January 17, 1863 (Saturday)
General Ambrose Burnside was nearly ready to make his move. His plan, opposed by most everybody in his Army of the Potomac, was one of diversion. Edwin Sumner’s Grand Division was to make some sort of demonstration along the banks of the Rappahonnock to convince the Rebels, across the river in Fredericksburg, that another attack was about to come their way.
Meanwhile, the two other Grand Divisions under Joe Hooker and William Franklin marched out of sight of the Rebels to Banks and United States Fords (respectively). There, they would cross and hit the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on their hopefully unsuspecting left flank.
While General-in-Chief Henry Halleck more or less approved of Burnside’s plan, the Grand Division commanders, especially General Franklin, thought it a horrible idea. Franklin, on this date, wrote to Burnside’s headquarters to voice his complaints.
He had been ordered to step off on the 18th (tomorrow), but needed to know if the road conditions were suitable for such a force as his. If he started tomorrow, he and his command would reach the newly constructed bridges and corduroyed roads by the morning of the 19th. Would these bridges and roads be finished in time? He wanted written assurances by Burnside. From all Franklin had seen, there wasn’t a chance in hell that they’d be ready.
Before the end of the day, Burnside postponed the march for twenty-four hours, just as Franklin had suggested.
The roads were one concern, but so were the crossings. Burnside had scouted them himself and was convinced they’d be fine. Few shared this opinion. It’s possible that Franklin was trying to push back the start of the march, hoping that some well-timed bad weather would fall and cancel the whole thing entirely.
So unhappy were the men that for the coming march, Burnside had Marsena Patrick, his Provost-Marshal-General, draw up some rather strict marching orders to deal with the deserters sure to take advantage of the march.
“In view of the alarming frequency of desertion from this army of late,” began the order, officers were to redouble their efforts to keep guard of their camps. While on the coming march, the columns were to be flanked by cavalry to make sure that every infantry soldier stayed where he belonged. They were to “drive up every loiterer, straggler, and skulker to his company, or placing him under guard.”
Of the coming battle (since this unwanted march was to turn into a fight sooner or later), provost marshals were to fall in behind the battle lines, keeping out of range, but staying close enough so that any “stragglers and skulkers may be gathered and forced to return to their regiments.”1
- When I wrote this, about four months ago, I’m sure I used several sources. Somehow or another, I forgot to include them. They were probably: Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly, and the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21. Very sorry about that. [↩]