

The solution was to employ pontoons, portable bridges that floated on boats. The Army of the Potomac owned a pontoon train, but, unfortunately, it had been left back at Berlin, Md., a few weeks earlier when the army had crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. No matter; Burnside would simply have officials in Washington order the pontoon train from Berlin to Aquia Creek. From there, engineers could haul the pontoons overland the remaining distance to Fredericksburg.

With that difficulty solved, Burnside submitted his plan to the president. Lincoln at first was cool to the proposal. After all, he had put Burnside in charge of the army to bring the Confederate army to battle. But now that Burnside was command, he intended to march away from the enemy and go to Fredericksburg.

Lincoln sent two emissaries to Burnside’s headquarters near Warrenton, to discuss the matter. In the end, Burnside got his way. “The President has just assented to your plan,” Gen.-in-Chief Henry Halleck wired from Washington on Nov. 14. “He thinks that it will succeed if you move rapidly; otherwise not.”

Rapid movement was not Burnside’s strength. Like McClellan before him, he had what contemporary wags referred to as “the slows.” But, in this instance, the general disappointed his critics by moving with unusual speed.

Gen. Edwin Sumner’s Right Grand Division led the march. Breaking camp on Nov.15, the old dragoon reached Falmouth in just two days’ time. Across the Rappahannock River lay Fredericksburg, defended by a force of less than 1,000 men.

While Northern guns threw shells into the town from a point near modern-day Falmouth Baptist Church, occupying the Southerners’ attention, Sumner ordered the Irish Brigade to splash across the river at Falmouth and seize the town.

The brigade was halfway across when Burnside arrived. Fearful that the river might rise and cut his army in two, Burnside ordered Sumner to recall his troops to the north bank. He would await the arrival of the pontoons.

NEXT: The Case of the Missing Pontoons

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of “Abraham Lincoln at City Point” and “Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life.”