National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg

   

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.

Previous Top Next


 

History and Culture