November 19, 1862 (Wednesday)
Union General Ambrose Burnside’s plan had been sound – more or less. With the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia divided between Culpeper and Winchester, he wanted to slip his Army of the Potomac to the left, quickly sliding past the Rebel’s right flank. He believed that crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg would be fairly simple. Before the Confederates even knew what was going on, he would be able to throw pontoon bridges across and capture the scantily-defended Fredericksburg. From there, it was a simple and direct route to Richmond. But nothing had gone right.
Well, not exactly nothing. His army had consolidated swiftly and had begun their march precisely when he wanted. And while General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Rebel army, suspected that Fredericksburg was the Federal target, there were several days before he knew for sure. Even when he discovered it, he assumed that Burnside would simply brush aside the Federicksburg defenders and sweep south towards the North Anna River.
And so it was the combined forces of Federal bureaucracy and the weather that stopped Burnside in his tracks. From everything that he was told, the General had every reason to believe that the pontoon boats would be available from the moment his lead troops arrived in Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg. They had been misplaced, however. The bulk of them were up near Harpers Ferry when really they should have been in Washington. Now they were in Washington when really they should have been in Falmouth.
While pontoon bridges would facilitate a speedy crossing, there were usable fords up and down the Rappahannock River. This would take more time, but they could be utilized without too many problems. All of this was true, but for the fact that it had rained for the past week, swelling the river and flooding the fords.
To make certain, on the morning of this date, Burnside dispatched some of his cavalry to assess the possibilities of using the ford at Falmouth. The news was not good at all. In his daily letter to Washington, Burnside noted that “an examination of the ford here to-day demonstrated that the infantry and artillery cannot pass.” About the only thing that could get across was the cavalry, and then only if they spread out and took their time – something that was in quickly lessening supply.
He hoped to cross some cavalry, infantry, and even some artillery to the other side via United States Ford, near Chancellorsville, but even that wouldn’t suffice. He needed the pontoons, and they were still several days away.
Robert E. Lee had fully expected Burnside to cross. He had sent three of Longstreet’s five divisions to the North Anna River defenses, hoping that they would arrive in time to catch Burnside. The other two had been dispatched to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania to hold up the Federal advance. He understood that there was no way Longstreet alone could defeat the entire Union army, which outnumbered him by almost 100,000 men. He had envisioned that Longstreet’s Corps could hold them while Stonewall Jackson’s Corps could sweep down from Winchester and fall upon Burnside’s right flank and rear.
As the day progressed, however, news trickled into Lee’s headquarters that Burnside wasn’t crossing. Everything then fell into place.
The North Anna defenses were good, and Lee could have made them better, but to hold off Burnside at Fredericksburg was a defensive dream come true. If he could get even half of his entire army on the heights above the town, Burnside would be blocked and Stonewall Jackson could rejoin the army, making a stand together.
Lee immediately changed his orders. All five of Longstreet’s Divisions were ordered to change course for Fredericksburg. Lee believed that he could throw back the Federals somewhere near the North Anna. Fredericksburg was good ground, but he realized that Burnside would probably be able to carry it. Longstreet would have to fall back slowly enough to give Jackson the time to arrive. He even told Jackson that he couldn’t foresee making a stand anywhere north of the North Anna River. Again, he was giving General Burnside far too much credit.
For the time being, however, Lee was going to do everything he could to exploit the Federal delay.
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p102-103, 1021-1022; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly.))