January 22, 1863 (Thursday)
At least the rains had died down. The previous day, Ambrose Burnside and his men were inundated with floods and torrents as they attempted to march around the Confederate left flank at Fredericksburg.
The plan had been to cross the Rappahannock, assemble near Salem Church and take the entire Rebel army from the left and rear. Now, it wasn’t a question of how to cross, but how to return. Things had more than ground to a wet, impossible halt, they were spiraling out of control.
Joe Hooker, one of Burnside’s two Grand Division commanders, was out of his mind with rage, putting the chances of success at nineteen-to-one odds, and damning the entire Federal government as “played out.” He sternly insisted that what was needed to win the war was a dictator. He was ready to take over the army himself. He was more than likely drunk.
Many officers were. The march was too much for them, and they turned to alcohol to dull the insanity. Even Burnside’s own staff was fuming over their commander’s complete lack of ability to make a decision about anything.
The common soldiery was in even worse shape. Though a lower percent were intoxicated, it was due only to the lack of drink. To a man, they were whipped. Drenched and freezing, they slogged through thick and deepening mud, occupying their time by ransacking stranded supply wagons which had become hopelessly mired the previous day.
A Pennsylvania Regiment lucked upon a wagon filled with whiskey. But on empty stomachs, the drink quickly intoxicated them . Much hell was wrought by the Keystoners that day. In other regiments, lower officers turned on higher, while teamsters were beset by anyone with a temper. Gunfights were threatened and fist fights broke out randomly. With his sword, a Rhode Island colonel attacked a teamster, who defended himself with a club.
Confederates in George Pickett’s Division had dug defenses across the river where Burnside’s men were to be crossing. Near the ford, they commandeered the roof of a barn, painting across it in letters large enough to be read by Federals across the river: “Burnside Stuck in the Mud.” When the Federal soldiers spied it, the common reply was “Hell with Burnside!”
All the while the commanding General, Ambrose Burnside, was fifteen miles away at Aquia Landing. Earlier in the day, he wired General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to meet him there so they could discuss what to do next. He also offered to come up to Washington. But when Burnside arrived at Aquia, all that greeted him was a note from Halleck explaining that if Burnside came to Washington, he would be held responsible for leaving his command.
With nobody to rationally discuss matters, Burnside sent some of his staff to Washington and quietly sent word to his two Grand Division commanders, Hooker and Franklin, that the campaign was canceled, they were to return to their camps at Falmouth.
By the time the orders to retire were received by Hooker and Franklin, it was too late in the day to act upon them. The men would have to sleep where they were stuck and do what they could to pull out the next day.
Burnside headed back to his headquarters and began once again to seriously consider resignation. But if he had to go, he didn’t want to be the only one leaving.1
- Sources: Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth Army Corps by Augustus Woodbury. [↩]