January 20, 1863 (Tuesday)
The beautiful sunny yesterday gave way to winds and clouds, turning the brilliant blue sky above Fredericksburg, Virginia into thick gray soup. Still, Ambrose Burnside’s heart could not be contained. The campaign that he had planned, canceled, replanned, canceled again, and once again replanned was about to happen. Soon, he would cross the Rappahannock River with his entire army and fall upon the left flank of the Rebels!
News that had come fluttering in over the past few days had filled him with a hope that he hadn’t felt since before the Battle of Fredericksburg. General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army had been depleted, so the story went. Rumors had Rebels being sent to North Carolina and Arkansas, and placed James Longstreet himself in Tennessee. Some of it was actually true, but only four brigades had left Lee’s command, and two of those had just left.
Additionally, the weather had been amazing. Or at least dry. Sure, the clouds had thickly coated the sky and the temperatures had hardly climbed above forty, but at least there was no rain. The roads were dry and all was perfect for Burnside’s winter campaign.
After several postponements, today was the date they would step off. To his soldiers, Burnside addressed an order.
“The movements of our troops in N.C. and the Southwest had drawn off and divided the Rebel forces on the Rappahannock,” rang Burnside over his Army of the Potomac, telling them that now was “the auspicious moment, in the providence of God, to strike a blow.”
When they brought home success, he assured them that “a fame the most glorious awaits.” He called for “the firm and united action of officers and men, and, under the providence of God, the Army of the Potomac will have taken a great step toward restoring peace to the country and the Government to its rightful authority.”
With the Confederate reverses out West, the depletion of Lee’s Army and this, until today, absolutely stunning weather, Burnside could see only God’s hand at work for the Union.
Around 11am, two Grand Divisions under Generals Franklin and Hooker, began their move. It was a late start, but to the soldiers doing the hiking, it meant a short day – a good thing when morale was lower than usual. Meanwhile, to convince the Rebels across the Rappahannock River that Burnside wasn’t trying to get around their left flank, Edwin Sumner’s Grand Division made a lively demonstration, as Franz Sigel’s Reserve Grand Division, fresh from Manassas, took the place of Franklin and Hooker.
The roads used by Franklin and Hooker’s men were in relatively immaculate shape. The lack of rain and snow had hardened them into well packed dirt and the head of the columns reached their destinations with little trouble. Never one to order his troops ahead without following, Burnside moved his headquarters to a farm near the main crossing.
Everything seemed to be working perfectly. General Lee, across the river, had seemingly taken no notice at all. He had shifted no troops to Banks Ford to contest their crossing. As Burnside figured it, he was somehow forty-eight hours ahead of Lee, ready to cross the Rappahannock and fall upon his enemy’s left flank.
Near dark, they went into bivouac several miles away from the ford. In the morning, Hooker’s men would cross a pontoon bridge just above Banks Ford, while Franklin’s could cross just below. Once on the other side, they could reconnect along the main road leading out of Fredericksburg and ready their attack.
But soon, everything changed. At 7pm, the rains began to fall. It was a sprinkle at first, just a few drops to send a night chill through the men. The winds, coming hard from the northeast, picked up as the storm intensified. A Pennsylvania soldier remembered that “it rained as if the world was coming to an end.”
Maybe not the world, but quite possibly the campaign.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p 127, 753-754; Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Weather report by Jedediah Hotchkiss from his diary, Make Me a Map of the Valley. [↩]