Lincoln Approves of Burnside’s Fredericksburg Plan

November 14, 1862 (Friday)

Burnside and friends at his headquarters in Warrenton

Neither President Lincoln nor General-in-Chief Henry Halleck cared much for Burnside’s plan. Consisting of a feign towards Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Culpeper, and then a quick dodge to the left for Fredericksburg, both believed it pointlessly cumbersome and risky. As things stood, before them was an opportunity to bring Lee to battle with the entire Army of the Potomac while his Rebel army was divided in two – half near Winchester, half near Culpeper.

So dismayed were they over Burnside’s idea, Halleck left Washington for army headquarters at Warrenton. During the meeting, Halleck did everything he could to convince Burnside that going to Fredericksburg was a bad idea. Both Lincoln and Halleck wanted Burnside to continue south towards Culpeper along the Orange & Alexander Railroad. Herman Haupt, the army’s railroad authority, however, declared the line to be already overtaxed. Additionally, Burnside’s second-in-command, Edwin Sumner, also at the conference, believed Burnside’s plan sound.

Halleck was defeated and decided to take Burnside’s plan back to Lincoln to see what they should do next. He ordered Burnside to sit tight until he heard back from them. Burnside agreed, but asked Halleck to get him enough pontoon boats to create two bridges across the Rappahannock River, which he would have to cross at some point before getting to Frederick. Halleck agreed, but didn’t realize there were only a handful of such boats in Washington. Most were still in the Harpers Ferry area. When discovered, this would, no doubt, cause quite a kerfuffle.

Halleck returned to Washington and, after a bit of deliberation with Lincoln, they agreed to let Burnside give his plan a try.

“The President has just assented to your plan. He thinks that it will succeed, if you move very rapidly; otherwise not.”

Burnside immediately acted, concentrating his entire army at Warrenton. Part of his plan was a reorganization of the army. Rather than having seven corps and thus seven commanders to direct, he invented three “Grand Divisions,” each containing two corps.

Pontoon boats on wagons.

The Right Grand Division, consisted of the II and IX Corps, was placed under the command of Edwin Sumner. The I and VI Corps made up the Left Grand Division, under William Franklin. And the Center Grand Division, under Joe Hooker, consisted of the III and V Corps. The remaining XI Corps, commanded by Franz Sigel, would be placed in reserve.

The next morning, with orders issued, Burnside’s 115,000-strong Army of the Potomac would step off.

There was an issue, however. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was divided, with James Longstreet’s Corps at Culpeper and Stonewall Jackson’s Corps near Winchester. Rumors had spread, even to Wheeling, Western Virginia, that Jackson was evacuating the Shenandoah Valley and heading towards Romney or even deeper into the hills. Most believed it was yet another raid on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad works in Cumberland, Maryland. In truth, it was nothing. The Federals at Harpers Ferry and near the Valley were jumping at shadows.

Map of approximate locations of troops, etc.

In actuality, Lee had no real plan – he was on the defensive and very leery of General Burnside. When he learned that Burnside had replaced McClellan, he confided in Longstreet that he was dismayed to see him go, “for we always understood each other so well. I fear they may continue to make these changes until they find some one I don’t understand.”

At Fredericksburg, Lee had a small garrison under Colonel William Ball. It consisted mostly of a regiment of cavalry and a battery of artillery. Still, by the 12th, Lee was getting his first suspicions that Burnside just might be turning and eye towards Fredericksburg. He told Ball to be on alert.

Thinking more and more that Burnside was thinking of Fredericksburg, Lee ordered “the railroad from Fredericksburg to Aquia Creek to be entirely destroyed ; the bridges, culverts, &c, to be broken; the cross-ties piled and fired, with the rails piled on top, so as to prevent their future use.” Additionally, in a letter to Secretary of War Randolph, Lee suggested that the line be further destroyed from Fredericksburg to Hanover Junction. The same should be done to the Orange & Alexandria line from Gordonsville to the Rappahannock.

Fredericksburg, November-December 1862 (probably). Complete with railroad bridge destroyed by Col. Bell.

In closing, Lee admitted he was doing all of this without knowing where Burnside was actually headed. “Were I certain of the route he will pursue, I should commence immediately to make it as difficult as possible.”

On this date, Ball wired Lee that the enemy were massing in his front. Lee could plainly see that Burnside was still at Warrenton and so decided that Ball might be overreacting. Still, he sent a regiment of infantry and another battery as reinforcements. Lee also ordered Jackson to be ready to move out at a moments notice. Burnside had not yet moved, and so Lee was still on the defensive.

Back in Washington, the first load of pontoon boats had reached the capital, but it was only half of what Burnside requested. It was suspected that by the 17th or so, he could have them all assembled. It would, however, take a few more days to get them to where Burnside needed them. It was too late for Burnside to delay – if he even knew about the possible need to delay by this time. At dawn, he Army would be ready.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 2, p597, 584, 717; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Lee and His Lieutenants by Edward Alfred Pollard; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders. []
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