THE BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG
As the night of November 7, 1862, passed inexorably into history, a
howling Virginia blizzard buried more than 100,000 sleeping Union
soldiers beneath their blankets. The storm hurled corn-sized kernels of
snow against a glowing wall tent near Rectortown, where, by the light of
a lantern, the commander of the Army of the Potomac scratched away at
one of the long letters he was wont to send his wife each day.
At thirty-five, George Brinton McClellan was younger than many of the
captains in his army, but he had worn the twin stars of a major general
for a year and a half. The Federal host that sprawled across a hundred
and fifty square miles of the Old Dominion represented the fruit of
his personal labor, and most of the men under those snow-covered
blankets had never known another leader. They had followed McClellan up
the James River peninsula that spring, had glimpsed the very spires
of Richmond with him, and when that campaign
failed they had rejoined him in Maryland at the end of summer; under his
cautious eye they had hammered the Confederates at Antietam on September 17.
Nowlargely because he had not pounded the enemy quite so hard as
he might have in that battlehe had begun shepherding his army down
another road to Richmond.
A rap on the tentpole interrupted McClellan's letter and ended his
career as a soldier. Two officers ducked under the canvas, their
overcoats dusted in white, and after some courteous banter one of them
produced an order relieving McClellan from command and supplanting him
with the other visitor, Ambrose E. Burnside.
GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN (USAMHI)|
A major general like the man he replaced, the tall, bewhiskered Burnside
had been friends with McClellan since their first days together at West
Point, nearly two decades before. When the Panic of 1857 and a
duplicitous secretary of war drove Burnside's firearms factory out of
business, it was McClellan who had found him a job and offered him a
place to live. McClellan had also probably recommended Burnside's
original appointment as a brigadier general and had authorized his first
independent command, an amphibious division with which Burnside secured
the North Carolina sounds. For the past two months Burnside had been
McClellan's senior subordinate (if not his closest one) and leader of
the largest wing of the army. Burnside succeeded his friend reluctantly.
Twice the previous summer President Lincoln had offered him the command
and twice Burnside had refused, doubting that anyone but McClellan owned
the organizational capacity to manage the largest army
ever to walk the continent. McClellan, however, had become the target
of Republican politicians who saw him as the standard-bearer of
Democratic opposition to their radical aims, and his dilatory pace
frustrated Lincoln's hopes for a quick end to the rebellion. By the end
of the 1862 congressional elections the pressure to remove him had grown
too great to resist. The president had determined to put another man at
the head of his largest armyhopefully one who might cooperate more
cordiallyand in the end Burnside took the job rather than let it
go to someone he considered less capable than himself.
AMBROSE E. BURNSIDE (LC)|
Burnside introduced himself rather diffidently to his new subordinates,
some of whom secretly resented his willingness to replace their hero and
viewed his acceptance of the command as evidence that he had taken
sides with the hated radicals. In deference to the great mutual
affection between McClellan and the troops,
Burnside arranged an elaborate farewell ceremony for his old friend.
Thousands of blue uniforms lined up in the fields near Warrenton on
November 10, and in the brisk autumn air "Little Mac" cantered out of
the war to volleys of cheering.