the campaign on the Rappahannock.
November, 1862-January, 1863.
To the general on whose shoulders was placed at this crisis the weighty burden of the conduct of the Army of the Potomac, the great responsibility came unsought and undesired.
Cherishing a high respect for McClellan
's military talent, and bound to him by the ties of an intimate affection, General Burnside
naturally shrank from superseding a commander whom he unfeignedly regarded as his superior in ability.
The manly frankness with which Burnside
laid bare at once his feelings towards his late chief
and his own sense of inadequacy for so great a trust was creditable to him, and absolved him in advance from responsibilities half the weight of which at least was assumed by those who thrust the baton into his unwilling hands.1
To the public his modest shrinking
and solicitude appeared the sign of a noble nature, wronging itself in its proper estimate, and it was judged that he was a man of such temper that the exercise of great trusts would presently bring him a sense of confidence and power.
And, indeed, severely just though Burnside
's judgment of his own capacity afterwards proved, there was at the moment no man who seemed so well fitted to succeed McClellan
Of the other corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac, no one had yet proved his capacity in the exercise of independent command.
, as chief of the North Carolina expedition, brought the prestige of a successful campaign, and it was known that he had energy, perseverance, and above all, a high degree of patriotic zeal.
Frank, manly, and generous in character, he was beloved by his own corps, and respected by the army generally.
To the troops he was recommended as the friend and admirer of McClellan
; and in this regard, as representing a legitimate succession rather than the usurpation of a successful rival, he seemed the man of all others best fitted to smooth over the perilous hiatus supervening on the lapse from power of a commander who was the idol of the army.
Upon assuming command of the army, General Burnside
made at Warrenton
a halt of ten days, during which time he endeavored to get the reins into his hands, and he carried into execution a purpose he had formed of consolidating the six corps of the Army of the Potomac into three Grand Divisions of two corps each2
—the Right Grand Division being
placed under General Sumner
, the Centre Grand Division
under General Hooker
, and the Left Grand Division under General Franklin
It need hardly be said that this protracted delay at the moment the army was manoeuvring to fight a great battle, however necessary General Burnside
may have deemed it,3
was likely seriously to jeopardize the opportunity presented by the scattered condition of Lee
's forces when the army reached Warrenton
At that time the Confederate
right, under Longstreet
, was near Culpepper
, and the left, under Jackson
, in the Shenandoah Valley
—the two wings being separated by two marches; and it had been General McClellan
's intent, by a rapid advance on Gordonsville
, to interpose between Lee
's divided forces.
But this was not a matter that touched Burnside
's plan; for he had already resolved to abandon offensive action on that line, and was determined to make a change of base to Fredericksburg
on the Rappahannock
It would be difficult to explain this determination on any sound military principle; for while the destruction of the hostile army was, in the very nature of things, the prime aim and object of the campaign, General Burnside
turned his back on that army, and set out upon a seemingly aimless adventure to the Rappahannock
, whither, in fact, Lee
had to run in search of him. If it be said that Richmond
was General Burnside
's objective point, and that, regarding this rather than the hostile force, he chose the Fredericksburg
line as one presenting fewer difficulties than that on which the army was moving (the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad), the reply is, that an advance against Richmond
was, at this season, impracticable by any line; but a single march would
have put him in position to give decisive battle under circumstances eminently advantageous to him.4
Military history is a repository of the brightest inspirations of genius and the wildest excesses of folly.
It is therefore difficult for a general to commit a blunder so gross but that it can be matched by a precedent.
's change of line of manoeuvre from one on which he had a positive objective — to wit, Lee
's army—to Fredericksburg
, where he had no objective at all, is paralleled by Dumourier's conduct in Holland
in 1793, respecting which Jomini
remarks, that he ‘foolishly abandoned the pursuit of the allies in order to transfer the theatre from the centre to the extreme left of the general field.’5
But such instances are for the warning, rather than the imitation of commanders.
The project of changing the line of operations to Fredericksburg
was not approved at Washington
, but it was assented to;6
and on the 15th of November, General Burnside
put his columns in motion from Warrenton
In the march towards Fredericksburg
, it was determined that the army should
move by the north bank of the Rappahannock
, where by a ponton-bridge, the boats for which were to be forwarded from Washington
, it would cross to Fredericksburg
and seize the bluffs on the south bank.
It had been also designed to march a force by the south side of the Rappahannock
to anticipate the possession of the heights, but this was not done.
's Grand Division led the van, and on the afternoon of the 17th it reached Falmouth
, opposite Fredericksburg
The town was at this time occupied by a regiment of Virginia
cavalry, four companies of Mississippi
infantry, and one light battery.
When the head of Sumner
's column reached the river these guns opened upon it from the heights above Fredericksburg
, but they were in a few minutes silenced by a Union battery.
was at this time fordable at several points near Fredericksburg
, and Sumner
was exceedingly anxious to cross and take possession of the town and the heights in its rear, but was prevented from doing so by instructions from General Burnside
following days, 19th and 20th, Hooker
's and Franklin
's grand divisions reached the Rappahannock
, near which the entire Union army was now concentrated.
At the time the army began its march from Warrenton
's corps was at Culpepper Courthouse, and Jackson
's corps (with the exception of one division that had been transferred to the east side of the Blue Ridge
) was still in the Shenandoah Valley.
In this situation, nothing can be imagined easier than for Lee
, by a simple manoeuvre towards Warrenton
, to have quickly recalled Burnside
from his march towards Fredericksburg
The line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad is the real defensive line for Washington
; and experience has proved that a hostile force might always, by a mere menace directed against that line, compel the Union
army to seek its recovery.
either felt himself to be not in condition to attempt any offensive enterprise at this time, or he was prevented from doing so by instructions from Richmond
; for he adopted the less brilliant alternative of planting himself directly in the path of the Union
So soon as Burnside
's intention of moving towards Fredericksburg
was fully disclosed, Jackson
's corps was directed on Orange Courthouse, and Longstreet
was instructed to march from Culpepper Courthouse on Fredericksburg
, which point his van reached two days after Sumner
's arrival at Falmouth
A few days afterwards, Jackson
's corps also was called up to the Rappahannock
, which Lee
assumed as his new defensive line.9
Whatever may have been General Burnside
's purpose in this transfer of the army, he could hardly have anticipated the result to which it conducted; for having voluntarily moved away from the hostile force, that much more than any geographical point was the proper objective of his efforts, he
chose a new route to Richmond
only to find his antagonist confronting him thereon!
It was now even questionable whether he would be able to obtain possession of Fredericksburg
The passage of the Rappahannock
was no longer the simple problem it had been when Sumner
first drew up at Falmouth
; for the rapidly arriving forces of Lee
, gathering in strength on the menacing heights opposite, showed that the passage of the Rappahannock
would cost a great battle.
Nor was there at hand the means of making the crossing; for by a blunder, the responsibility of which seems to be divided equally between General Halleck
and General Burnside
himself, no pontoon-train had reached the army; and when, a week afterwards, it arrived, Lee
's whole army had arrived also.
positioned his corps along the south bank of the river, and began the rapid construction of defences along the crest of hills in rear of Fredericksburg
, extending from the river about a mile and a half above the town to the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad, three miles below the town.10
Day by day, new earthwork epaulements for the protection of artillery made their appearance on the Fredericksburg ridge
, till, at the end of a few weeks, its terraced heights, crowned with the formidable enginery of war, presented an inferno of fire into which no man nor army would willingly venture.
Nevertheless, action was imperative; and as soon as Burnside
had established his base at Aquia Creek
, and connected it with his front of operations by the restoration of the railroad, preparations were begun for a crossing of the Rappabannock.
Now, from the situation of the opposing forces, this operation obviously resolved itself into the alternative of forcing a direct passage at Fredericksburg
, or of making a turning movement on one or the other of the Confederate
The formidable character of the Fredericksburg
defences, plainly visible from the north bank, seemed to preclude the former plan.
A turning operation on the Confederate
right, by a movement down the Rappahannock
, was therefore discussed, and it was at first determined to make the passage at Skenker's Neck, twelve miles below Falmouth
But the preparations for this move were discovered by the enemy, who concentrated below to meet the threatened advance, and the purpose was abandoned.11
There remained the operation against the Confederate
left by a movement up the Rappahannock
This plan does not, however, appear to have been entertained at this time, notwithstanding that it was what seemed to be dictated by sound military considerations.
As a tactical operation, it was easier than to make the passage below Fredericksburg
and it gave the direction of attack on Lee
's left, which was his strategic flank; for the manoeuvre, if successful, would throw the enemy back towards the coast.
But there were other considerations that determined Burnside
It was discovered that the preparations that had been made to cross at Skenker's Neck had so engaged Lee
's attention, that he continued to hold a considerable force near that point; and Burnside
judged that by making a direct crossing at Fredericksburg
, he might surprise Lee
It will be conceded that if this purpose could have been successfully executed, the result would have been eminently advantageous; but it is far from clear how its successful execution could have been reasonably expected.
The passage of a river by a great
army, observed by a watchful opponent, is not an operation of the nature of a coup de main;
and unless the enemy could neither see nor act, it was manifest he might concentrate his force as rapidly as the assailant could defile on the southern bank.
Now this remote contingency of a surprise was the sole recommendation of the operation; for, otherwise, the attack of the fortified position behind Fredericksburg
was not of a kind to be voluntarily undertaken.
It was certainly a slender chance on which to hazard the issue of a great battle: but Burnside
boldly accepted the risk.
The 10th of December found the preliminary preparations completed, and it was determined to force the passage of the Rappahannock
the following day.
the battle of Fredericksburg.
Viewed as a tactical operation, the passage of the Rappahannock
presented no formidable difficulties; and, indeed, the configuration of the ground is such that it is not in the power of an enemy occupying the south side to present it. On both banks of the stream, and parallel with its course, there runs a well-defined crest of hills; but that on the northern side, named the Stafford Heights
, approaches close to the river's margin and commands the opposite side, where the heights stand at a distance of from threequarters of a mile to a mile and a half from the bank.
Union artillery could therefore control the intermediate plain, and it was believed that it could neutralize the efforts of the enemy to oppose the construction of bridges.
But the thought of what must come after the crossing was one to give pause to every reflecting mind.
During the night of the 10th, under direction of Chief-of-Artillery Hunt
, the Stafford Heights
were crowned by a powerful
artillery force, consisting of twenty-nine batteries of one hundred and forty-seven guns, destined to reply to the enemy's batteries, to control his movements on the plain, to command the town, and to protect and cover the crossing.
At the same time, the troops were moved forward to positions immediately behind the ridge, and the ponton-trains were drawn down to the river's brink.
It had been determined to span the stream by five ponton-bridges—three directly opposite the city, and two a couple of miles below.
On the former, Sumner
's and Hooker
's Grand Divisions were to cross, while Franklin
's Grand Division was to make the passage by the lower bridge.
Before dawn of the morning of the 11th, the boats were unshipped from the teams at the river's brink; and, swiftly and silently, the engineer troops proceeded to their work, amid a dense fog that filled the valley and water-margins, and through which the moving bridge-builders appeared as spectral forms.
But no sooner did the artificers attempt to begin the construction of the bridges than they were met by volleys of musketry at short range from the riflemen posted opposite, behind the stone houses and walls of the river-street of Fredericksburg
; and instantly the double report of a piece of ordnance boomed out on the dawn.
This was the signal-gun that summoned the scattered Confederate corps to assemble for the long-expected attack.13
Aware, from the configuration of the ground, that he could not hope to prevent the passage of the stream, Lee
made his dispositions to resist the advance after crossing.14
caused a couple of regiments of Mississippi
riflemen to be posted behind the stone walls of the river-street of Fredericksburg
, to resist, as long as might be, the construction of the bridges.
An unexpected success attended their efforts.
At the point assigned for Franklin
's crossing, two miles below the town, there was no such protection for the sharp-shooters, and they were therefore covered by rifle-trenches near the river's brink.
soon succeeded in dislodging this force, and by noon two bridges were available for the passage.
The attempt to construct the bridges opposite the town, however, met a different fate; for the keen-eyed marksmen opposed so vigorous an opposition to the laying of the pontons that the little band of engineers, murderously thinned, was presently compelled to slacken work, and then cease altogether.15
Several hours passed in renewed but unavailing efforts, and it became clear that nothing could be done until the sharp-shooters were dislodged from their lurking-places.
To accomplish this, Burnside
, at ten o'clock, gave the command to concentrate the fire of all the artillery on the city and batter it down.
On this there opened from the massive concentration of artillery a terrific bombardment that was kept up for above an hour.
Each gun fired fifty rounds, and I know not how many hundred tons of iron were thrown into the town.
Of the effect of this, however, nothing could be seen, for the city was still enveloped in mist; but presently a dense pillar of smoke, defining itself on the background of fog, showed that the town had been fired by the shells; and at noon the curtain rolled up, and it was seen that Fredericksburg
was in flames at several points.
Appalling though the bombardment was as a spectacle, it was of very slight military
the hostile force lay out of range behind the hills in rear of the town, and the artillerists were unable to give sufficient depression to their guns to reach the river-front of the city, along which the marksmen were posted, and the conflagration did not extend but died out.
During the thick of the bombardment, a fresh attempt was made to complete the one half-finished bridge opposite the town; but this too failed.
The day was wearing away, and affairs were at a dead-lock.
In this state of facts, the chief of artillery
, Brigadier-General Hunt
, an officer of a remarkably clear judgment, made a suggestion that proved the fit thing to be done.
He proposed that a party should be sent across the river in the open ponton-boats, and that after dislodging or capturing the opposing force, the bridges should be rapidly completed.
The Seventh Michigan Regiment and the Nineteenth and Twentieth Massachusetts regiments of Howard
's division volunteered for this perilous enterprise.17
Ten ponton-boats were lying on the brink of the river waiting to be added to the half-finished bridge.
Rushing down the steep bank, the party found shelter behind these and behind the piles of planking destined for the covering of the bridge; and in this situation they acted for fifteen or twenty minutes as sharp-shooters, to hold in check the Southern
tirailleurs opposite, while the boats were pushed into the stream.
This being accomplished, the men quickly sought the boats, pushed off, and the oarsmen pulling lustily, they in a few minutes, notwithstanding the severe fire by which several were killed or wounded, came under cover of the opposite bluff.
Other boats followed, and so soon as an adequate number of men were assembled on the Southern
side, they rushed up the steep bank, when the Confederate
marksmen, seeing the new turn of affairs, emerged from cellar, rifle-pit, and stone wall, and scampered off up the streets of the town; but upwards of a hundred of them were captured.
The buildings that had afforded shelter for the sharp-shooters were taken possession of, and the pontonbridges were in a few minutes completed.
Thus by a simple stroke of genius was accomplished what the powerful enginery of a hundred guns had failed to effect.
The affair was gallantly executed, and the army, assembled on the northern bank, spectators of this piece of heroism, paid the brave fellows the rich tribute of soldiers' cheers.
That evening Howard
's division of Couch
's corps crossed the river and occupied Fredericksburg
, having a sharp skirmish in the upper streets of the town; and the next day, under cover of a fog, the other divisions of Couch
's corps, and the Ninth Corps under General Wilcox
(thus including the entire Right Grand Division under Sumner
), passed to the south side of the Rappahannock
At the same time, Franklin
crossed several divisions of his command by the bridges he had constructed below.
The Centre Grand Division under Hooker
was still held on the north bank of the river.
The whole of the 12th of December was consumed in passing over the columns and reconnoitring the Confederate
The troops lay on their arms for the night under that December sky: then dawned the morning of Saturday, the 13th, and this was to be the day of the battle.
Eight-and-forty hours had now passed since that signal gun, booming out on the dawn, sounded the note of concentration for the Confederate forces.
's corps was already at Fredericksburg
held the stretch of river below—his right at a remove of eighteen miles. But he had had abundant time to call in his scattered divisions, and the morning of the 13th found the entire Confederate army in position.18
Whatever hope of a successful issue attached to
's plan of attack rested on the hypothesis that the crossing of the Rappahannock
could be made a surprise.19
But this expectation had been grievously disappointed, and it would have been a judicious measure then to have made other dispositions;20
for the naked enterprise, stripped of this hope, was of a very desperate character.
A brief description of the terrain
will serve to prove this.
The battle-field of Fredericksburg
presents the character of a broken plain stretching back from the southern margin of the Rappahannock
from six hundred yards to two miles, at which distance it rises into a bold ridge that forms a slight angle with the river, and is itself dominated by an elevated plateau.
This ridge is, from Falmouth
down to where it touches Massaponax Creek
about six miles long, and this was the vantage-ground of the Confederates
which they had strengthened with earthworks and crowned with artillery.
In rear of the town the plain is traversed by a canal, at right angles with which run two roads leading up to the heights,21
which rise abruptly at the distance of a few hundred yards.
This position formed the left of the Confederate
line, and here Lee
It was these heights that the right of the Union
army under Sumner
was destined to assail.
The left of the Union
line composed of the Grand Division
was, as already stated, two miles below Fredericksburg
The plain here stretches to a width of two miles, and is scolloped by spurs of hills, less elevated than those in the rear of the town and clothed with dark pines and leafless oaks.
This position, forming the right of the Confederate
line, was held by Jackson
's corps; Stuart
, with two brigades of cavalry and his horse artillery, formed the extreme right extending to Massaponax Creek
The nature of the ground manifestly indicated that the main attack should be made by Franklin
on the left; for the field there affords ample space for deployment out of hostile range, whereas the plain in the rear of Fredericksburg
, restricted in extent and cut up by ditches, fences, and a canal, caused every movement to be made under fire, presented no opportunity for manoeuvre, and compelled a direct attack on the terraced heights, whose frowning works looked down in grim irony on all attempt at assault.
In the framing of his plan of battle, General Burnside
conformed to the obvious conditions of the problem before him, and caused it to be understood that General Franklin
, who, in addition to his own two corps, had now with him one of Hooker
's corps—that is, about one-half the whole army— should make the main attack from the left, and that upon his success should be conditioned the assault of the heights in rear of the town by Sumner
Such, at least, was the plan of action as understood by his lieutenants, who were to carry it into execution.
When, however, on the morning of the 13th, the commanders of the two bodies on the left and right, Generals Franklin
, received their instructions, it was found that having framed one plan of battle, General Burnside
had determined to fight on another.
I must add that the dispositions
were such that it would be difficult to imagine any worse suited to the circumstances.
, in place of an effective attack, was directed to make a partial operation of the nature of a reconnoissance in force, sending ‘one division, at least, to seize, if possible, the heights near Hamilton's Crossing
, and taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open,’ while he was to hold the rest of his command ‘in position for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road.’23 General Sumner
's instructions were of a like tenor: he was to ‘form a column of a division for the purpose of pushing in the direction of the telegraph and plankroads, for the purpose of seizing the heights in rear of the town,’ and ‘hold another division in readiness to support in advance of this movement.’24
's plan thus contemplated two isolated attacks by fractional forces, each of one or at most two divisions, one on the right and the other on the left.
Such partial attacks seldom succeed, and directed against such a citadel of strength as the Confederate
position at Fredericksburg
such feeble sallies were simply ludicrous.
Not a man in the ranks but felt the hopelessness of the undertaking.25
The morning of the 13th found the sun struggling with a thick haze that enveloped Fredericksburg
and overhung the circumjacent valley, delaying operation for some hours.26
But towards ten o'clock the lifting fog revealed the left of the army, under Franklin
, spread out on the plain, and showed the gleaming bayonets of a column advancing to the attack.
I shall first detail the operations on the left and then return to Sumner
's force, which remained yet in the town.
In obedience to his instructions, Franklin
threw forward Meade
's division, supported by Gibbon
's division on the right, with Doubleday
's in reserve for any emergency.
advanced across the plain, but had not proceeded far before he was compelled to stop and silence a battery that Stuart
had posted on the Port Royal
road, and which had a flank fire on his left.
This done, he pushed on, his line preceded by a cloud of skirmishes, and his batteries vigorously shelling the heights and woods in his front.
This caused considerable loss to Hill
, who held Jackson
's advanced line;27
but the Confederates
concealed in the woods made no reply from artillery or infantry, until Meade
reached within point-blank range, when, suddenly opening, shell and canister were poured in from the long silent Confederate batteries.
Yet this did not stay him;
and the line advanced so boldly that the three Confederate batteries posted in advance of the railroad had to be hastily withdrawn.
The division of Hill
which held Jackson
's advanced line was thus disposed: the brigades of Archer
, and Pender
from right to left, with Gregg
's in rear of the interval between Archer
, and Thomas
's in rear of that between Lane
pushed forward his line impetuously, drove back Lane
through the woods, and then, wedging in between Lane
and the brigade on his right (Archer
's) swept back the right flank of the one and the left flank of the other, capturing above two hundred prisoners and several standards, crossed the railroad, pushed up the crest, and reached Gregg
's position on a new military road which Lee
had made for the purpose of establishing direct connection between his two wings, and behind which Jackson
's second line was posted.28
And now was seen the farcical character of Burnside
's order of attack, by which a single division of five thousand men was assigned the work of fifty thousand.
For, in assaults of this kind, there comes a moment of supreme importance, when the attacking column, having carried the enemy's first line, must assure its victory by a decisive blow, or be driven back by the hostile reserves and lose the fruit of all its gain.
In this moment of intoxication and peril, the attacking line, confused and disintegrated by its advance, must be instantly supported by a fresh body, to consolidate and crown the victory, or else the enemy rallies and repels the victors.
Such was precisely the result that happened to Meade
; for no sooner had he penetrated to the military road behind which the Confederate
second line lay, than he was met by a fire for which he was not at all prepared.
columns of the enemy,’ says General Hill
‘had encountered an obstacle in the military road which they little expected—--Gregg
's brigade of South Carolinians stood in the way.’
It appears that the advancing Federals were mistaken for a body of Confederate troops, and Gregg
would not allow his men to open on them.
When their true character was revealed, the brigade poured a withering fire into the faces of Meade
's men; and, at that moment, Early
's division—one of the two divisions of Jackson
's second line—swept forward at the double-quick, and instantly turned the tide.30
Exposed to fire on both flanks, Meade
was forced to draw back, losing severely in the process; and the disaster would have been much greater had not supports been at hand.
, giving a liberal interpretation to Burnside
's prescription of ‘one division at least’ for the column of attack, had put in not only Meade
's division but Gibbon
's division and Doubleday
's division, making the whole of Reynolds
, early in the attack, was turned off to the left to meet a menace by the enemy from that direction; but Gibbon
advanced on the right of Meade
, and, though he did not push on as far as the latter, he helped stem the hostile return, and assisted in the withdrawal of Meade
's shattered line.31
In addition to these two divisions, General Franklin
ordered forward Birney
's division of Stoneman
's corps; and Birney
arrived in such time that, when the troops of Meade
were broken and flying in confusion, he presented a firm line that checked the Confederate
's loss was very heavy-upwards
of forty per cent. of his whole command; and the aggregate loss in Reynolds
' corps was upwards of four thousand men.
At the time the attack on the left was fully developed, Sumner
, on the right, was instructed to assail the height back of Fredericksburg
He also was ordered to make the attack with a single division, supported by another.
Of the two corps composing Sumner
's Grand Division, Couch
's (Second) corps occupied the town, and Wilcox
's (Ninth) held the interval between the left of Couch
and the right of Franklin
The attack, therefore, fell to the lot of Couch
; and, in accordance with instructions, he ordered forward French
's division from the town at noon, to be followed and supported by Hancock
, debouching from the town, moved out on the plank and telegraph roads, and, crossing the canal, found a rise of ground, under cover of which he deployed his troops in column of attack with brigade front.34 Hancock
's division followed and joined the advance of French
Even while moving through the town, and marching by the flank, the troops were exposed to a very severe fire from the enemy's
batteries on the heights, against which it soon became impossible for the numerous Union artillery on the north bank of the Rappahannock
to direct its fire, seeing that the missiles presently began to play havoc with the columns advancing over the plain.36
, who held the position in the rear of Fredericksburg
, forming the Confederate
left, had taken up as his advance line the stone wall and rifle-trenches along the telegraph road, at the foot of Marye's Heights
; and here he posted a brigade, afterwards re-enforced by another brigade.37
But the whole plain was swept by a direct and converging fire from the numerous batteries on the semicircular crest above, and behind this lay the heavy Confederate reserves—unneeded, as it proved, for a few men were enough to do the bloody work.
Under orders, nothing was left but to assail this position; so French
first was thrown forward from the rise of ground, where he had formed, towards the foot of the heights.
No sooner had this division burst out on the plain, than from the batteries above came a frightful fire-cross showers of shot and shell opening great gaps in the ranks; but ‘closing up,’ the ever-thinning lines pressed on, and had passed over a great part of the interval, when met by volleys of musketry at short range.
They fell back, shattered and broken, with a loss of near half their number, amid shouts and yells from the enemy.
Close behind French came up Hancock
, and, being joined by such portions of French
's command as still preserved their formation, his three brigades valiantly advanced under the same terrific fire, passed
the point French
had reached, and like those that went before them, were forced back after little more than fifteen immortal minutes.
Of the five thousand men Hancock
led into action, more than two thousand fell in that charge; and it was found that the bravest of these had thrown up their hands and lay dead within five-and-twenty paces of the stone wall.38
To relieve Hancock
's and French's hard-pressed battalions, Howard
's division now came up, and Sturgis
' and Getty
's divisions of the Ninth Corps advanced on Couch
's left, and made several attacks in support of the brave troops of the Second Corps, who could not advance and would not retire; but all these could do was to hold a line well advanced on the plain under a continual murderous fire of artillery.
It is hardly to be supposed that General Burnside
had contemplated the bloody sequence to which he was committing himself when first he ordered a division to assail the heights of Fredericksburg
; but having failed in the first assault, and then in the second and third, there grew up in his mind something which those around him saw to be akin to desperation.
Riding down from his headquarters39
to the bank of the Rappahannock
, he walked restlessly up and down, and gazing over at the heights across the river, exclaimed vehemently, ‘That crest must be carried to-night.’40
Already, however, every thing had been thrown in, saving Hooker
, and he was now ordered over the river.
Crossing with three of his divisions, Hooker
went forward, reconnoitred the ground, consulted with those who had preceded
him in action, saw that the case was hopeless, and went to beg Burnside
to cease the attack.
had already thrown forward two batteries to within one hundred and fifty yards of the enemy's works, and endeavored to make a breach large enough for the entrance of a forlorn hope.
After a vigorous cannonading, without any perceptible effect, Humphrey
's division was formed in column of assault and ordered in. They were directed to make the assault with empty muskets, for there was no time there to load and fire.42
When the word was given, the men moved forward with great impetuosity, and advanced to nearly the same point Hancock
had previously reached, close up to the stone wall: they advanced, in fact, over a space the traversing of which by any column would result in the destruction of half its numbers, when they were thrown swiftly back, leaving behind seventeen hundred of the four thousand that had gone forward.43
What else might have followed in the commander's then mood of mind, it is impossible to say; but it was already late when Hooker
's attack was begun, and night now dropped its curtain on a tragic scene, that might be fitly written only in the blood of the thousands of brave men who lay dead or moaning in agony worse than death on the plains of Fredericksburg
So decisive was the action of the day that it is difficult to see how there could be any question touching the propriety of recrossing the Rappahannock
This course was earnestly urged by the chief commanders
; but General Burnside
otherwise, and determined to renew the assault on the morrow.
The form this determination took was an evidence that he had lost that mental equipoise essential for a commander in the difficult situation in which he found himself.
He resolved to form the Ninth Corps (which he had himself formerly commanded) in a column of attack by regiments, and lead it in person to the assault of the heights.
All the preparations had been completed, and the attack was about to be made when, moved by the urgent entreaties of General Sumner
desisted from his purpose.
The troops, however, still lay on their arms during Sunday, the 14th, and Monday, the 15th, of December, and, during the night, in the midst of a violent storm, the army was withdrawn to the north side of the Rappahannock
, unaware of the extent of the disaster the Union
army had suffered, hourly expecting a renewal of the attack, and deeming it inexpedient to expose his troops to the fire of the batteries on the north bank, refrained during all this time from assuming the offensive,44
and the withdrawal eluded his knowledge.
The loss on the Union
side was twelve thousand three hundred and twenty-one, killed, wounded, and missing;45
and on the part of the Confederates
, it was five thousand three hundred and nine, killed, wounded, and missing.46
There is little need for comment on this battle, or for other reflection than must spontaneously arise from the simple recital of its incidents.
Such slaughters stand condemned in the common voice of mankind, which justly holds a commander
accountable for the useless sacrifice of human life.
There are occasions when, as at Thermopylae
, a general is doomed to the tragic fate of immolating himself and his army; but such cases are rare and exceptional.
It was not necessary for General Burnside
, in a problem that admitted of indefinite solutions, to give to his army the character of a forlorn hope, in the assault of positions chosen, long-prepared, and impregnable, when he was free by manoeuvres to select his own field of battle.
But even with the choice made of a direct attack of the fortified ridge, the plan of battle—if such fatuitous devisement as has seldom been seen can be called a plan
—was exceedingly faulty.
The conditions of attack and defence, and the nature of the position already set forth, dictated that the principal operation should be made from the left, where Franklin
held one-half the army in hand.
It is true that General Burnside
, at a period subsequent to the battle, asserted that this was his purpose, and endeavored to fasten the responsibility of the disaster on General Franklin
's alleged failure to make an adequate attack.
But judging by the orders in which General Burnside
's original intent and will are revealed, rather than by the inspirations of afterthought, it is manifest that, if he designed to make the main attack from the left, he at least made no provisions for giving effect to this intention.
It would appear from his own statement, that he made his theory of battle to hinge on a contingency which he used no adequate means to bring about, unless it be thought that two isolated attacks on the fortified stronghold of the Confederates
, made by a single division each, were adequate means to this end, and afforded a reasonable hope of carrying the position.
That they were wholly inadequate was proved by the terrible experiences of the day, both on the right and the left; and the preliminary attacks having failed, as they must, I can only account for the tragic sequence, on the supposition I have already stated, that, distraught and demented with the failure, General Burnside
continued in sheer desperation
to throw in division after division, to foredoomed destruction.
But while this may explain, it will not justify General Burnside
It would have been well for him had the failure of the first assaults, and the disclosures they made of the strength and position of the enemy, given him pause in their repetition.
When General Warren
at Mine Run
, after viewing the enemy's line, which, like that at Fredericksburg
, was manifestly impregnable, declined to throw away the lives that had been placed in his charge, preferring with a noble sense of honor and duty to sacrifice himself rather than his command, that instinct of right which is never absent in a generous people, appreciated the motive and applauded the act.
Had General Burnside
followed the like prompting, he would have saved his name from association with a slaughter the most bloody and the most useless of the war.
Abortive movements on the Rappahannock.
In tracing the development of military operations as they stand related to the army that was the agent of their execution, it is important to mark not only the army's condition of material strength and well-being, but those moral transformations with which, in so large a degree, its efficiency as a living organism is bound up.
Nothing is more difficult than to indicate, in precise terms, that complex of qualities, passions, prejudices, and illusions, that at any given time make up what is expressively called the morale
of an army.
Like the imponderable forces of physical philosophy, it is inappreciable by material weight and measure.
Yet, if difficult of analysis, it does not fail to make itself felt as a palpable power; and the foremost master
of war attempted to convey his sense of its potency by the expression that in military affairs, ‘the moral is to the physical as three to one.’
That the morale
of the Army of the Potomac became seriously impaired after the disaster at Fredericksburg
was only too manifest.
Indeed it would be impossible to imagine a graver or gloomier, a more sombre or unmusical body of men than the Army of the Potomac a month after the battle.
And as the days went by, despondency, discontent, and all evil inspirations, with their natural consequent, desertion, seemed to increase rather than to diminish, until, for the first time, the Army of the Potomac could be said to be really demoralized.47
The cause of all this could not be concealed; it was the lack of confidence in General Burnside
—a sentiment that was universal throughout the army.
Troops who have by experience learned what war is, become severe critics.
It is a mistake to suppose that soldiers, and especially such soldiers as composed the American
army, are lavish of their lives; they are chary of their lives, and are never what newspaper jargon constantly represented them to be—‘eager for the fray.’
‘The soldier,’ says Marmont
, ‘acquires the faculty of discriminating how and when he will be able, by offering his life as a sacrifice, to make the best possible use of it.’
But when the time comes that he discovers in his commander that which will make this rich offering vain, from that moment begin to work those malign influences that disintegrate and destroy the morale
had brought his army to that unhappy pass that, with much regard for his person and character, it distrusted and feared his leadership; while the general officers
had little belief in or respect for his
It is easy to see how fatal to the success of any military operations must have been this state of affairs; and this received striking illustration in the two attempted movements which fill up the remainder of General Burnside
's career as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
The first of these movements was undertaken a fortnight after the battle of Fredericksburg
, towards the close of December. General Burnside
had determined to cross the Rappahannock
seven miles below Fredericksburg
, with a view to turn the Confederate
position, and in connection with this operation he resolved to send a cavalry expedition to the rear of Lee
's army for the purpose of cutting the railroad communications of the Confederates
Now the raiding column had actually got under way, and the whole army was in readiness for an immediate move, when, on the 30th of December, General Burnside
received a dispatch from President Lincoln
instructing him not to enter on active operations without letting the President
know of it. Surprised at this message, General Burnside
recalled the cavalry expedition, and proceeded personally to Washington
to ascertain the cause of the presidential prohibition.
On seeing Mr. Lincoln
, he was informed by him that certain general officers of the Army of the Potomac had come up to see him, and had represented that the army was on the eve of another movement; that all the preliminary arrangements were made, and that they, and every prominent officer in the army, were satisfied, if the movement was entered upon, it would result in disaster.
In consequence of this condition of facts, the President
, without prohibiting a move, judged that any large enterprise, at that time, would be injudicious; and General Burnside
returned to his headquarters amazed at the revelation of the state of feeling in the army that was notorious to every one in it save the commander himself.
The position in which that officer now found himself was as false as it was humiliating; and was one that neither his own sense of honor, nor the Government
's sense of the public welfare, should have permitted him to occupy.
He had lost
the confidence of the army; he was unable to obtain the sanction of the general-in-chief
to any proposition for a movement, and at the same time the country looked to him for action.
In this unhappy situation, General Burnside
's conduct was marked by a self-sacrificing and patriotic spirit; but he was utterly helpless to extricate himself from the coil that enveloped him. At length, as the be-all and the end-all of his hopes, he resolved to again try the fortune of battle, in the expectation that if successful it would rehabilitate him in the confidence of the army.
Unfortunately, success was already too necessary to him, and he made too much contingent upon it; for if success was needful as the means of recovering the confidence of the army, this very confidence was itself indispensable as a condition of success.
The point at which General Burnside
resolved this time to essay the passage of the Rappahannock
was Banks' Ford (not then fordable), about six miles above Fredericksburg
As, however, the enemy had a force in observation at all the practicable crossings of the Rappahannock
, and as there was no possibility of making preparations for the passage at any one point with such secrecy that he should not become aware of it, it was resolved to make feints of crossing at several distinct points, both above and below Fredericksburg
, and thus mask the real intent.
Accordingly, new roads were cut through the woods to afford readier access to the fords, batteries were planted, rifle-trenches were formed, and cavalry demonstrations made along the line; and these manifestations were made impartially at a variety of points.
The weather and roads had been in excellent condition since the late battle, and on the 19th of January, 1863, the columns were put in motion with such secrecy as could be observed.
The Grand Divisions of Franklin
ascended the river by parallel roads, and at night encamped in the woods at convenient distance from the fords.
's corps was moved below Fredericksburg
to make demonstrations there, and the reserve corps under Sigel
, which had
been united with the Army of the Potomac, was assigned the duty of guarding the line of the river and the communications of the army.
Preparations for crossing were pushed on during the 20th, positions for artillery were selected, the guns were brought up, the pontons were within reach a short distance back from the river, and it was determined to make the passage on the following morning.
But during the night a terrible storm came on, and then each man felt that the move was ended.
It was a wild Walpurgis night, such as Goethe
paints in the Faust.
Yet there was brave work done during its hours, for the guns were hauled painfully up the heights and placed in their positions, and the pontons were drawn down nearer to the river.
But it was already seen to be a hopeless task; for the clayey roads and fields, under the influence of the rain, had become bad beyond all former experience, 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.
Moreover, the night operations had not escaped the notice of the wary enemy, and by morning Lee
had massed his army to meet the menaced crossing.
In this state of facts, when all the conditions on which it was expected to make a successful passage had been baulked, it would have been judicious in General Burnside
to have promptly abandoned an operation that was now hopeless.
But it was a characteristic of that general's mind (a characteristic that might be good or bad according to the direction it took), never to turn back when he had once put his hand to the plough; and it had already more than once been seen that the more hopeless the enterprise the greater his pertinacity.
The night's rain had made deplorable havoc with the roads;48
but herculean efforts
were made to bring pontons enough into position to build a bridge or two withal.
Double and triple teams of horses and mules were harnessed to each boat; but it was in vain.
Long stout ropes were then attached to the teams and a hundred and fifty men put to the task on each.
The effort was but little more successful.
Floundering through the mire for a few feet, the gang of Liliputians with their huge-ribbed Gulliver
, were forced to give over, breathless.
Night arrived, but the pontons could not be got up, and the enemy's pickets, discovering what was going on, jocularly shouted out their intention to ‘come over to-morrow and help build the bridges.’
Morning dawned upon another day of rain and storm.
The ground had gone from bad to worse, and now showed such a spectacle as might be presented by the elemental wrecks of another Deluge.
An indescribable chaos of pontons, vehicles, and artillery encumbered all the roads—supplywagons upset by the road-side, guns stalled in the mud, ammunition-trains mired by the way, and hundreds of horses and mules buried in the liquid muck.
The army, in fact, was embargoed: it was no longer a question of how to go forward —it was a question of how to get back.
The three-days' rations brought on the persons of the men were exhausted, and the supply-trains could not be moved up. To aid the return all the available force was put to work to corduroy the rotten roads.
Next morning the army floundered and staggered back to the old camps, and so ended a movement that will always live in the recollection of the army as the ‘Mud March,’ and which remains a striking exemplification of the enormous difficulties incident to winter campaigning in Virginia
The failure of this movement is sufficiently accounted for by those ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ the effect of which I have endeavored to portray; and the commander was certainly justified in suspending it, and recalling the army to its quarters, when the operation was seen to be hopeless.
But General Burnside
had fancied that he discovered another
and deeper cause, that, aside from the interference of the weather, would have baulked his projected campaign.
This cause was a lack of confidence in him which he believed to be entertained by the leading officers of the army.
Among these officers were Generals Franklin
, respectively commanders of Grand Divisions; and his first act on the return of the expedition was to prepare an order dismissing from the service of the United States Generals Hooker
, and Newton
, and relieving from their commands in the Army of the Potomac, Generals Franklin
, W. F. Smith
, and Colonel Taylor
Upon this order he resolved to make issue with the Government
; and he immediately took this paper to Washington
, demanding of the President
its approval or the acceptance of his resignation.
It was not asserted by General Burnside
that the officers named had been guilty of any dereliction of duty, but simply that they lacked confidence in him as commander.
This charge was probably true; but, as this issue involved the alternative of relieving nearly the whole body of the officers of the army or of relieving General Burnside
himself, the President
was compelled to refuse to sanction the order.
's resignation was accepted; and General Hooker
, the officer whose name stood in the order as head and front of all the offending, and who, by its terms, was dismissed the service of the United States
, was by the President
placed in command in his stead.
's career as head of the Army of the Potomac was as unfortunate as it was brief; and there is much in its circumstances and in his character to inspire a lenient judgment.
His elevation to the command was unsought by him; for, with a good sense that was creditable to him, he knew and proclaimed his unfitness for the trust.
It was right to try him, because it was impossible to tell whether his own gauge of his fitness was correct, or whether he wronged himself by a self-distrust that he might soon surmount.
When, however, the trial had proved the absolute justness of
his measure of his own incapacity (and there can be no doubt that this was fully proved by the events of the battle of Fredericksburg
), they must be held accountable for the consequences who retained him in a position which his own judgment, now fortified by the general verdict of the army, pronounced him unequal to fill.
His retention after this, if there be any fidelity in the portrayal I have presented of the condition of the army, imperilled not only its efficiency but its existence.
Desertions were going on at the rate of about two hundred a day, and the official rolls at the time he was relieved showed an absence from the Army of the Potomac of above eighty thousand men—‘absent from causes unknown.’49
I must here add that, while the superior officers had little respect for Burnside
's military plans, they, nevertheless, did not allow their personal views to influence in the least their conduct.
And it is the more important to state this conviction with emphasis, because it was commonly believed throughout the country that General Burnside
, especially in the last operation attempted, failed to receive from his subordinates that hearty co-operation absolutely necessary to the success of any military enterprise.50
It is not unlikely that General Burnside
himself had the same suspicion; for, though he did not put it forth, yet it is hardly to be supposed that he would have demanded the dismissal of the officers named in his expurgatorial index on the mere ground of their abstract military views—for it is vain for any commander to expect to control these.
was, and would have been, obeyed in the execution of all his plans of operation;
for there was that loyal alacrity among the officers that would have prompted this in any circumstances of personal relation.
If, however, he was unable to command the homage of their intellectual approval, that was his own misfortune.51
It was not possible to continue a condition of affairs that neutralized the best forces of the army, and the President
wisely relieved General Burnside
from a position deeply
humiliating to any man of honor.
He lapsed from the greatness thrust upon him without forfeiting the respect of the
country for his zeal and patriotism; but he left behind him no illusions respecting his capacity for the command of an army.