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Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg

   

BURNSIDE'S PLAN APPROVED, THEN FOILED

When he returned to his comfortable office in Washington, Halleck did present Burnside's plan to Lincoln, who approved it with the caveat that Burnside would have to act quickly. Halleck did not attend so conscientiously to the pontoon question, however, and Sumner's troops stepped off toward Fredericksburg before the pontoons even started down from the upper Potomac. The first Federal infantry tramped into Falmouth on the evening of November 17, and General Sumner asked permission to cross some cavalry over a precarious ford to take Fredericksburg, which was lightly defended. Burnside declined, lest the horse soldiers find themselves trapped by rising water, and indeed rain began to fall as though on cue. Burnside ached to cross while the city was lightly defended, too, and when he rode into Falmouth on November 19 he wrote Halleck that he would do so as soon as the pontoons arrived.

ALFRED WAUD SKETCHED THIS VIEW OF FREDERICKSBURG AS SEEN FROM FALMOUTH JUST DAYS BEFORE THE BATTLE. (LC)

The first of the pontoons did not even leave Washington until that day, and (because General Halleck had not apprised his engineer officer how badly Burnside needed them) they rolled out on ponderous wagons. The same storm that lifted the Rappahannock turned Virginia roads into muck, and the pontoon train slowed to a crawl, stopping altogether at the washed-out bridges over the Occoquan River. Only then did the engineer in charge of the work divert some of the pontoons to a steamboat, which delivered them at Belle Plains landing on November 22. Even these few, enough for a full bridge or two, did not reach the army until November 24. The bulk of the pontoon wagons finally pulled up at Falmouth, ready for use, on the afternoon of November 27—some ten days after Burnside expected them.

By then it was too late for the Army of the Potomac to waltz unchallenged into Fredericksburg. As early as November 15 Lee suspected that Burnside might be headed for Fredericksburg, and he sent a regiment of infantry and a battery of artillery to bolster the city's garrison. Lee thought, incorrectly, that Burnside favored shipping his army back to the James River. Consequently the Confederate commander supposed for a time that the Fredericksburg movement merely served as the screen for a general withdrawal back to the wharves at Alexandria. By the morning of November 18, however, he started two divisions of Longstreet's corps on the road to Fredericksburg, following it with the balance November 19. The next day Lee himself telegraphed Jefferson Davis from Fredericksburg to say he believed the Yankees were concentrating for a strike at that place. The last of Longstreet's corps filed into the city on November 23, and on that day Lee directed Stonewall Jackson to bring his corps east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

A TRAIN OF PONTOONS LIKE THOSE USED BY BURNSIDE TO SPAN THE RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER. THE TARDY ARRIVAL OF THE PONTOONS UPSET BURNSIDE'S PLANS FOR AN EASY CROSSING AND ULTIMATELY DOOMED HIS CAMPAIGN TO FAILURE (NA)


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE ARMIES MOVE TO FREDERICKSBURG, NOVEMBER 15—DECEMBER 4
When the Fredericksburg Campaign opens, the Army of the Potomac is centered near Warrenton Junction, north of the Rappahannock River. On November 15th, Sumner's grand division marches toward Fredericksburg, followed by Franklin and Hooker. Burnside plans to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, but is prevented from doing so by the tardy arrival of his pontoon train. By the time the pontoons arrive, Longstreet's Confederate corps occupies the heights behind the town. In early December, Jackson's corps arrives from the Shenandoah Valley and takes position south of Fredericksburg, toward Port Royal. With Jackson's arrival, the Confederate army is reunited and ready for battle.


AT THE TIME OF THE WAR, FREDERICKSBURG WAS A COMMERCIAL TOWN OF 5,000 INHABITANTS. WHEN CONFEDERATE FORCES ABANDONED THE TOWN IN APRIL, 1862, THEY DESTROYED THE BRIDGES ACROSS THE RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER.

In one of his messages to Jackson, Lee intimated that he did not intend to resist Burnside on the Rappahannock. The geography favored the Federals there, he felt, because of the heights that towered on Burnside's bank of the river. Lee preferred the North Anna River, where the high ground would have loomed on his side, but he probably guessed that his president would frown on retreating so much nearer to Richmond. Employing his renowned tact, he therefore tried to persuade Davis of the wisdom of a Fabian withdrawal, destroying the railroad and otherwise impeding Burnside's progress until winter; he posed the notion in such a fashion that Davis might feel it had been his own idea. Lee's diplomacy did not succeed, but neither did the Yankees offer to cross the Rappahannock immediately, so Longstreet's corps remained in camp on a long ridge a mile southwest of the river.

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