January 21, 1863 (Wednesday)
Roads that had been dry were now rivers. Fields of grass were now seas of pooling water and thick, sticky mud. So thoroughly was the soaking that the mud ran axle-deep, bottoming out caissons and wagons on the now impassible roads.
General Ambrose Burnside believed himself to be forty-eight hours ahead of Robert E. Lee, but he was at least twenty-four hours behind the weather. His plan to sneak up the northern shore of the Rappahannock River and cross at Banks Ford to get behind the Rebel left flank was in grave danger of being washed out.
But he did not give up. When he rose upon the morning, many of his command weren’t too far away from the crossing. The river had risen, yes, but he believed it could still be traversed.
His men, however, were nearly submerged in the water dripping and pouring from their uniforms. Their blankets and tents were so logged with water that the extra weight bore heavy upon their weary frames. All the while, the temperatures, in the mid-thirties – were causing the men to shiver uncontrollably.
As the march began, the rains did not let up. The sun did not appear to dry the roads upon which they trod. It would pour an unceasing torrent from gray dawn to grayer dusk.
Marching was a near impossibility. Some inventive soldiers tried to lay logs down to make a corduroy road, but the mud swallowed them whole and tried to take the wagons as well. The men themselves were quickly exhausted.
Extra horses were added to wagons hauling the pontoons that were to be strung across the river. Sometimes up to twenty-eight horses were hitched together to pull a single piece of artillery. Before long, the horses, like the men, were beginning to sink down into the mire, unable to move. Thousands of animals died from mercy killings once they became too imprisoned to be freed. For others, their bodies simply gave way to exhaustion.
Realizing that nothing good could possibly come from this, many teamsters unhitched their horses and mules and rode away, abandoning the pontoons. With this latest set back, entire regiments of men were used to pull and heave the wagons as poor surrogates. The work left many units even more depleted than after a battle.
Twenty pontoons were needed to complete a single span across the Rappahannock. By the end of the day, Burnside had only fifteen. Also, he needed at least two bridges. While it was quickly becoming evident to most that this attack would never happen, to Burnside, it was only clear that there would be a bit of a delay, perhaps a day or two.
As the Army of the Potomac went into bivouac, it wasn’t in a single location, but spread thin all the way from Banks Ford (the crossing) almost all the way back to their original camps.
The rains did not relent enough to even allow the men to build fires – and so, there was not a scrap to eat.
This fiasco did not go unnoticed by the Confederates across the river. General Lee ordered James Longstreet to send a division to Banks Ford. He selected George Pickett’s men for the job. The need was urgent and few were allowed the time to pack little more than their cartridge boxes and muskets.
While the Federals were literally stuck in the mud, Pickett’s men followed the macadamized Orange Turnpike and other improved roads to get to the ford. By the end of the day, the division was at Salem Church. He sent skirmishers to the river while the rest of the men dug into the soft and muddy ground.
Neither side could do anything more than shiver, exposed to the gale winds and indescribable rain. Some Rebels were able to start fires, and the Federals closest to the river could see and envy the far away warm glow through the night.1
- Sources: Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p755. [↩]