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Gen. William B. Franklin and the trials of command

Part 14 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

 
ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

ONE CAN HARDLY blame William Buel Franklin. He was trained to be an engineer, not a general. Yet, at the Battle of Fredericksburg Franklin found himself in charge of no less than 40,000 troopsófully one-third of the Union army. It was an odd position for a man who just six months earlier had never commanded troops in combat.

Like most Civil War generals, Franklin was a product of West Point. The 39-year-old Pennsylvanian had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy first in the class of 1843, the same class in which Ulysses S. Grant had graduated 21st. As a result of his superior academic standing, Franklin had the privilege of selecting his branch of service, and he chose the engineers. No one expected him to do otherwise. After all, engineers were paid more than other branches of the Army, and they often received plum assignments in the East rather than being sent to some isolated frontier post, as were their unfortunate counterparts in the infantry or cavalry.

Specifically, Franklin was a topographical engineer. This elite group of men did mapping for the army and oversaw government construction projects. Franklin was a precise, methodical man, and he excelled in such work. Prior to the Civil War, he surveyed the Great Lakes region and produced one of the first maps of the Oregon Trail. Later, he was assigned to duty in Washington, where he oversaw construction of the U.S. Capitol dome and a wing of the U.S. Treasury building.

Franklinís reputation stood high in 1861, and when the Civil War began he was appointed colonel of the 12th U.S. Infantry. As the Army grew, so did Franklinís responsibilities. By October 1861, he was a brigadier general in charge of a 10,000-man division, and eight months later he was placed in command of Army of the Potomacís newly christened 6th Corps.

Franklin owed his advancement, in part, to his friendship with the armyís commander, Gen. George B. McClellan. ìLittle Macî and Franklin had much in common. Both were West Point graduates who had graduated at or near the top of their class and both had become Army engineers. Both were highly intelligent but cautious men.

McClellan considered his friend ìone of the best officers I had. He was perhaps a little slow to move,î he suggested, ìbut very powerful when the machine was in motion. He was a man of excellent judgment and a remarkably high order of intellectual ability. He was in all respects an admirable corps commander.î

Ambrose Burnside also held a high opinion of Franklin. Burnside replaced McClellan as the Army of the Potomacís commander in November 1862. In one of his first acts as commander, he re-organized the army, grouping its eight corps into four ìgrand divisionsî of two corps each. Franklin, as one of the armyís ranking officers, received command of the Left Grand Division, consisting of the 1st and 6th corps.

Although he had been with the army for 18 months and had taken part in several campaigns, Franklin still had not seen much combat. Chance always seemed to place him on the fringes of the action. It would be unfair to say that Franklin was a stranger to battle by the time the Union army reached Fredericksburg, but, at best, the two were passing acquaintances.

Franklinís Left Grand Division crossed the Rappahannock River below town on Dec. 11, 1862, just upriver from the modern Sylvania Heights subdivision. Compared to Gen. Edwin Sumner, who had to fight tooth and nail to secure a toehold in Fredericksburg, Franklin crossed the river with ease. Confederate forces on Franklinís front had no cover and, therefore, were unable to seriously contest his passage.

Those who tried were quickly scattered by the fire of Union artillery on Stafford Heights. At Burnsideís orders, Franklin sent just one brigade across the river on Dec. 11; the rest of his force crossed the following day. By noon, Dec. 12, Franklin had his grand division hunkered down by the river protecting his pontoon bridges.

With his troops safely across the river, Franklin met with his two corps commanders, Gens. John F. Reynolds and William F. ìBaldyî Smith, to analyze the military situation. Upon examining the Confederate position, they concluded that the Union army should attack the right end of the Confederate line, near Hamiltonís Crossing, and attempt to turn Leeís right flank.

They urged this movement on Burnside, who met with them at 5 oíclock that evening. The commanding general seemed agreeable to the plan, but he wished to give it some more thought. He promised to send Franklin and his officers written instructions within three hours.

Three hours passed, then six, then nine. At 3 a.m., Reynolds announced that he was going to bed. ìI know I have hard work ahead of me and I must get some sleep. Send for me if I am wanted.î

Finally, around 7:30 a.m., Dec. 13, Burnsideís dispatch arrived. Written two hours earlier, the disjointed orders directed Franklin to send out ìone division at leastî to ìseizeî the heights near Hamiltonís Crossing, ìtaking care to keep it well supplied and its line of retreat open.î Sumner would attack Maryeís Heights at the same time. Seizing both heights, Burnside hoped, would ìcompel the enemy to evacuate the whole ridge between these points.î

Like all engineers, Franklin was an exact man, and Burnsideís rambling orders left him confused. He had expected Burnside to order a major assault; instead his chief seemed to want something much smaller, an attack by ìone division at least.î Moreover, Burnsideís orders directed him to ìseizeî the heights. In the military parlance of that day, you seized an undefended or lightly defended position; you carried a strongly held position.

Finally, Burnside seemed to lay great emphasis on Franklin protecting his line of retreat over the pontoon bridges. Adding those three factors together, Franklin concluded that Burnside no longer wanted a large attack against the heights, as he had indicated earlier, but simply an ìarmed reconnaissance.î His literal translation of Burnsideís orders would have far-reaching consequences in the day ahead.

One has to wonder why Franklin did not seek clarification of his orders before beginning his attack. Burnsideís headquarters were just a few miles away. A courier could have ridden there and back in an hourís time. And a portable telegraph connected Franklinís headquarters with those of Burnside, reducing the time it took to communicate to a matter of minutes.

But Franklin made no effort to clarify his ill-worded orders. Maybe he was miffed at Burnside for taking so long to get his instructions to him or perhaps he felt there wasnít time. Some critics have suggested that Franklin wanted Burnside to fail so that he could inherit the army command.

Whatever his motives, Franklin had been ordered to move ìat once,î and he would brook no delay. For good or for ill, he would follow his orders to the letter.

NEXT: The gallant Pelham

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of ìAbraham Lincoln at City Pointî and ìRichard S. Ewell: A Soldierís Life.î