November 27, 1862 (Thursday)
When President Abraham Lincoln noticed that General Ambrose Burnside seemed to be stuck on the north side of the Rappahannock River, when really he wanted to be on the south side, Lincoln asked him if he couldn’t have a few hours of his time. And so the President arrived near Aquia Creek, Virginia late the previous evening.
They met aboard the steamer Baltimore almost as soon as Lincoln arrived, but the true meeting of the minds took place on this date. It was clear Burnside had run out of ideas. He wanted to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg a week before now, but the pontoon boats he needed to build a bridge had been held up for days. They had arrived on the 25th, but by that time (and too many days before), General Robert E. Lee’s army was set to defend the crossing. Burnside had looked up and down the river, but because of flooding, there was no good place to cross.
Lincoln had visited the Army of the Potomac twice when under the care of General George McClellan. Having the honor of the President’s company so soon after taking command, Burnside must have been a bit flustered. He first tried to assure Lincoln that he was not General McClellan.
He needed and could handle no more troops. The 110,000 with him already were sufficient. They were well trained, well fed, in good spirits, and ready for anything. Unlike McClellan, Burnside wanted to act. The week spent languishing across the river from Fredericksburg did him no favors. To prove his willingness to act, he offered to throw up the pontoon bridges in the face of the enemy and storm across them. Yes, it was “somewhat risky,” as he put it, but had every chance of success.
Burnside had felt pressured by General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to make some sort of attack – any attack. Lincoln assured him that it was the President who was the authority, not Halleck. The country, said Lincoln, could wait until the Army of the Potomac was ready.
Lincoln had said this too many times to General McClellan. He offered the former commander all the time in the world to move. While Lincoln had simply not wanted to rush McClellan, the offer was taken, abused and then spat back out at him by the Army’s previous commander. Burnside wasn’t the type to do that, but even so, Lincoln wanted to act.
Probably before he arrived at Aquia Creek, Lincoln had formulated his own plan of attack. Following the meeting with Burnside, he put it to paper for General-in-Chief Halleck, who may not have been the ultimate authority, but all things had to pass through him.
The plan went something like this: For the time being, Lincoln was fine with Burnside’s lack of motion. The Army of the Potomac would stay where they were, on the northern banks of the Rappahannock, at Falmouth. Meanwhile, a force of 25,000, gathered from the troops in and around Washington, would gather on the southern banks of the Rappahannock at Port Royal, thirty or so miles down the river. A third force, also 25,000-strong, would then be carried by transports and gun boats up the York River and then up the Pamunkey River as far as they could go. When all was ready, the three forces would move together.
As Burnside forced the crossing at Fredericksburg, the second force would storm up the river to assist. The third force would lunge towards Hanover Court House to secure the bridges over the Pamunkey and Mattapony Rivers. This would accomplish two things. First, if Burnside sent Lee’s Rebel army into a retreat, their road to Richmond would be blocked. Second, for the Federals, the road to Richmond would be wide open, with reinforcements and supplies waiting along the way.
Lincoln believed the plan to be a sound one, but it was shortly rejected by both Burnside and Halleck (finally finding something to agree upon). Both believed that it would take too long to raise the forces, supplies and ships required.
And so, instead of having a plan that would take some time to complete, they went back to having no plan at all. Burnside accompanied Lincoln back to Washington the following day, returning to the front somewhat refreshed, but still without a solid plan of action.
((Sources: Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 6 by John G. Nicolay and John Hay; Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Halleck, November 27, 1862, as printed in Abraham Lincoln, Collected Works, Vol. 5; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; The Life and Public Services of Ambrose E. Burnside by Benjamin Perley Poore; Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth Army Corps by Augustus Woodbury.))