December 10, 1862 (Wednesday)
General Ambrose Burnside was not a happy man. The previous evening, the officers in Edwin Sumner’s Grand Division were distraught over the commanding General’s plans to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg to attack the Rebels in what appeared to be a frontal assault through a large town and up a steep hill.
Not typically a stubborn or even self-assured man, Burnside now decided to hold his ground. He called a meeting with all of Sumner’s Generals to not only bring them around to his line of thinking, but to chew them out for not supporting him.
He focused much of his ire on Winfield Scott Hancock, who commanded a division under Darius Couch, who had also been a very vocal dissenter. The plans had been formed, said Burnside with uncharacteristic sternness, and all he wanted was the devotion of his men.
Hancock, a rising star in the Army of the Potomac, tried to explain that his disapproval of the plans wasn’t personal. He knew that the heights were fortified and taking them would require great bloodshed.
Couch, Hancock’s corps commander, then spoke up. The previous day, he had been more vocal than Hancock and seemed to feel as if he could diffuse the situation by facing the inevitable. Before Burnside could again explain that he wasn’t about to budge, Couch stood and vowed to do twice as much as he had done in any previous battle.
That was great to hear, of course, but the feelings were still rankled until General William French, also commanding a division under Couch, strolled in. Feeling the room bristling with fire and brimstone, he quipped, “Is this a Methodist camp meeting?”
It must have broken the mood, or at least put an end to the quarrels. In a sort of closing, Burnside reminded all that he had accepted the lead of the army reluctantly. Now was not the time for objections. “Your duty is not to throw cold water,” he told them, “but to aid me loyally with your advice and hearty service.”
Everyone, including Hancock, deferred to Burnside, using this “cold water” to wash their hands like a corps-full of Pontius Pilates.
The plan, as Burnside explained it, was not a simple river crossing and dash up a hill to capture a red flag with an X on it. There was indeed thought behind it. A few days had passed since he had attempted to shift his army south for a crossing at Skinker’s Neck, near Port Royal. There, they had discovered Rebels where they thought was none, and called off any such notion.
He knew he could not cross there, but wanted to Confederates to believe that there would be the point of attack. To flesh out the ruse, he very obviously had a road built to the Neck, and on this date, requested the Navy to once again sent a few gunships up the Rappahannock to cover his false river crossing.
Throughout the day, the ships exchanged fire with Southern batteries along the riverbank. The ruckus carried on until nightfall, while Burnside made preparations for three different crossings near Fredericksburg. By 3pm, the teams of engineers and bridge builders were ready for the next day’s work.
All this movement did not go unnoticed by the Confederates. After dark, General Robert E. Lee ordered his artillery to be limbered and ready to move on whichever orders clacked across the telegraph lines come dawn. Burnside, he knew, was going to attack, and though he suspected it would be at Fredericksburg, he had to be ready for anything.1
- Sources: Battles & Leaders, Vol. 3, p108; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable. [↩]