November 18, 1862 (Tuesday)
The Virginia autumn had been a good one for Confederate cavalier, Jeb Stuart. Following the successful raid upon Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, he took the time to reorganize his command and tangle here and there with the Yankees. For a short handful of days, the relative quiet allowed his wife and small child to visit him in Culpeper. This solemnity was all about to change.
General Robert E. Lee had been trying his best to figure out what Ambrose Burnside, newly-instated commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, was up to. He suspected it was a move to Fredericksburg, and though a sizable Federal force had appeared across the Rappahannock River at Falmouth, he needed to make sure that it wasn’t a feign.
For this, he needed Jeb Stuart. The dashing young blade was ordered to cross the Rappahannock near Warrensburg and see where the enemy was and what they were up to. They left at dawn and fought their way across, slashing and fighting a regiment of cavalry and a battery of artillery.
When the Federals retreated, they scurried towards Bealetown, and then to Warrenton Junction. This was important as it meant that their base had moved to the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. He pressed on and learned much. The Union troops had all vacated Warrenton. All were headed towards the Orange & Alexandria. He believed this was proof positive that Burnside was indeed headed to Fredericksburg.
Lee suspected as much, but needed to be completely sure before committing his entire army. He had already dispatched General Lafayette McLaws’ Division from James Longstreet’s Corps to march directly upon Fredericksburg. Longstreet shortly thereafter sent Robert Ransom’s division toward Hanover Junction, just in case Burnside’s troops at Falmouth, under Edwin Sumner, had crossed the river and were marching on Richmond.
As for the rest of Longstreet’s Corps, they were put on hold near Culpeper, awaiting word from Stuart.
But this was only half of Lee’s Army. The other half was over seventy miles away, near Winchester. Stonewall Jackson had been holding his own for weeks now. There had been almost daily communication with Lee, and only scant skirmishes, but it seemed as if the number of Federal troops were growing around him. This was mostly from Franz Sigel’s Union Corps, which had occupied some of the mountain passes and had been detached from the main body of the Army of the Potomac.
Lee had wanted to combine his force, but was waiting until he knew what Burnside was about. Since it seemed like he was about to be certain, he wrote to Jackson. As was typical of the relationship between the two commanders, Lee didn’t order Jackson to join him. He did, however, strongly suggest it.
“Unless you think it is advantageous for you to continue longer in the valley, or can accomplish the retention and division of the enemy’s forces by so doing, I think it would be advisable to put some of your divisions in motion across the mountains, and advance them at least as far as Sperryville or Madison Court-House.”
Still, Lee didn’t want Jackson to send his entire force just yet. It was possible that Burnside planned to occupy Fredericksburg, Culpeper, and Winchester, creating a lengthy and strong line all across Northern Virginia. If this happened, he would need Jackson to be in the Shenandoah Valley.
Everything continued to hinge upon Jeb Stuart and Lee was certain that he wouldn’t hear from the cavalry commander until the next day.
Soon after Lee received Stuart’s message that Burnside had fully pulled out of Warrenton, he received word that Yankee cavalry had burned the bridge at Rappahannock Station. It now appeared that the enemy had no plans to push towards Richmond via Warrenton.
This was enough, however, for Lee to send all of Longstreet’s Corps in motion. But all would not (yet) be headed towards Fredericksburg. Richard Anderson’s Division was ordered to Spotsylvania Court House, while George Pickett and John Hood’s divisions were stepping off for the North Anna.
Lee’s movements showed just what he believed Burnside would do next. He had sent only one division to Fredericksburg, while he sent the other four to locations well to the south, guarding what he believed would be Burnside’s route to Richmond. He must have been convinced that the Federals were planning to cross the Rappahannock and would have pretty good luck at doing so.
Longstreet’s entire corps, nearly 40,000 men, were now on the march, just as 135,000 Federal troops were in motion under Burnside – all concentrating on Fredericksburg.
It was true, Burnside had every intention of crossing the Rappahannock River. But before he could do that, he needed pontoon boats to create a bridge. And that was the rub. Just as Burnside set up headquarters in Falmouth, he learned that his pontoons would be delayed. There could be no crossing just yet. Still worse, the fall rains had swelled the river making the fords impassible. Without the pontoons, he feared that Lee’s army would soon be blocking the way across the river. He was left with no other choice but to wait as his chances for surprise were swiftly washed away.
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p1018-1021; Jeb Stuart by John W. Thomason; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly.))