December 5, 1862 (Friday)
Crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg was not exactly what General Ambrose Burnside had in mind. His entire Army of the Potomac had been situated opposite the Confederate-held town for two weeks, and he understood that crossing there could be disastrous. So he turned his attention downstream to a bend called Skinker’s Neck.
This was really the only ground along the river that could support a crossing, and, according to Burnside’s scouts, the Confederates had failed to guard the ford, fourteen miles away from Fredericksburg.
If he could get his army across quickly, he would slip well over 100,000 men between General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and their capital, Richmond. The more he mulled it over, the better he liked the idea. The gunboats of the Navy could even be used to assist in the crossing. Once upon the southern shore, they could hold Port Royal, a few miles farther downstream, and use it as a base of operations.
On December 3rd, he met with his subordinates. Most (not General Joe Hooker) agreed with the plan. The proper commands, orders, supplies and ammunition were given to the men. The date to begin the move was December 5th.
All Burnside needed was the Navy and contacted Commodore Andrew Harwood, who commanded the Potomac Flotilla. On December 4th, four gunboats steamed up the Rappahannock. Since there were no Confederates this far south, all seemed to be going to plan.
Except that there were Confederates that far south. Burnside had no idea that Stonewall Jackson’s Corps had joined Lee’s Army. He had no idea that Lee suspected Burnside might try something south of Fredericksburg and sent Jackson to cover the crossings. Jackson had sent D.H. Hill’s Division all the way to Port Royal and it was he (Hill) who discovered Skinker’s Neck.
Hill wrote to Cavalry commander Jeb Stuart asking if he was covering the crossing. Stuart said he was. Apparently disbelieving of Stuart, Hill made sure for himself and found no cavalry in the area. On the 3rd, he ordered his men to construct rifle pits near the Neck to contest any Federal machinations. He placed various field artillery all along the hills overlooking the Rappahannock south and north of Port Royal just in case the Federal Navy got any bright ideas to assist the infantry.
Sure enough, on the 4th, Hill and his men saw four Yankee gunboats steaming up the river. They greeted their guests with solid shot, hurrying them along. The closer they got to Skenker’s Neck, the more Rebels appeared on the shore.
According to Federal reports, the gunboats silenced the Confederate artillery. But according to Confederate reports, the fire was so great that it killed six Union sailors and sent the ships scurrying back down river. The truth is somewhere in between. The ships seemed to be unharmed, but they dropped down past Port Royal after dark. They continued to exchange shots through the night into the morning of this date.
It was on the morning of this date that Burnside’s men began to move out. Rain had fallen all night, turning the roads to a sloppy mire. By noon, the temperatures plummeted, changing rain to sleet and sleet to snow. The march was wretched and trying upon the men. They managed to move several miles and were told to set up camp – a very welcome command on such a day. When their tents were finally set up and fires warming them, they were given the order to move out.
After four more miles, camp was set up in an open plain (Belle Plain). The winds were so relentless that many were forced into the woods. And there they would stay.
While they threw one frozen foot in front of the other, General Burnside received news of the naval engagement and even worse news of Confederates at Skenker’s Neck. They were not just at the Neck, however, but all over, stretching their gray lines from Fredericksburg to Port Republic, watching his every move.
A crossing now would be insanity. The Rebels knew he was trying to cross south of Fredericksburg. And so he turned his eyes back to town – to the main Confederate position. If Lee expected a crossing at Skenker’s Neck, Burnside decided that they would never expect one at Fredericksburg. A few days would have to pass for this to fully fructify in his mind, but the seeds were well planted.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p87, 826-827; Official Naval Records, Vol. 3, p 188-189, 191; Lee’s Maverick General: Daniel Harvey Hill by Hal Bridges; Military Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative by Edward Porter Alexander; Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth Army Corps by Augustus Woodbury; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; From Bull Run to Chancellorsville by Newton Martin Curtis. [↩]