THE STRATEGIC SITUATION
While the Army of the Potomac tipped its caps and banners to McClellan,
bigwigs in Washington asked Burnside what he intended to do with his
army, which stretched from Manassas Junction to Waterloo, more than
twenty miles away. Burnside's immediate command consisted of the First,
Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh corps, totaling 130,000
infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The Twelfth Corps, another fifteen
thousand strong, stood detached at Harpers Ferry.
The smaller Confederate army lay scattered in an arc around the blue
behemoth, like a wolfpack sizing up a herd of caribou. General Robert F.
Lee had divided his Army of Northern Virginia into two wings under
lieutenant generals. He had concentrated James Longstreet's corps of
38,000 at Culpeper Court House, fifteen miles south of Waterloo,
blocking the direct road to Richmond. Meanwhile Thomas J. Jackson, the
legendary "Stonewall," held his 37,000 troops at Winchester and the gaps
north and west of the Federals. Major General J. E. B. Stuart's eight
thousand cavalry guarded the fords south of the Yankee army.
ROBERT E. LEE (THE VALENTINE MUSEUM)|
Henry W. Halleck, the general-in-chief of the United States Army,
ventured down to the Warrenton Hotel with a couple of staff brigadiers
to hear Burnside's plans. Conventional political wisdom still called for
the capture of the opposing capital, Richmond, and Burnside's only
alternatives were to march straight south, subsisting his army via the
railroad, or to sidestep to the Tidewater, supplying himself by
steamship at each of Virginia's navigable rivers. The Orange &
Alexandria Railroad needed much repair and could probably not have
satisfied the stomachs of so many men anyway, besides which it would
have demanded substantial detachments to guard against raids. On the
other hand, Union gunboats unquestionably controlled the water. Burnside
therefore proposed marching swiftly to Falmouth, on the Rappahannock
River, and crossing into Fredericksburg before Lee could oppose him.
From there he could travel along the less vulnerable Richmond,
Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad until he reached the Pamunkey
River, where he could advance from a new base of supply.
Halleck habitually avoided important decisions, and he did not like the
plan, but he agreed to take it back to the president for his
consideration. Burnside had learned that the Rappahannock bridges had
been burned at Fredericksburg, so he also asked for a pontoon train with
which to span the river. The army's pontoons all remained on
the upper Potomac, where McClellan had crossed back into Virginia, but
the Washington generals left Burnside with assurances that the bridge
materials would be at Fredericksburg waiting for him: they predicted
only three days for delivery.
Hooker did not hesitate to criticize
his commander, especially behind his back; many in the army and in
Washington felt Hooker should have been the man to replace McClellan,
and Hooker was one of those who thought so.
While he awaited an answer, Burnside reorganized his unwieldy army. He
joined the First and Sixth corps to form the Left Grand Division,
putting it under William B. Franklin; the Third and Fifth corps became
the Center Grand Division, commanded by Joseph Hooker, while the Second
and Ninth corps constituted Burnside's Right Grand Division, under Edwin
V. Sumner. He left the Twelfth Corps at Harpers Ferry and positioned the
Eleventh Corps nearer Washington, as a reserve. Franklin, Hooker, and
Sumner were all major generals, and all were older than Burnside: Sumner
had already been an officer for five years when Burnside was born. With
the exception of Sumner, none of them held Burnside in high regard.
Hooker did not hesitate to criticize his commander, especially behind
his back; many in the army and in Washington felt Hooker should have
been the man to replace McClellan, and Hooker was one of those who
thought so. These three were his most senior generals, though, and
Burnside had little choice but to appoint them. He hoped, mostly, that
the consolidation would ease confusion at headquarters.