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150th Anniversary: Battle of Fredericksburg | Battle of Chancellorsville

Ambrose Burnside ponders his options

Part six of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz

AMBROSE BURNSIDE was in a quandary. The newly christened commander of the Army of the Potomac had brought his troops to Fredericksburg with the intention of crossing the Rappahannock River and pressing on to Richmond.

 

Upon reaching the Tidewater town, however, he discovered that the pontoon bridges that he needed to span the river had not arrived.

Burnside could have sent his troops wading across the river at Falmouth or at one of several upriver fords, but getting his supply wagons and artillery trains across was another matter. To Burnside’s way of thinking, there was no choice but to wait for the pontoons.

They arrived a week later, but, by then, it was too late.

James Longstreet’s corps of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army— 40,000 men—had reached Fredericksburg and stood ready to contest any attempt Union forces might make to cross the river.

The Union commander pondered his options. Upriver from Fredericksburg stood

Banks’ Ford, but Longstreet’s troops covered the ford and the river’s steep banks there favored defense. (Banks’ Ford is located near the spot where River Road today grazes the Rappahannock River.) Above Banks’ Ford, the Rapidan River split off from the Rappahannock, giving Burnside two broad rivers to cross rather than one.

Had Burnside succeeded in forcing his way across the river there, he would have entered the Wilderness, a dense second-growth forest that would have hemmed his army in and made it difficult to maneuver. All things considered, it was perhaps best to leave the upriver crossings alone.

Then there was Fredericksburg itself. Although Longstreet’s pickets guarded the Tidewater town, Union artillery on Stafford Heights (near Chatham and Ferry Farm) could easily drive them away. It was after Burnside’s army crossed the river that the trouble would start.

Longstreet’s divisions occupied the heights behind the town, and it would be no easy matter to drive them off, particularly since “Old Pete” had fortified the hills with entrenchments. There was one other option: a crossing downriver from Fredericksburg.

After flowing past the Colonial town, the Rappahannock meandered side to side until it reached Port Royal, where it broadened to an estuary. A crossing below Port Royal was infeasible due to the width of the river, but a crossing upriver from the town just might be feasible.

Not that a crossing there would be easy. The ground north of the Rappahannock between Fredericksburg and Port Royal was choppy, with many steep ravines. Creeks would have to be bridged and roads improved before the army could move.

It would be hard to keep such work a secret from the prying eyes of local inhabitants, who would be all too willing to pass the information on to Lee.

Even if Burnside did force his way across the river, he might still find Confederates blocking his path on the hills beyond. The downriver route offered two advan tages, however.

First, there was at that point no sizable body of Confederates there to contest the crossing. Scouts reported just a few Confederate horsemen there, and one or two well-placed shots by a Union battery would quickly scatter them.

If Burnside could throw his army across the river quickly enough, he still might be able to get between Lee and Richmond. Burnside made his plans accordingly.

The spot he selected for his crossing was Skinker’s Neck, a flat, fertile area hemmed in by a large bend in the river. (Local golfers will recognize Skinker’s Neck as the site of Four Winds Golf Course.) No sooner had Union engineers begun improving the approaches to the river there, however, than Confederate infantry appeared —thousands upon thousands of them.

Lee had obviously guessed Burnside’s intentions and shifted part of Longstreet's corps to Skinker’s Neck to meet the crossing. Or so it must have seemed to the bemused Union commander.

What had actually occurred, however, was that “Stonewall” Jackson's corps—the missing half of Lee's army—had finally arrived and was going into position south of Fredericksburg.

With the arrival of Jackson’s men, Skinker’s Neck no longer seemed so inviting. Still, Burnside had to do something.

The Northern people expected him to bring Lee to battle before winter, and he would not let them down. The weather had been unusually mild so far, but that was about to change.

On Dec. 5, the skies dropped 4 inches of snow on the ground. In time it would melt, but its significance was clear: Winter was just around the corner.

With time running out, Burnside revised his plans. Rather than cross at Skinker’s Neck, as he had intended, he would cross at Fredericksburg itself. The Confederate army held a 20-mile line—from the fords above Fredericksburg down to Port Royal. That meant it had to be stretched thin.

If Burnside could throw his army across the river and attack Lee on the heights behind the town before the Confederate leader could concentrate troops there to meet an attack, he just might cut Lee’s army in two and achieve the victory he sought.

Burnside called his grand division commanders to a council of war on Dec. 9 and explained his plan to them. William Franklin and Joseph Hooker opposed the scheme, while loyal old Edwin Sumner expressed himself as willing to undertake anything that Burnside proposed.

Sumner's subordinates were not so compliant. For three weeks, they had watched as the Confederates strengthened their position on the hills behind the town. They knew that Burnside was leading them into a slaughter pen, and they did not hesitate to say so.

“There were not two opinions among the subordinate officers as to the rashness of the undertaking,” noted Gen. Darius Couch.

Burnside got wind of his subordinates’ objections and confronted his critics at Sumner’s headquarters the next evening.

“I have heard your criticisms, gentlemen, and your complaints,” one officer remembered him saying. “You know how reluctantly I assumed the responsibility of command. I was conscious of what I lacked; but still I have been placed here where I am and will do my best. I rely on God for wisdom and strength. Your duty is not to throw cold water, but to aid me loyally with your advice and hearty service.”

Gen. Couch replied that “no matter what might be my opinion as to the feasibility of the maneuver that he would find no one more ready than myself to aid him in the enterprise.” Others voiced similar sentiments.

If Burnside did not have the enthusiastic support of his officers, he could at least rely upon them to obey his orders.

As word of Burnside’s planned advance trickled down through the ranks, a feeling of doom pervaded the army.

“Your father has determined to cross immediately,” Sumner’s son-in-law wrote his wife, “and his staff all feel that they are to march into the jaws of death itself. Time can never efface the impression they all gave me of their almost sure and certain destruction.”

Sgt. John Holahan of the 45th Pennsylvania Volunteers expressed similar foreboding. “‘On to Richmond’ has prevailed over reason and we must go!” he confided to his diary.

“Well, go we will, but not without apprehension. Those terrible heights before us are enough to terrify, but we will do our best.”

That evening, as the hour for the crossing the Rappahannock drew nigh, portions of the army left their camps and crept closer to the river. Col. Samuel K. Zook did not expect to return.

As he gazed across the watery divide toward the dreaded heights, now teeming with Confederate artillery and rifle pits, he could not shake a sense of personal doom.

seems to be something left out of above sentence; have e-mailed pfanz Grabbing a pen, he scribbled off a final note to his son.

“I expect to be sacrificed tomorrow,” he wrote. “Goodbye old Boy & if tomorrow night finds me dead remember me kindly as a soldier who meant to do his whole duty.”

NEXT: Before the storm

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