By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022-2023, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2022 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Exactly 160 years ago today on December 14, 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac (AOP) retreated from Fredericksburg after its disastrous winter assault on Confederate forces dug in and well positioned on the bluffs above the town and beyond. The defeat of the Union attack was so complete and comprehensive that it solemnly moved Robert E. Lee to utter one of his most famous quotes, recounted by Shelby Foote in Volume II of his The Civil War: A Narrative, “A British observer saw ‘Antique Courage’ in Lee’s manner as he turned to Longstreet…lowering his glasses after a long look at the blasted plain where still more Federals massed…’It is well that war is so terrible, We should grow too fond of it.'”
Thorough campaign planning had been done by the new Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Ambrose Burnside. Fresh from his famous capture of what’s now known as “Burnside’s Bridge” at Antietam, he worked closely with headquarters staff, corps commanders, Lincoln’s top general in Washington, “Old Brains” Halleck, and all the way up to President Lincoln, himself, who visited Burnside prior to the battle at nearby Falmouth. The excellent planning seemed to make this repulse even more grievously felt than prior Union AOP defeats that preceded Fredericksburg against the generalship of Lee. Did it really have to be this way? For a variety of reasons, it did not! However, we will focus on one of the most substantial reasons, that is, a crucial delay to Burnside’s plan regarding pontoon bridges. It is truly ironic that a bridge at Antietam would create Burnside’s fame and a few months later, the lack of a bridge would be a major aspect of his demise!
The plan itself called for a quick but long opening march, which unfolded perhaps even better than expected. The Union AOP had set out in mid-November 1862 with its lead elements arriving at Falmouth on the Rappahannock River on November 17. They had stunningly marched 40 miles in two days. This rapid movement was meant to finally trump Lee and relegate his army as outflanked – and unable to prevent a headlong march by Burnside to Richmond.
To make it work, the AOP would have to cross its now familiar nemesis of the Rappahannock River, about 400 feet wide at this point. The river created a natural defensive barrier to troop movements heading north or south in this part of Virginia. However, the Union famously had the resources to overcome such potential barriers and the skill needed to do so in the form of well-trained pontoon bridge engineers and equipment. Since this area of Virginia had already been fought over numerous times in the war, existing bridges had long ago been demolished. So the pontoon bridge construction was a necessity.
Lincoln’s top general in Washington, Henry Halleck, during the extensive planning, had promised that pontoons and bridging material would be in place by the time the main body of the AOP arrived. Unimpressively, War Department bureaucracy had resulted in the equipment being delayed. Edward J. Stackpole in his book The Fredericksburg Campaign put it this way: “Poor Burnside! The new general had gotten off to a flying start, and his army had established a speed record for the Federals in a march of which Stonewall Jackson need not have been ashamed. Lee had been given a bit of a surprise and everything looking promising for the Union forces, with Longstreet (corps) nowhere in sight and Jackson (corps) still in the Valley.”
The Army of Northern Virginia on November 17 had a token holding force in place on the south side of the river, which would have been easily overwhelmed by Burnside’s troops. Accordingly, upon the pontoon delay the idea of using ford crossings was discussed by Burnside and his generals, but rejected. Burnside was fearful that part of the army would cross at fords which all the sudden would be made unusable from heavy seasonal rains. This could then strand part of his army south of the river while the rest remained to its north. Burnside would then unwittingly be in violation of the long-standing Napoleonic maxim to never divide an army in the face of the enemy.
Further, Burnside and one of his main confidants, General Edwin V. Sumner, thought it poor military logic to cross at fords without the ability to also bring along wagons with munition and supplies for the over 100,000-man-strong AOP. Also, the AOP’s massive artillery component, a main Union advantage, would necessarily be left behind. The artillery advantage would be lost if a battle occurred after the crossing and heavy rains ensued. Meanwhile, winter rains indeed had swollen the cold area rivers to their near flooding stages, which made fording potentially more hazardous to soldiers. For all these reasons, Burnside preferred to wait rather than potentially open up, in his mind, a Pandora’s box.
Again, from Stackpole’s The Fredericksburg Campaign: “Had Burnside displayed the mental flexibility which history associates with great military commanders, there is little doubt that he would have exploited the opportunity afforded him by the time, space and weather factors and safely crossed the entire army, less trains…the delay of the arrival of the pontoons would merely have caused some supply inconveniences for a matter of days.”
Was Halleck to blame? Stackpole again states that “the cold facts in the case of the missing pontoons force the conclusion that Halleck was chiefly responsible for the failure.” When Halleck was called to account, Stephen W. Sears in his book Lincoln’s Lieutenants states, “Deceitful Halleck denied everything…As it was, Burnside…. hunkered down at Falmouth and watched a full week’s worth of opportunity slip away while waiting…at Fredericksburg, the Army of Northern Virginia assembled in force.”
What could have been a great outflanking maneuver by Burnside and a relatively unopposed dash toward Richmond was alas not to be for want of a pontoon bridge. Whether it was due to Halleck’s bungling or Burnside’s timidity, the result was the same: the AOP was once again decisively vanquished. By the time the AOP finally assaulted about a month later, Lee’s impregnable line at Fredericksburg decided the outcome, 160 years ago this week!
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