Burnside bows out after debacle
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
See previous stories.
Part 36 of a series on the
1862 Battle of Fredericksburg
THE FREDERICKSBURG Campaign began on Nov. 7, 1862, when Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside received orders to take command of the Army of the Potomac. It ended 11 weeks later on Jan. 26, 1863, when, at the orders of President Abraham Lincoln, Burnside turned command of the army over to Gen. Joseph Hooker. The president had a high personal regard for Burnside, but he realized that the general did not have the confidence of the army or its officers. The main reason for that, of course, was Burnside's defeat at Fredericksburg.
The Army of the Potomac had suffered defeat before, but never had it been so decisive and so obvious. Everyone in the army, from generals down to privates, had seen that the attacks against Marye's Heights could not succeed, and yet Burnside had insisted in making them. As a result, the army had been slaughtered and very nearly annihilated.
"What a bloody, one-sided battle this was," complained one soldier. "It was simply murder, and the whole army is mad about it. We are no fools! We can see when we have a chance; here we had none."
It was not simply that Union soldiers had suffered, but rather that their sufferings had been to no purpose. The army, noted one reporter, was "decimated and despondent, the soldiers feeling deeply, more acutely than words can tell, that they were dying in vain."
Sullenness pervaded the army. The troops were dissatisfied with everyone and everything. They had lost faith in the government, in their commanders, and in themselves. "There is a feeling of deep and painful anxiety as to the future," Marsena Patrick confided in his journal. "No confidence is felt in any one."
Demoralization frequently boiled over into anger, the soldiers lashing out at any and everybody whom they held responsible for the disaster. William F. Morgan of the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteers thought that "The slaughter at Fredericksburg is a disgrace to the world, and there should be a Hell made expressly for its authors. To concentrate an army in an open field exposed to two cross firesis an idea so preposterous that no one but a fool or a lunatic would ever conceive."
Robert Pratt of the 5th Vermont was even more severe in his denunciations. "I am yet alive in this wicked war," he informed his family. "A war carried on and thousands after thousands of men being killed and made crippled for life. And for what, god only knowsFor army controllers and for a mess of men that were damn fools trying to make themselves eminent men in the eyes of the people by lives of others. But it is most played outI shall never fight any more. I think I can say with out lying that [I] have done my duty well since [I] enlisted. But now to go and be murdered for nothingI shall not. Terrible is the punishment of this nation."
Blame for the disaster fell squarely on Burnside. "Almost everyone was cursing Burnside as the author of the defeat at Fredericksburg," wrote John B. Vance of Pennsylvania. "At the Reviews when he rode along the lines & the Col[onel]s would call out--'Three cheers for Burnside' the men would stand silent & sullen or mutter curses against him."
Even those who personally liked Burnside felt he was not up the job. "Burnsides may be a good enough man but he is not the man to command such an army as the Army of the Potomac," wrote one soldier.
The lack of confidence in Burnside's ability pervaded all ranks of the army. Gen. William B. Franklin confided that after Fredericksburg he had "lost all confidence" in Burnside's ability. "There was not a man in my command who did not believe that everything he would undertake would fail," he asserted.
Burnside wrote a public letter manfully shouldering full responsibility for the disaster, but that only lowered him in some men's eyes. "What an awful greenhorn Burnside is, don't you think so too?" Lt. Henry Abbott wrote to his family in Boston. "His letter is the letter of a high-minded donkey, if it is high-minded at all, which I am beginning to doubt"
Even those who admired Burnside's courage in taking responsibility for the loss felt that he had to go. "His assumption of all blame for the defeat is worthy of him," wrote a soldier in the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers. "But it will not atone for the slaughter of so many brave men."
The debacle at Fredericksburg convinced many Union soldiers that prosecution of the war was fruitless. Maj. Franklin Pierce of the 108th New York admitted that "the whole army is disheartened and discouraged and it is certain that by arms the [Southern Confederacy] can never be subdued." Lt. Abbott blamed the army's defeat on politicians in the nation's capital. "The strongest peace party is the army," he declared. "If the small fry at Washington want to hear treason talked, let them come to the armyI firmly believe thatthe men who ordered the crossing of the river are responsible to God for murder. How long you people at home are going to stand it I don't know, but if we again have to turn our backs on the rebel enemy, we shan't stop untill [sic] we get to Washington & lay our hands on our true enemies, those blood stained scoundrels in the government."
The army was in a dangerous, surly mood. Only victory would revive it. In an effort to restore the army's confidence, Burnside planned a surprise crossing of the Rappahannock River below Fredericksburg on New Year's Day 1863. At the same time, Union cavalry would cross the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford, 20 miles above the town, and strike south destroying railroads, bridges, and canals.
Two of Burnside's officers alerted President Lincoln to the plan, however, and warned him that it would be a disaster. Alarmed by this message, Lincoln wired Burnside ordering him to make no forward movement without first consulting with him. When the general learned that two of his officers had gone behind his back to subvert his plan, he was livid. He demanded that the president expose the two informers, but Lincoln refused to do so. Burnside had his sources, however, and he soon discovered the culprits' identities.
Meanwhile, the general revived his plans for a midwinter offensive. This time, instead of crossing the Rappahannock downriver from Fredericksburg, he planned to move upstream and cross at Banks' Ford. (Banks' Ford is located near the spot where River Road grazes the Rappahannock River in Spotsylvania County, less than a mile west of Bragg Road.) The movement got under way on Jan. 20. The weather was unusually mild. In the evening the winds shifted, however, and by 7 p.m. it began to rain. For two days it steadily poured, saturating the countryside and turning the unpaved roads into knee-deep mud. Burnside's luck had failed him again. After struggling for two days in the bottomless mire, the Union general reluctantly ordered his troops back to camp. The Mud March was over.
In the wake of the movement, the army's discontent reached new heights. Soldiers began deserting by the dozens, then by the hundreds. "The Army of the Potomac is no more an army," declared one officer. "Its patriotism has oozed out through the pores opened by the imbecility of its leaders, and the fatigues and disappointments of a fruitless campaign." Army officers spoke openly of their contempt for Burnside's leadership. Leading the chorus of criticism was Gen. Joseph Hooker, Burnside's chief rival.
Burnside could not effectively command the army under such circumstances and determined to clean house. On Jan. 23, he drafted General Orders No.
Lincoln liked Burnside, but it was painfully obvious to him that the general no longer possessed the confidence of the army. After discussing General Order No.
THE FINAL INSTALLMENT: The battlefield becomes a park
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."