Bad News For Burnside – Good News For Everyone Else

January 18, 1863 (Sunday)

Burnside: We’ll be on our way soon enough, boys. Till then, check out my hat!

Ambrose Burnside had postponed his new campaign for twenty-four hours. But as the new time neared, he was still unsure. The plan had been to get around General Lee’s left flank at Fredericksburg, cross the Rappahannock River and get between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the capital at Richmond.

Burnside had been waiting for a spy to tell him whether or not the Rebels suspected such a plan might be in the works. When word came in, however, it wasn’t good news.

“My pickets at United States Ford report the enemy throwing up a great many rockets at that place last night,” reported cavalry commander Alfred Pleasonton, “also the moving of their artillery wagons nearly the whole night.” Strong enemy pickets had also been reported around the ford, “evidently expecting a move on our part.”

United States Ford was the main crossing that Burnside wanted to use. It would bring his army in well behind the Rebels. But if it was blocked due to Lee expecting an attack, another ford would have to be employed.

That ford was Banks Ford, a bit closer, but also not really behind the enemy’s lines.

Burnside’s three Grand Corps commanders, Generals Edwin Sumner, William Franklin, and Joe Hooker, were cold on the plan. It was Franklin who had gotten Burnside to postpone it, possibly hoping that it would eventually be canceled.

This is an incredibly approximate map showing US and CS positions. Mostly, it’s for geography.

But instead of canceling it, Burnside changed it. “If any movement is made in the direction of United States Ford,” he informed his three underlings, “it will be simply a feint, with a view to an actual move in another direction.” He made no mention what that other direction might be.

After directing the troops not to carry knapsacks, Burnside instructed his Generals to “please make this entirely confidential, and burn it [the message].”

General Lee had shifted some men to protect United States Ford. Summing up the Rebels’ understanding of things, corps commander, General James Longstreet, was fairly certain that Burnside wouldn’t try another frontal assault.

Longstreet: I’m basically psychic.

“I am almost convinced that the enemy will not make another effort against our line before spring,” he wrote to fellow corps commander Stonewall Jackson. “The relative condition of the two armies would not warrant any such effort on his part. Our line is stronger now than it was when he advanced before.”

Both he and Jackson had sent two brigades to reinforce comrades away from Fredericksburg, but even so, Longstreet was sure that “we shall be much stronger, in position, than we were before. He [Burnside] cannot be as strong in numbers, and he must be exceedingly weak in morale.”

All that was left to do was to “send a brigade to the United States Ford to-morrow.” With that accomplished and earthworks thrown up, Longstreet thought “we will be secure against attack.”

Back on the Federal side of the river, the day slipped away from Burnside. The march was postponed yet again, and very few were dismayed.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p 977, 1096; Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly. []
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