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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Fredericksburg



His advantage squandered by the pontoon fiasco, Burnside cast about for another plan. On November 26 he met with President Lincoln aboard a steamer in Aquia Creek. The commander-in-chief suggested moving the army downstream to Port Royal and crossing there. A separate force—an expedition Lincoln was fitting out in New York just then, under Nathaniel Banks—could simultaneously proceed up the Pamunkey and cut off Lee's retreat. Burnside argued that jockeying so many troops into place would consume too much time, putting the campaign too far into winter—just as Lee had proposed to his own chief executive. Ultimately General Halleck agreed with Burnside on that point, so Lincoln laid away his idea and General Banks took his troops to Louisiana, but the president told Burnside not to feel that he must be hasty about fighting his legions.

Burnside had but one option, and that was to push ahead on the line he had already taken before winter was too for advanced.

Burnside knew better, however. Judging from the public reaction to McClellan's indolence the previous year, he could hardly turn his troops into their winter quarters. Nor, after all the disheartening changes of base the army had already endured, could he move to another theater of operations—like the James River peninsula, where the cold and rain would impede him less. That would have discouraged soldiers and civilians alike, as General Lee fully realized. Burnside had but one option, and that was to push ahead on the line he had already taken before winter was too far advanced.

Faced with strong resistance at Fredericksburg, Burnside looked for another crossing more than a dozen miles downstream, at a place called Skinker's Neck. The ground still lay to his advantage there, and the enemy had not yet thrown any force in his way, so Burnside began corduroying the roads to that more isolated location. Further rain had only worsened the clay Tidewater byways, and until Burnside could secure a landing on the opposite bank he would have to supply himself overland from Aquia Creek and Belle Plains. At the same time, engineers designed a line of entrenchments opposite Skinker's Neck. The preparations alerted Lee's pickets, however, and early in December Burnside detected the arrival of Confederate troops to cover that crossing, too. These Southerners proved to be the vanguard of Jackson's corps, for Lee had finally completed the concentration of his army.

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