November 17, 1862 (Monday)
For General Robert E. Lee, the gray and dreary morning passed slowly as he tried his best to sort through reports that had filtered into his headquarters near Culpeper, Virginia the previous day. What was clear was that the Union Army of the Potomac, now commanded by General Ambrose Burnside, was on the move. What wasn’t so clear was the destination.
Lee had suspected Fredericksburg, even ordered reinforcements to be sent to bolster the scant few cavalry companies holding the town. He also instructed that bridges across the Rappahannock River be put to the torch to keep the Federals on the northern bank. But while he suspected Burnside might try a move upon Richmond via Fredericksburg, there was no proof.
In fact, there seemed to be proof that Fredericksburg wasn’t even on Burnside’s mind. If the entire Army of the Potomac actually planned to move all 135,000 men (or even a sizable chunk of them) east, wouldn’t there have been preparations? Wouldn’t Burnside have repaired the wharves at nearby Aquia Creek so he could keep his army supplied via the Potomac River? Since nothing of the sort seemed to be taking place, Lee could only assume that his first suspicion was in error – Burnside was not moving on Fredericksburg.
So then, what about Alexandria? That was a definite possibility. The troops were clearly no longer in his front, and he had seen trains moving up and down the Orange & Alexander Railroad. It was unlikely that they were bringing troops south, so if they were moving troops at all, they had to be moving them north.
And if they were going to Alexandria, it was unlikely that Burnside, new to command and wanting to prove himself, would put them into winter quarters. Lee understood that the Federal government got rid of General McClellan because they wanted action. Burnside was likely to try and prove that he deserved his new promotion.
If they were going to Alexandria, they would then be shipped out somewhere else. Lee mused that they could be transporting the Army south of the James River, perhaps to continue McClellan’s horrendously botched Peninsula Campaign. From what Lee knew of Burnside, he suspected that his new opponent could make this move.
Still, he didn’t want to risk it. He didn’t want to attack with his scant force. He couldn’t really do anything at all until his scouts reported more information.
Meanwhile, along the Rappahannock River, Col. William Ball, commanding all of the Confederate forces in Fredericksburg (which consisted of a regiment each of infantry and cavalry, plus a couple of batteries), had been tracking a large body of Yankees as they advanced along the north bank. Ball ordered a company from the 42nd Mississippi Infantry to hold Falmouth Ford at all costs. They were not to fire until the enemy was halfway across. There, the Federals would sustain the most casualties and be unable to return fire.
In addition to the company of infantry, Ball placed one of his batteries on a knoll overlooking the ford. What little cavalry he had was on the Union side of the river, keeping taps on whomever these Northern troops were.
This large body of Federals was actually the Right Grand Division of the Army of the Potomac. Commanded by Edwin Sumner, they consisted of the II and IX Corps, the former leading the way. As the marching Union infantry appeared atop the ridge opposite Fredericksburg, they were silhouetted against the sky.
Seeing this, Ball ordered his guns to fire. Sumner, near the head of his column, immediately ordered one of his batteries to unlimber their pieces and unleash their fury upon the Rebels. Within fifteen minutes, the superior Union artillery bested the hearty Rebels, sending the artillerymen scurrying, leaving their guns behind.
Sumner had been under strict orders not to cross the Rappahannock, but this was too good of a prize to give up. He prepared to disobey orders and send a force across. While he contemplated the move, Ball rounded up his scattered artillerymen and coaxed them back to work with the help of some of the Mississippi infantrymen, who were ordered to shoot any who ran away from their duty.
As Ball was corralling his artillerymen, Sumner gave the order to cross the river, capture the guns and hold the town. As evening was creeping closer, and possibly because the Confederates had returned to their posts, Sumner withdrew the order.
With darkness coming, Sumner sent a message to Burnside, telling him just how poorly defended Fredericksburg actually was. He asked for permission to find a ford and capture the town. Burnside ordered him to wait for the pontoon bridges to arrive and be set up. Sumner agreed – it made sense to have the bridges established before entering and occupying the town. But the pontoon boats were a touchy subject. There had been delays and there would be more to come. Burnside and Sumner would simply have to wait.
Col. Ball, however, was not waiting. He knew full well that there was no way his several hundred soldiers could keep one-third of the Army of the Potomac from crossing the Rappahannock River and taking the town. And so, he ordered the place to be abandoned, burned the cotton and drowned the tobacco.
Sometime during the day, news of this got back to General Lee in Culpeper. Though he wanted extra confirmation, he took Ball’s word at face value and sent an entire division from James Longstreet’s Corps towards Fredericksburg with more to follow once he was sure that Burnside was indeed moving upon Fredericksburg.
Still, Lee did not know “whether this movement on Fredericksburg is intended as a feint or a real advance upon Richmond.” But if it was truly a move upon Richmond via Fredericksburg, Lee was certain of one thing: “before it [the Union Army] could move from Fredericksburg, I think this whole army [Lee’s whole army] will be in position.”
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p1014-1016, 1019; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; General Sumner’s testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, December 19, 1862.))