January 15, 1863 (Thursday)
The question was not an easy one – what to do with the Army of the Potomac? Since the Battle of Fredericksburg, General Ambrose Burnside had moved not at all. But that didn’t mean he did nothing. On December 30, over two weeks after the smoke had cleared, Burnside received a message from President Lincoln stressing that the Army must “not make a general movement without letting me know if it.”
The already shattered Burnside was done in. He had been planning an offensive, but several officers under him had gotten the ear of Washington and Lincoln put a halt to it. In turn, Burnside went to see Lincoln.
They met on New Years Day, just after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Burnside demanded to know why the offensive had been called off. Lincoln explained that none of the officers under him (Burnside) had any faith in him (again, Burnside). The General protested, of course, and pleaded to be allowed to launch the offensive anyway. Lincoln thought he best not. Burnside then demanded the resignations of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. Lincoln, however, thought it best they stick around.
The following day at a very awkward meeting with Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck, Burnside offered his own resignation and against put forward that Stanton and Halleck resign as well. He then demanded that Lincoln fire the officers who had snitched on him (Burnside). With everyone but Burnside fairly bored with the drama, Lincoln once again refused.
Burnside returned to Falmouth, Virginia, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, in a pitiful and downcast state.
For the next couple of weeks, the entire Army of the Potomac did basically nothing while Burnside tried to knock out another plan. He had learned that General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had sent reinforcements to North Carolina and perhaps even west to Braxton Bragg (the latter was untrue) and that now would be a splendid time to attack. Lincoln himself even suggested that a crossing to hit the Rebels was now in order.
Not trusting his subordinates in the least, Burnside personally reconnoitered the banks of the Rappahannock, looking for a crossing. He had decided to move north along the river, hoping to turn Lee’s left flank. He decided to use two crossings, Banks and United States Fords, and sent a brigade in that direction to help with laying logs for a corduroy road. Meanwhile, newly arrived troops would create a diversion south of town.
Army morale since the battle had been a mixed bag, at best. Living conditions were getting worse and camp deaths were on the climb. Many soldiers had no more faith in Burnside than his officers had. While some regiments received their first pay in months, other did not. This, along with the obvious sadness from being away from home over the holidays, sent desertions skyrocketing to several hundred men each day.
Everybody, from the ranks to the folks at home, wanted to know when the army was finally going to move. Burnside’s mind was made up. Word would leak out the following day and his army would be on the road soon. Perhaps on the 18th. Maybe the 19th.1
- Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly, Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p754. [↩]