January 19, 1863
Oh! It was a beautiful day in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia. The sky was clear, the sun was shining and the temperatures not too chilly. In fact, this was the most beautiful respite from a series of gray and windy, yet not rainy or snowy, days.
General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, must have been tickled pink. This was the perfect winter campaign weather. The ground was dry, the rivers and streams low enough to ford and, on this day, the sun poured its blessing upon them all.
It was, by all reckoning, an auspicious day. To make it even more so, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck informed Burnside that reports were coming in from the West that Confederates under James Longstreet, who were supposed to be at Fredericksburg, had showed up in Tennessee. Burnside already knew that General Lee’s forces opposing him had been wicked away to North Carolina to deal with a small Federal winter campaign, but this news was even better.
Now was the time to move. He had been planning it for days, and though his officers were dead set against it, it had to be done.
The good work of his Federal comrades in North Carolina and the West had taken troops away from his front. Everything was working so perfectly – the Rebels’ dwindling numbers, the rainless weather, and now the sun – it must have been, could only have been the hand of God Himself at work in the proceedings!
General William Franklin, commanding one of the two Grand Divisions that would have the blessed honor, was not filled with the same electric and holy fervor as was Burnside. He, along with William “Baldy” Smith, loudly voiced their dissent as they had before.
The Rebels, said Franklin and Smith, were sure to win. Their numbers, they believed, were much greater than Burnside reckoned, plus the Union army was a mass of disgruntled and weary soldiers, unable to march, let alone fight. But Burnside had had quite about enough of Franklin and tossed aside his concerns.
Franklin, fuming, stomped back to his headquarters, filling the mild air blue with his curses aimed at Burnside, sent scatter-shot across his camp. The talk was echoed by his staff, who passed it onto the corps, division and brigade commanders, who passed it on to the men. Burnside, so the talk went, was unfit for command – the campaign would fail. This talk did nothing at all to help the morale of the already victory-starved army.
Though there would be not much marching on this day, Burnside made plans and issued orders. The general idea was for two Grand Divisions (four corps under Generals Franklin and Hooker) to move up the Rappahannock River, crossing it around the Confederate left flank at Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, the remaining Grand Division, under Edwin Sumner, would make a boisterous demonstration south of the Union camp at Falmouth, to convince the Rebels that a crossing might take place below Fredericksburg. Additionally, a reserve Grand Division, under Franz Sigel, was to take the place of Franklin and Hooker along the Union line.
Sigel was sent marching on this day, while Sumner’s diversion was set for the 21st. For the rest, the orders would flow the following day.
After night finally darkened this beautifully auspicious day, the sun, which had shown so brightly, was replaced by the even darker new moon. The air, which had been still and relatively warm, turned windy and bitterly cold. Clouds they could only barely see rolled in from the west, snuffing out every star, but the campfires illuminating the tired and anxious faces of the weary men. Tomorrow, they thought, the campaign would begin.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p77-78, 978; Weather reports from Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss, Stonewall Jackson’s cartographer who usually noted the weather in his diary; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable. [↩]