December 29, 1861 (Sunday)
Since the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, Ambrose Burnside had been promoted from colonel to brigadier-general and placed in command of the rawest recruits in the Army of the Potomac, under General George McClellan. Quickly growing bored of being little more than a glorified drill sergeant, Burnside, along with many others, noticed McClellan’s lack of forward motion and began to develop a plan of his own.1
Burnside wanted to create a few brigades made up specifically of men from the coast of New England to act as an amphibious assault team. Many of these men were sailors whose lives revolved around the ocean and boats. McClellan, who would later take credit for the idea, was sold, as was the War Department. Burnside was authorized to raise fifteen regiments, and went to New York City to do so.2
The months of November and December were mostly spent in the city raising and accepting regiments into his command, as well as securing vessels for the forthcoming assault. After General Thomas Sherman launched his amphibious attack upon Port Royal, at the end of October, Burnside began moving his regiments to Annapolis, Maryland. The naval arm of his command was assembling at the New York Naval Yard.
For a time, he considered attacking the Texas coast, but then the idea of hitting North Carolina crept into the picture and such an objective sent Burnside on a straight course. By December 20th, he, and the rest of his staff, were in Annapolis celebrating an early Christmas as the three brigades of Burnside’s Amphibious Division drilled on the Naval Academy’s parade grounds.
He had wanted the expedition to be under way before the holiday, but delays in New York dictated otherwise.
On this date, General Burnside met in Washington with President Lincoln and General George McClellan, who was suffering greatly from typhoid fever. There, they hammered down the specific plans of the landing. The final orders would be issued by McClellan, as he was the Army’s commander-in-chief, but while Burnside was ready to move out, McClellan was not.3
What McClellan really wanted was to confuse the Rebels to his front, around Washington. To accomplish this, he wished to use Burnside’s assault, as well as General Don Carlos Buell’s army in Kentucky as feints, hoping to spread the enemy out a bit. He wanted both of these operations to happen simultaneously.4
Since before the eastern Tennessee bridge burnings in early November, both Lincoln and McClellan had been clamoring for a Union advance from Kentucky to come to the aid of the Unionists burning the bridges. Just as General Sherman did before him, General Buell balked at sending a force into Tennessee.
McClellan had repeatedly asked him when such an attack would come, but Buell always gave excuses as to why it couldn’t happen. McClellan wired him again on this date, the same date as the meeting with General Burnside and President Lincoln.
“Can you tell me about when and in what force you will be in Eastern Tennessee?” asked McClellan, passing the buck as he explained that Tennessee senators had “President Lincoln’s sympathies excited.” Buell was also urged to “get the Eastern Tennessee arms and clothing into position for distribution as soon as possible.”5
Buell, who had not yet even begun to move, seems to have been making some preliminary plans to do so. He sent a dispatch to General Schoepf, commanding in Lebanon, Kentucky, that he planned to intercept the Rebels, who he believed were moving north towards Columbia. To Schoepf’s division commander, General George Thomas, also in Lebanon, he sent a detailed map showing the moves that needed to be made to cut off the Rebels. The Confederates in question were, more or less, blocking the advance into eastern Tennessee.
Later that night, Buell wrote a longer letter to his old friend explaining again why it was taking so long. “It startles me to think how much time has elapsed since my arrival and to find myself still in Louisville,” confessed Buell. While still holding the advance into eastern Tennessee as important, he began to shift his focus upon Columbus and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in the central and western portions of the state.
“It is my conviction that all the force that can possibly be collected should be brought to bear on that front of which Columbus and Bowling Green may be said to be the flanks,” countered Buell. “The center, that is, the Cumberland and Tennessee where the railroad crosses them, is now the most vulnerable point. I regard it as the most important strategical point in the whole field of operations.”6
The area that was becoming the focus for Buell was guarded by Confederate Forts Donelson and Henry. Buell was not alone in this theory, but General McClellan and President Lincoln still wished to aid the Unionists in eastern Tennessee. Their desire to do so would not soon abate.
- Burnside by William Marvel, UNC Press, 1991. [↩]
- The Civil War in North Carolina by John G., Barrett, Chapel Hill, 1963. [↩]
- Burnside by William Marvel, UNC Press, 1991. [↩]
- Army of the Potomac, McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p926. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p520-521. [↩]