Burnside’s New Idea – Frederickburg

November 9, 1862 (Sunday)

General Ambrose Burnside now commanded the Union Army of the Potomac. George McClellan, whom the bewhiskered officer had replaced, stuck around for a few days following his unceremonious dismissal. Together, McClellan caught Burnside up on the location and state of the vast army.

Ambrose Burnside

Having commanding the IX Corps, which was on the right of the army, Burnside probably knew less than most other corps commanders about such things. After a quick virtual tour, on this date, he took official command of the Army of the Potomac, issuing his General Orders No. 1, accepting the position.

Burnside realized that while Washington may not have been too impressed with General McClellan, the army itself loved him. With that in mind, he explained that he was one of them. He had shared in the privations and witnessed the bravery they had displayed during the Maryland Campaign. He “fully identified with them in their feeling of respect and esteem for General McClellan, entertained through a long and most friendly association with him.”

It was also on this date that Ambrose Burnside submitted his plans for the coming campaign. Washington had been displeased with McClellan’s sluggish movements, and so Burnside suggested swift action.

At this moment, the bulk of his army was around Warrenton, Virginia. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been divided, with James Longstreet’s Corps south in Culpeper, and Stonewall Jackson’s Corps near to Winchester, across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Burnside suggested that he first concentrate the entire army at Warrenton in an attempt to fool General Lee into thinking they were about to attack Culpeper. But just as they appeared about to attack, he wanted the whole force to rapidly move east to Fredericksburg. From there, they would move on Richmond.

This was a far different plan from McClellan’s, which had been thrown out the window once Lee got a sizable portion of his command between the Union army and the Confederate capital. Actually attacking Culpeper, reasoned Burnside, would give the Confederates many opportunities to defend Richmond, falling back to one defensive position after another.

At this point in the war, few were thinking of the Confederate Army as the objective. Always, it was Richmond. Their fear was not so much that the Union Army would be destroyed, but that Washington would fall. With that stuff in his thoughts, Burnside figured that if he appeared on the Fredericksburg line, he would be in the perfect position to cover Washington while attacking Richmond. The fall of the Confederate capital, wrote Burnside, “would tend more to cripple the rebel cause than almost any other military event, except the absolute breaking up of their army.”

Burnside was already admitting that he could not defeat Lee. He had said as much to President Lincoln when he twice refused to accept command of the Army of the Potomac. He had no faith in his ability to command such a force. And yet, there he was with a plan.

So long, Mac!

The new commander also had another idea. Under his immediate control, Burnside had six corps, and suggested that they be divided into three “Grand Divisions” – basically a right wing, left wing and center. These new Grand Divisions would be commanded by officers specifically selected for the task. This new arrangement would lighten Burnside’s load considerably, halving the amount of instructions he would need to issue to move his troops about. He submitted the proposals to Washington and awaited their reply.

In the meantime, he prepared for the next day’s send off of General McClellan by a gathering of officers at headquarters to bid their former commander farewell. As they all shook hands and embraced their old friend, some shed a few tears, while others, probably having imbibed a bit more than they should, suggested that “Ol’ Mac” lead the entire army to Washington and take over the government. McClellan demurred with a warning of what such talk might bring them.1

  1. Sources: The Fredericksburg Campaign by Fancis Agustin O’Reilly; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; The Life and Public Services of Ambrose Burnside by Benjamin Perley Poore; The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert; McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 2, p552-554, 557. []
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Burnside’s New Idea – Frederickburg by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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