November 15, 1862 (Saturday)
The morning was filled with the sound of artillery. Shells split the crisp air, rousing Confederates from their sleep and convincing many that the Union Army of the Potomac was about to cross the Rappahannock River to assail their lines near Culpeper, Virginia.
Artillery wasn’t the only branch involved this morning. Elements of the I and IX Corps demonstrated near several fords, while cavalry got into the action, hitting Rappahannock Station to capture the railroad bridge before the Rebels had a chance to destroy it.
The Confederates were taken by surprise. Burnside’s predecessor, George McClellan had been inactive for so long they got used to expecting nothing from the Yankees. But Burnside was apparently a man of action. The Rebels brought up as much artillery as they could, but found themselves outgunned. In one case, one Southern battery tried to hold its own against eight Federal.
General Lee responded quickly, ordering whatever troops were along the Rappahannock to pull back to Culpeper and the rest of Longstreet’s Corps. Longstreet issued a command for his men to be ready for battle at any point.
But it was a ruse. Burnside had no plans to attack. He wanted only for Lee to break off contact with him. This accomplished, he set about his real task: moving his entire army to Falmouth, Virginia and crossing the Rappahannock via pontoon bridges to capture Fredericksburg – and then, on to Richmond!
At dawn, just as the cannons began to let loose their iron, the first column of Federal troops left Warrenton for Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg. These were men from General Edward Sumner’s Right Grant Division (II and IX Corps). The other two Grand Divisions were to leave the following day.
Almost immediately, Lee grew suspicious. He had suspected a movement of some kind from Burnside, even anticipating a possible jog towards Fredericksburg, but now something wasn’t right. Burnside had threatened to attack. There was really no reason he shouldn’t have attacked. And yet, not only was there no attack, but the threatened fords across the river was open. Where had the Army of the Potomac gone?
As the day went on, and as two-thirds of Burnside’s Army was still near Warrenton, Lee figured it out. He wired Col. William Ball, commanding the small garrison in the town: “It is reported that the enemy is moving from Warrenton today, and it is probable that he is marching upon Fredericksburg.”
At 7pm, he ordered a regiment of Virginia cavalry and a battery of artillery to the town. Not only did he swiftly act, he also had two plans. The first, if the cavalry found Fredericksburg unoccupied by the Federals, was to defend the town. If, however, Fredericksburg had already fallen, he ordered the cavalry to “take position on the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad, where it crosses the North Anna.”
Lee reiterated to Col. Ball that the railroads around Fredericksburg had to be destroyed. “The bridges and culverts must be thoroughly destroyed,” ordered Lee, explaining that the cross ties had to be “removed and piled, with the rails placed across them, and, when the timber is sufficiently dry, fired; the weight of the bars will thus cause them to bend, and prevent their being relaid.”
If it was at all possible, Lee wanted Ball to somehow get the iron to Richmond. There was a war going on and any extra bits of iron that they could acquire were well needed.
Lee was almost certain, but not certain enough to pull his entire army from their Culpeper line, leaving Richmond uncovered. He would wait a couple of days to see how it panned out. Then he would make his move.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p4-5, 1013-1014; Burnside’s Testimony from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly. [↩]