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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

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. Now—largely because he had not pounded the enemy quite so hard as he might have in that battle—he 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.


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 army—hopefully one who might cooperate more cordially—and in the end Burnside took the job rather than let it go to someone he considered less capable than himself.


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.

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