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[575]

At the beginning of December the rain had been succeeded by cold, and winter had set in with unwonted severity; then the weather became suddenly mild. Every day toward noon the sun dispersed the thick fog which gathered along the watercourses during the night; it thus eventually dried up the muddy roads of Virginia, and seemed to invite the Federals to renew the campaign. Burnside determined to take advantage of this intermission, and on the 8th of December gave all the necessary orders for forcing the passage of the Rappahannock at Skinner's Neck; but, having learned that Jackson was awaiting him behind some entrenchments that had been hastily thrown up, he gave up the project, nor did he think of looking out for a passage above Fredericksburg. In ascending the river, starting from Taylor's Hill, the right bank is precipitous and easy to defend, and soon after is covered with wood, which becomes thicker and thicker as one approaches the almost impenetrable forest of the wilderness, which extends beyond the point of confluence of the Rappahannock and the Rapidan. In order to turn Lee's positions effectually, it would have been necessary to cross the river above this point of confluence. But Burnside could not undertake this movement, which sound policy would otherwise have suggested, as it would have been returning indirectly to the plan formed by McClellan when he had proposed to march upon Culpepper; he therefore selected the town of Fredericksburg itself as the point of crossing, although he fully realized the difficulties attending such an enterprise. From the summit of Stafford Heights he could perfectly distinguish the two lines of fortifications erected along the terraces in front of him, and it was easy to calculate the number of guns that would be placed in position, for the purpose of overthrowing his troops, as soon as the latter had deployed along the plain. But this very difficulty was the cause of his resolution. He thought that the enemy, deeming this position impregnable, would weaken it, and that it might be possible to wrest it from him whilst the main body of his forces was occupied in watching the Lower Rappahannock. This was to form a very wrong opinion of such vigilant adversaries as Lee and his lieutenants. But even if he had succeeded in deceiving them for an instant, the troops to whom the guarding of Marye's Heights and Lee's Hill

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