Fighting Joe Hooker Wants to Fight – Burnside Declines

November 20, 1862 (Thursday)

Joe Hooker was not a happy man. Commanding the Center Grand Division of the Union Army of the Potomac, he had every intension to cross the Rappahannock River before General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was able to make it to Fredericksburg. He was of the opinion that Burnside had already lost the campaign and the only thing that could really save it was his bold splash across the river.

Hooker: Let us cross over the river and not rest until we whip the Rebs.

His position was at Hartwood, a few miles northeast of Falmouth, the new headquarters of the Union Army. This position was four miles from United States Ford, just upstream of the scantily-defended Fredericksburg. He fully believed that if he crossed his command immediately, he would catch the Rebels unprepared and could capture the town. In fact, he thought that his crossing would create so much confusion that the entire army could march on to Richmond via Hanover Junction before the Confederates could stop them.

The problem was that he was explaining all of this to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. Though he asked permission from General Burnside, he had also jumped the chain of command and went directly to Halleck, hoping that one or both would allow him to make his move.

Of course, in his letter to Halleck, Hooker had some choice things to say about Burnside’s handling of the campaign thus far. In particular, Hooker thought that Burnside should have made a greater demonstration towards the Rebels when they were at Culpeper. Since that was no longer on the table, he wanted to cross at United State Ford and cause some trouble.

Just as Hooker was writing to Halleck about United States Ford, Burnside was also writing to him about the same place. The previous day, he wrote that he hoped to send some cavalry, infantry and even artillery across. If Hooker knew about this missive, he must have been chomping at the bit.

But over the night, Burnside gave it much thought, and in the morning, he gave Hooker the reply he didn’t want to hear. He explained to Hooker that the original intent of holding him at Hartwood “was to throw at least your infantry and cavalry force over one or more of the fords opposite you.” Burnside had ordered a reconnaissance of the ford to see if that would be possible.

Unfortunately, according to Burnside’s reports, it was not. He explained that the two fords closest to him (US Ford and Richards Ford) were not passable. Another, farther up the river, would add a day’s marching and place his command too far out of reach.

Burnside did admit, however, that he wasn’t actually sure of the conditions of the fords. He planned to order another reconnaissance and get back to Hooker about it. The real problem, wrote Burnside, was the missing pontoon boats. They were expected by now and if they had come, General Sumner’s Grand Division would have already crossed and Hooker would be right behind him.

For Hooker, this was yet another way that Burnside was botching the campaign.

Meanwhile, General Longstreet’s Corps had begun to arrive in Fredericksburg. Towards evening, Lafayette McLaws’ and Robert Ransom’s Divisions set up camp behind the city, shielded from the Federals across the river. John Bell Hood and Richard Anderson brought their divisions to Spotsylvania Court House, eleven miles to the southwest. Bringing up the rear was George Pickett.

Though hidden from sight, Burnside knew that Lee’s Army – at least Longstreet’s Corps of it – was consolidating at Fredericksburg. Without boats or a way to cross the river, however, there was almost nothing he could do.

((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p104-105; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth Army Corps by Augustus Woodbury; A History of the Army of the Potomac by James Henry Stine.))

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Fighting Joe Hooker Wants to Fight – Burnside Declines by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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