November 26, 1862 (Wednesday)
They were up by 4:30am, marching in column through the morning cold. Many were without shoes, their bloodied bare feet wrapped in pieces of dirty cloth, or nothing at all. For them, each step was agony as they tramped raw and cracked over ice, leaving red prints as their trail. These were Stonewall Jackson’s men, and they followed him up the Shenandoah Valley, across the Blue Ridge mountains to Gordonsville, Virginia. Without the need for orders, Jackson was hurrying his 38,000 to General Lee at Fredericksburg.
Lee did not have to order Jackson to march. He correctly believed that Stonewall would know precisely when and how to make the link. They had exchanged many letters discussing the tactical situation, and up until recently, Lee wanted Jackson to remain around Winchester, hoping to either draw enemy troops away from the main thrust near Fredericksburg, or to catch the Federals in a mistake that would allow Jackson to descend upon the right flank of the Army of the Potomac.
By this date, however, Lee had had enough. While Burnside made no mistake, he also didn’t do much else. Since arriving at Falmouth, on the other side of the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, the Union army simply stopped. For a day or so, it appeared that Burnside might try to move south, but in the end, there they were.
It’s not that Lee never considered that Burnside would try to cross at Fredericksburg. In fact, he had suspected he would do that from the start. But since he and James Longstreet’s Corps arrived, Lee figured that Burnside would try a different approach. Now, however, Lee was questioning this.
In a letter written to Stonewall Jackson on the march, Lee abandoned any plan to play upon Burnside’s right flank. The object now was for the entire Army of Northern Virginia to be united.
As usual, Lee gave Jackson the final say on whether or not he should follow his advice – these were not, strictly speaking, orders: “I desire you to pursue the best route, by easy marches, to this place, advising me of your approach so that your march may be hastened, if necessary.”
Burnside was still in their front, related Lee. “I think the probability is that he will attempt to cross either here or at some other point down the river; in which case it would be desirable that the whole army should be united.” This was the first time Lee mentioned that the enemy might try to force a crossing at Fredericksburg since he arrived.
General Burnside, however, wasn’t really sure what to do. As Lee suspected, he had hoped to cross at Fredericksburg before the Confederate Army arrived. That plan was, of course, shot to hell when the pontoon boats he needed to use to create a bridge were late.
Burnside had been under the impression that the pontoons were easily available in Washington and that he would have them by the time the lead elements of his army arrived in Falmouth. As it turned out, the pontoons were near Harpers Ferry. Things went wrong from there.
General-in-Chief Henry Halleck was informed that it would take five or six days to get the pontoons in order. He never passed this bit of information on to Burnside. Days slipped by as engineers battled each other and the Quartermaster Department for supplies to get the boats under way. Not a single pontoon moved from Washington until the 19th – two days after Burnside wanted them.
It took them six days to make the fifty mile journey. During that wait, Burnside put one of the engineers in charge of the train under arrest for the delay, while blaming others for not being “impressed with the importance of speed.”
Mostly, he blamed Halleck and the Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs for the whole thing. Halleck, in turn, blamed Burnside, telling him that he “ought not to have trusted them in Washington for the details.”
The pontoons weren’t the only thing going wrong for General Burnside. Before moving his entire army, he never established a working supply line. He ordered the depots at Aquia Creek to be rebuilt, but there wasn’t a working rail line to Falmouth until this date.
But now was what counted. Now was the time to truly begin the campaign in earnest. Unfortunately, with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia sitting in Fredericksburg, right across the river from him, he was suddenly out of ideas.
The late autumn rains were falling and the river was rising. The fords were all becoming impassable. The roads were turning to so much churned slop as he sent reconnoitering parties up and down the Rappahannock, from Port Royal to the confluence with the Rapidan.
Above Fredericksburg, crossing was impossible due to a canal that would just complicate things. When he considered crossing at Fredericksburg, General Edwin Sumner, commanding the Grand Division who would be doing the crossing, strongly urged him to reconsider – it would be a slaughter. Look down the river, advised Sumner. And so Burnside did.
What he found was not much at all. The Confederates had all of the crossings well covered, but even if they had not, nothing seemed practical.
In Washington, President Lincoln was beginning to think that his general was stuck in the mud, somewhere in the swamps of Virginia. Hoping to be of some assistance, Lincoln wired Burnside: “If I should be in a boat off Aquia Creek, at dark tomorrow evening, could you, without inconvenience, meet me & pass an hour or two with me?”
Still in a fog, on the evening of this date, Burnside met with Lincoln, who had stolen away, telling only those few who needed to know. The meeting would span two days. By the following day (the 27th), Lincoln had a plan of his own. It was clear that Burnside’s idea had failed. It was time for a fresh approach.
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p103, 1033; Rally Once Again by Alan T. Nolan; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly.))