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Doc. 110.-the army of the Potomac.

General Burnside's Second attempt to cross the Rappahannock.

headquarters army of the Potomac, camp near Falmouth, January 23, 1863.
the second attempt on the part of the army of the Potomac to obtain possession of the southern [397] bank of the Rappahannock as a base of operations against Richmond has been foiled. If the weather had continued favorable, we should have succeeded last Wednesday morning in successfully laying the pontoons some miles above Falmouth. We should have thrown a hundred thousand men over to the other side of the river. We should have surprised the enemy, for our preliminary feints and operations had succeeded in puzzling them and dividing their forces, and we were forty-eight hours ahead of them. We should have obtained possession of the fortified heights in the rear of Fredericksburgh, and thus of the whole line of the Rappahannock River. It is even possible that we should have been able to push on, as was proposed, directly to the North-Anna, and seized a base of operations against Richmond twenty miles nearer the rebel capital. This is a large draft we are making on fortune, but it is not unreasonable. The plan was an excellent one. Every military man disapproved the mode of attack adopted last time. Every military man approved the mode of attack adopted this time. It is impossible to help feeling a certain spite at having success, due to us by labor and hope, thus snatched out of our fingers by some elfish fate.

It is now no secret that the point selected for crossing the Rappahannock was Banks's Ford, six miles above Falmouth, and from eight to ten miles removed from the ground occupied by the army. This point of passage was selected at the very last moment, and after every other available locality along the river, for a stretch of fifty miles, had been carefully examined.

The rebels, anticipating that we would, ere long, make another attempt to cross the river, and that when we did, it would be above or below Fredericksburgh, had distributed a corps of observation and double lines of pickets, from the fords of the Upper Rappahannock, twenty-five miles above our position, to Port Royal, twenty-five miles below. They had also busily filled up the interval since the battle of Fredericksburgh, in fortifying every point available for crossing, by throwing up earth-works and digging rifle-pits.

Their experience at Fredericksburgh had taught them all the use of these powerful auxiliaries in barring the passage of a river, and the amount of work they have done, in dotting a line fifty miles long with improvised field-works, rifle-pits and abattis, is almost incredible.

They have been further assisted in guarding this line, by the knowledge that a crossing would hardly be attempted except near one of the fords or shallows of the river. Ordinary military prudence would dictate this on our part, for it would hardly do to put before the army, in case of the destruction of the pontoons, the frightful alternative of an impassable stream between them and retreat. Now, there are only some ten or a dozen of these fords, and it is obvious what an advantage this puts into the hands of the enemy, by limiting the number of points necessary to be guaded by them.

As the rebels had posted a heavy picket-force at each of these points, there remained but one course — to make preparations as though for crossing at each of them, and so deceive the enemy as to our real intentions. It was quite impossible to make preparations at any one exclusive point with such secrecy that the rebels should not become aware of it; while their central position, distributed along the line of the railroad, and having beside an excellent plank-road, would enable them rapidly to concentrate, meet, and repel us.

This work was well done on our part, for it is now possible to speak of it. Every locality available for crossing was carefully examined. Elaborate preparations for forcing a passage even were made at various points along the river. New roads were cut through the forest to afford readier access to the fords — pontoons were sent to the vicinity, batteries were planted, rifle-pits were dug and cavalry demonstrations were made all along the line. The Chief of Artillery and Chief-Engineer were indefatigable in their riding, surveying, and scrutinizing.

The locality first actually chosen to make the crossing, and determined upon some three weeks ago, was Skinner's Neck, ten miles below Fredericksburgh. Here the river makes a reentering bend, forming a promontory a couple of miles in extent. The advantages of this position, enabling us to place gunboats on each side of the Neck, and plant batteries perfectly covering our crossing, are obvious enough. This point selected, urgent preparations were set on foot with a view to a crossing.

In the mean time, every rood of the river margin both above and below Fredericksburgh, was surveyed with critical care. The result of this survey was the conviction that the fords some distance above, were on the whole, preferable to the point selected.

The reason of this will become apparent from one or two topographical considerations.

Following the sinuosities of the Rappahannock is a ridge of hills varying from one hundred to two hundred and fifty feet in height. This terrace varies in distance from the river margin — in places coming down flush with it, and elsewhere running back for a maximum distance of a couple of miles. The interval between the river and the ridge is a perfectly level plain, over which the river at one time flowed, the ridge having in geological times, formed the bank of the river. It was this plain over which our troops had to pass, and which was so murderously swept by the rebel artillery on the occasion of the battle of Fredericksburgh, especially on our left wing. It would be well this time to avoid such a slaughter-pen, and the position at Skinner's Neck was open to this cardinal objection.

Not so with the several positions on the Upper Rappahannock. At United States Ford, Banks's Ford, and elsewhere, the bluff runs down almost to the water's edge, whence there is an abrupt ascent up the height to the plateau on its top. Moreover, as the topographical configuration of our side of the river is a precise counterpart of the south side, it was easy to obtain excellent positions, within short range, for our artillery, and we could [398] thus hope to silence any batteries the rebels might bring to bar our passage. If, then, we should succeed in laying the pontoons, it would simply be a matter of a rush up the heights under cover of the fire of our artillery, and a key position would be gained. It should further be added that the rebels had fortified far more below than they had above; and these considerations determined the choice of some of the fords of the Upper Rappahannock as the point of traverse.

United States Ford, ten miles above Fredericksburgh, was selected as the point. Happily a far greater degree of secrecy than we had hitherto succeeded in preserving as to our projected movements was this time obtained. The pontoons, of which a large additional supply had been obtained in Washington, were sent up by a back-road and under cover of night — at the same time others were sent down the river to other points. Roads were cut to the various fords above; spots were cleared of their timber for positions for batteries — but precisely similar work was carried on at a half-dozen other points.

The weather ever since the battle of Fredericksburgh, with one or two brief exceptions, had been magnificent, and the roads were in excellent condition for military operations. All felt, however, that this season of grace, inviting to action, could not last; that a single night's rain would render the roads impracticable for the whole winter, and we could not help praying that the golden moments might be utilized. Would to Heaven they had!

Although an encouraging degree of secrecy had been observed as to the projected movement, the active preliminary preparations going on — of which the rebels were made aware by their numerous spies on this side of the river — admonished them to be on the look-out here. The advance was determined for Tuesday, the twentieth. On the Thursday previous the rebel pickets were sending up signal rockets all night, and the observations of our own signal corps showed that a division of rebel infantry had been moved up to the vicinity of the ford. Presently mounds of the red clay of the region, which began to become apparent through the glass, showed that the watchful enemy was at work throwing up rifle-pits.

On Monday, at one o'clock, the troops were set in motion, Hooker's command moving in column up by one road, Franklin's by another. It was a march of but ten or a dozen miles, and night saw them encamped in the woods, within convenient distance of the fords. The crossing was to have been attempted on Tuesday morning. Information brought by our spies and scouts from the other side of the river determined a day's delay, and, at the last moment, the plan was changed. Instead of attempting the crossing at United States Ford, Gen. Burnside resolved to make it at Banks's Ford--four miles below — and the movement was put off for another day. On Wednesday morning the crossing would take place. With the first gray dawn the pontoons would be laid under the direction of the corps of engineers, protected by our sharpshooters. It was presumed that a couple of hours would suffice to see this done, and four hours was considered enough for the crossing of the whole infantry force.

The crossing of a river, though in itself an operation belonging rather to tactics than to strategy, may yet be a cardinal point in a whole system of strategic movements. Our hope was that we should surprise the enemy at Banks's Ford. Hooker's and Franklin's grand divisions would then be thrown across the river, while at the same time one of Sumner's corps (the Second) would make a feint with pontoons, etc., some miles below Fredericksburgh. The key of the whole situation is the hills in the rear of Taylor's house, a mile back from the ford, and a mile and a half below it. If we should succeed in making the heights, and taking possession of this position, the game would be entirely in our own hands. The strong rebel position in the rear of Fredericksburgh would thus be turned, and just as soon as this was effected, Gen. Sumner was to cross at the old place, directly opposite Fredericksburgh, and attack the works in front. The reserve grand division of Gen. Sigel was assisting in guarding the line of the river and our lines of communication.

On Tuesday every preparation had been made. That day Gen. Burnside issued a general order, announcing that “the army of the Potomac was about to meet the enemy once more,” and that “the auspicious moment had arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country.” This order was read to the men that evening, and night found the infantry encamped in the woods within easy speaking distance. The positions for the batteries had all been selected. The batteries were at hand. The pontoons were within reach, a short distance back of the river.

We were sitting, the editor-in-chief of the Times and the present writer, in our tent at headquarters that evening, looking forward to a start on horseback for the scene of operations before daylight the following morning. About nine o'clock a light, ominous pattering was heard on the canvas roof. “It is rain!” was the exclamation, and, looking out from the tent, the heavens showed all the signs of a terrible storm. From that moment we felt that the winter campaign had ended.

It was a wild Walpurgis night, such as Goethe paints in the “Faust” while the demons held revel in the forest of the Brocken. All hopes that it would be a “mere shower” were presently blasted. It was evident we were in for a regular north-easter, and among the roughest of that rough type. Yet was there hard work done that fearful night. One hundred and fifty pieces of artillery were to be planted in the position selected for them by Gen. Hunt, Chief of Artillery--a man of rare energy and of a high order of [399] professional skill. The pontoons, also, were drawn nearer toward the river, but it was dreadful work; the roads, under the influence of the rain, were becoming shocking; and by daylight, when the boats should all have been on the banks, ready to slide down into the water, but fifteen had been gotten up — not enough for one bridge, and five were wanted!

The night operations had not escaped the attention of the rebels. Early in the morning a signal gun was fired opposite the ford, reminding one of that other signal gun fired by them on the morning of Thursday, the eleventh December, when we began laying the pontoon opposite Fredericksburgh, and which was the token for the concentration of the whole force at that point. It was indispensable that we should secure all the advantages of a surprise ; and though our intention was thus blown to their ears early on Wednesday morning, we were, nevertheless, forty-eight hours ahead of them, and with favorable conditions should have been able to carry our position before they could possibly concentrate.

Accordingly a desperate effort was made by the Commanding General to get ready the bridges. It was obvious, however, that, even if completed, it would be impossible for us, in the then condition of the ground, to get a single piece of artillery up the opposite declivity. It would be necessary to rely wholly upon the infantry — indeed, wholly on the bayonet. Happily, if the rebels should prove to be in strong force, the country is too thickly wooded to admit of much generalship, and it was hoped that our superior weight of metal would carry the day.

Early in the forenoon I rode up to the headquarters of Gens. Hooker and Franklin, about two miles from Banks's Ford. The night's rain had made deplorable havoc with the roads. The nature of the upper geologic deposits of this region affords unequalled elements for bad roads. The sand makes the soil pliable, the clay makes it sticky, and the two together form a road out of which, when it rains, the bottom drops, but which is at the same time so tenacious that extrication from its clutch is all but impossible.

The utmost effort was put forth to get pontoons enough into position to construct a bridge or two. Double and triple teams of horses and mules were harnessed to each pontoon-boat. It was in vain. Long powerful ropes were then attached to the teams, and one hundred and fifty men were put to the task on each boat. The effort was but little more successful. They would founder through the mire for a few feet — the gang of Lilliputians with their huge-ribbed Gulliver — and then give up breathless. Night arrived, but the pontoons could not be got up. The rebels had discovered what was up, and the pickets on the opposite bank called over to ours that they “would come over to-morrow and help us build the bridge.”

That night the troops again bivouacked in the same position in the woods they had held the night before. You can imagine it must have been a desperate experience-and yet not by any means as bad as might be supposed. The men were in the woods, which afforded them some shelter from the wind and rain, and gave them a comparatively dry bottom to sleep on. Many had brought their shelter-tents; and making a flooring of spruce, hemlock, or cedar boughs, and lighting huge camp-fires, they enjoyed themselves as well as the circumstance would permit. On the following morning a whisky ration, provided by the judicious forethought of Gen. Burnside, was on hand for them.

Thursday morning saw the light struggling through an opaque envelope of mist, and dawned upon another day of storm and rain. It was a curious sight presented by the army as we rode over the ground, miles in extent, occupied by it. One might fancy some new geologic cataclysm had overtaken the world; and that he saw around him the elemental wrecks left by another Deluge.

An indescribable chaos of pontoons, wagons, and artillery encumbered the road down to the river — supply wagons upset by the roadside — artillery “stalled” in the mud — ammunition trains mired by the way. Horses and mules dropped down dead, exhausted with the effort to move their loads through the hideous medium. One hundred and fifty dead animals, many of them buried in the liquid muck, were counted in the course of a morning's ride. And the muddle was still further increased by the bad arrangements, or rather the failure to execute the arrangements that had been made. It was designed that Franklin's column should advance by one road and Hooker's by another. But, by mistake, a portion of the troops of the left grand division debouched into the road assigned to the centre, and cutting in between two divisions of one of Hooker's corps, threw every thing into confusion. In consequence, the woods and roads have for the past two days been filled with stragglers, though very many of them were involuntary stragglers, and were evidently honestly seeking to rejoin their regiments.

It was now no longer a question of how to go on; if it was a question how to get back. That night (Thursday) the three days cooked rations which the men had taken in their haversacks when starting, would give out, and the other six days provisions were in the supply trains, which stuck fast in the mud miles behind. Indeed, the rations had already, in many cases, given out, and boxes of hard crackers were brought up on mules or carried on men's shoulders. An order from General Burnside to withdraw the forces to their old position was momentarily expected. It did not come, but instead, another order stating that Gen. Burnside had “good reasons” for commanding the troops to hold their present position till to-day.

But whether we should move forward or backward, the first requisite obviously was to put the roads in such a condition as would admit of movement at all. Accordingly, all the available [400] force was at once set to work corduroying the “rotten” roads and putting them into some kind of practical condition.

Early this morning the army was ordered back to its old camping ground, and about noon the infantry began to pass by these headquarters. The lads trudged along tired enough, but jolly withal, and disposed to be quite facetious over the “mud campaign,” whose odd experiences will doubtless long form the theme of conversation around many a camp-fire.

Thus ends an enterprise which had every human promise of success, but which has been baulked and brought to naught by causes which mortal ken could neither have foreseen nor prevented. The fatal part played by the elements needs no comment. Whether this drawback might not have been overcome by vigorous effort and hearty cooperation on the part of the military leaders, is a question much mooted here. There are those who assert, that had it not been for the apathy of some in high places of military command, we might still have carried the day. This question, however, is one more fit to be brought to another bar than that of these columns.

There is, however, another point on which I cannot forbear to say a word. One of your Washington telegrams, referring to the causes of the late failure, says: “The Quartermaster's department, as usual, when an important movement is being executed, was behind with its supplies.” I have not scrupled in this correspondence to use the privileges of criticism to its fullest extent, and can say to the reader, therefore, that this is a total misapprehension. Abundant supplies were on hand, and there are at this moment more than six million rations stored here in convenient depots. Our chief lack is not in the material, but the moral order. We do not fail for want of food or clothing, or ammunition or arms. The army was never so well supplied with all these things. No! The disease is of a more subtle nature. It is in the blood and brain. We want energy, capacity, faith, devotion.

'Tis life of which our veins are scant.

The only compensation left us in the failure of a movement, which, if made a week ago, would in all probability have been successful, is that we did not succeed in making it at the present time. If the storm which has stopped us on the north side of the Rappahannock had embargoed us on the south side, what is to-day only a misfortune, might have been a great disaster. There has been no opportunity of testing how the men would behave on again meeting the enemy. This time they have been tried by enduring rather than acting. But I believe that, in spite of all the drawbacks, they would have behaved well. And certainly, if “they conquer who suffer” the behavior of the army of the Potomac, amid circumstances so discouraging, may be counted half a battle and a whole victory.--N. Y. Times.

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A. E. Burnside (6)
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