December 9, 1862 (Tuesday)
Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, had finally made up his mind. It wasn’t like there was a multitude of choices left to him. He had tried to cross the Rappahannock River, separating his force from the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, below the town of Fredericksburg, but weather and the Rebels had blocked him. Perhaps figuring that his counterpart, General Robert E. Lee, would surmise that Burnside was about to pack up and go home, he decided to make the crossing at Fredericksburg.
Burnside called a council of war at noon on this date. Meeting with his three Grand Division commanders, Edwin Sumner, Joseph Hooker, and William Franklin, he explained that Fredericksburg could be taken simply because the Rebels “did not expect us to cross here.”
From their vantage point across the river at Falmouth, they could not see the Confederate lines. Down the river, however, they had run into plenty of the enemy. It was obvious that they expected the Federals to there. To Burnside, it was clear that General Lee’s force was divided. His own would cross the river and defeat each part in detail.
The meeting adjourned five long hours later. All but Burnside felt leery of the idea. Burnside had assured them that “all the influence on the face of the earth” could not swerve him from his plan.
Burnside issued orders on this date for his men to be issued sixty rounds of ammunition and three days’ worth of cooked rations to be distributed. Along with those orders were the rather ominous commands for the troops to move steadily forward when called up to do so. They were not to stop to aid the wounded. Most foreboding, even the musicians were issued muskets.
This decision, to some, fell into the category of “it’s so crazy, it just might work.” Hooker and Franklin informed their corps, division and brigade commanders of Burnside’s plan. Orders were, after all orders. But when Sumner broke the news to his Grand Division, most simply found it crazy. The talk was mostly informal and words were not minced as the discussion quickly turned very sour against Burnside’s plan.
Leading the opposition were Darious Couch and Winfield Scott Hancock. The plan was too rash, they said. Sumner, who either had a change of heart or realized there was nothing he could do, was visibly upset that his subordinates disagreed with the orders.
Somehow or another (probably Sumner), Burnside learned of the opposition. He immediately sent a message to Sumner’s headquarters telling him to “say to General Couch that he is mistaken.” Also, he called for a meeting the following night to clear up any problems certain officers had with his plans.
On the Confederate side of the river, there was only waiting. Lee understood that he could not attack Burnside’s 120,000 with his 78,000. And so they did what they could to improve their defensive positions. A line of hills sprung up behind Fredericksburg, running along the river. They built a road to connect the hills (and thus the different portions of their army) and strung telegraph lines for quick communication. Being an engineer, Lee knew how to build a defense, and placed his men and artillery accordingly.
Burnside was right in one respect. Lee did not expect him to be foolish enough to attempt a crossing at Fredericksburg. The Confederate army wasn’t exactly divided, as Burnside suspected. But it was spread out, covering ground all the way down to Port Royal, a distance of twenty miles. Should Burnside attempt to cross at Fredericksburg, however, Lee would be ready.
The newly-built road and telegraph would serve them well. He knew that the Federals would take time in crossing. They would have to build several pontoon bridges, which would take the better part of a day. During such time, his artillery would make it exceedingly hot for the bridge builders. If the Yankees were able to cross at all, Lee’s formidable defenses would, he hoped, exact a high toll for Burnside’s audaciousness.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, p63-64; Battles & Leaders, Vol. 3, p107-108; Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly. [↩]