Burnside Accepts the Blame… Again and Again and Again

December 22, 1862 (Monday)

Burnside: It’s all my fault!

Since the Army of the Potomac, under Ambrose Burnside, slide back across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, much had transpired. To the typical infantryman, two armies stared at each other from opposite shores. But behind the curtain of blue, things were quickly spinning out of control (which is saying a lot, considering the battle itself).

The horrifying defeat suffered by Union troops at the Battle of Fredericksburg was completely General Burnside’s fault. And yet, many northern papers refused to blame him. As the news and grisly details of the carnage spread, the public’s estimation of his character was not injured in any significant way.

This was largely due to the fact that he was not the Army’s previous commander. Though the public was out for McClellan’s blood, it was refreshing to hear Burnside accept full responsibility for the fiasco (and in his defense, he did tell Washington that he wasn’t up to the job). Rather than completely blaming Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck for everything from losing the battle to destroying the country as McClellan had, Burnside publicly wrote that they were blameless.

Burnside was a breath of fresh air, even though the air was feted and mouldering with the smell of decaying Union corpses. Because Burnside admitted he was to blame, they didn’t want his head. But it was because of these corpses that they wanted the blame to go somewhere.

Many chose General-in-Chief Henry Halleck for the post, while others thought Secretary of War Edwin Stanton better fit the bill. Halleck was to blame for the pontoon boats not arriving in time, and many believed he demanded that Burnside cross the Rappahannock. The latter was also believed true of Stanton.

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The troops had always loved McClellan. They didn’t hate Burnside, but the cheering wasn’t so loud. Now, the cheering wasn’t at all. This is understandable since many of their friends were dead and buried in the quickly freezing ground. But, like the public, most didn’t want to string Burnside up the first chance they got.

This had some potential to change when members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War wandered into camp on the 18th to figure out their take on what happened at Fredericksburg. This committee notoriously favored Republicans and went very easy on Burnside. Still, the General accepted blame, telling his story and focusing on the pontoon problems. He again refused to blame Lincoln, Stanton or Halleck (who had made a quick trip to visit Burnside right before the committee arrived).

Baldy Smith: Owner of the War’s best combover

The congressmen also interviewed Generals Charles Sumner, William Franklin, and Joe Hooker – Burnside’s three Grand Division commanders. Sumner backed up what Burnside said, while Franklin’s testimony diffused the rumors of wild demoralization. Hooker, on the other hand, blamed Halleck for the pontoon problem, but also blamed Burnside. Like any forward thinking Union General, he made sure that the Committee understood that he had originally proposed a different plan, but nobody listened.

Naturally, the Committee blamed Franklin, a Democrat.

As the days trickled by, public opinion, unable to target Burnside, blamed Washington. Newspapers ran editorial after editorial nailing the Lincoln Administration to the wall. And for this Burnside would not stand. He had a sword and if he had to throw himself upon it, then, by George (the angel, not McClellan) he would!

William Franklin (D) – emphasis on the “D”

On the 19th, brushing aside a chorus of disapproval from his staff, Burnside fluttered away to Washington. Late on the night of the 20th, Lincoln, up with the most understandable bout of dyspepsia in American history, met with Burnside.

The President thanked him for accepting the blame and, the following day, assured him that he was a “real friend.” This might not have had the effect Lincoln had hoped for, since Burnside, no doubt remembered that the President had said similar things to McClellan on several occasions.

Still, Burnside returned to his army in better mental health. While in Washington, he had penned a letter to Halleck (though it was dated the 17th, it was written on the 21st), in which he once again accepted the entire blame. Accepting blame once might be considered respectful. It was the proper and very accurate thing to do. Accepting it over and over, even finding inopportune times to bring up the fact that you were to blame, might lead some to think that Burnside was more than a bit incompetent (and in their defense, Burnside did tell Washington that he wasn’t up to the task).

On the same day that Burnside scratched out the “it’s all my fault” letter to Halleck, Lincoln jotted down notes on what to say to the Army of the Potomac. The missive was weirdly rambling in its account of the battle, and oddly poetic.

Lincoln: Aspiring American Bard?

“The foe had learned the strength of an army of citizen soldiers striking for their country,” wrote Lincoln, “for the cause of orderly government and human rights.” He described their fallen comrades as “heroes, dead for Liberty,” and prophetically vowed to “fight the battle of Liberty, not in this land only, but throughout the world.”

He continued: “All lands have looked to America as the home of freedom, as the refuge of the oppressed. Upon the courage of her sons now depend the hopes of the world, and wherever the story of Fredericksburg is read, will the lovers of Liberty take courage.”

This was one strange bit of prose to read before soldiers in the field. And so, the next day (this date), Lincoln rewrote the note of thanks, keeping it simple and honest.

To the Army of the Potomac: I have just read your Commanding General’s preliminary report of the battle of Fredericksburg. Although you were not successful, the attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than an accident. The courage with which you, in an open field, maintained the contest against an entrenched foe, and the consummate skill and success with which you crossed and re-crossed the river, in face of the enemy, show that you possess all the qualities of a great army, which will yet give victory to the cause of the country and of popular government. Condoling with the mourners for the dead, and sympathizing with the severely wounded, I congratulate you that the number of both is comparatively so small.

I tender to you, officers and soldiers, the thanks of the nation.


((Sources: Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable; Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 6 by John George Nicolay and John Hay; The Life and Public Services of Ambrose E. Burnside by Benjamin Perley Poore; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 6, p13-14.))

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Burnside Accepts the Blame… Again and Again and Again by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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