“Hey, General Burnside, why don’t we just wade across?”

The Rappahannock River as it runs along the north edge of Fredericksburg (photo by Caity Stuart)

Kris White’s excellent series on the bombardment and looting of Fredericksburg brings to mind one of the most enduring misunderstandings about the battle.

The story goes like this: The Union army, trapped on the north side of the Rappahannock River, waiting in vain for pontoon boats to arrive, could’ve easily waded across just north of Fredericksburg. Instead, they frittered away their element of surprise. The delay cost them weeks, and they were forced instead to do foolish and vain headlong assaults against the Sunken Road and Stone Wall.

That’s just further proof that Ambrose Burnside was an idiot, right?

So why didn’t the army just walk across?

Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals helped solidify the myth in public consciousness: Union division commander Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, frustrated by the endless delay waiting for the pontoons, walks down to the riverbank on a frosty morning and, there, happens to see a herd of cows cross the Rappahannock.

And indeed, the Rappahannock is shallow enough to walk across just north of town. The river, flowing east, makes a wide bend southward, descending a series of rocky falls before smoothing out just as it flows past by town. There, below the fall line, the Rappahannock gets deeper and wider and rises and falls with the tug of the far-off tide.

It’s there, directly opposite the town, across the deeper, wider section of river that Burnside will build his pontoon bridges then they finally arrive. The wait takes weeks. In the meantime, Hancock personifies the frustration of the Union army and the desire of the men to get across and strike a blow.

After seeing the cow crossing, Hancock literally runs back to tell his commander, Darius Couch. “Sir, we can cross the river,” he says. “Upstream, a quarter mile. It’s shallow enough to ford.”

“Ford the river?” a skeptical Couch asks. “It’s a long way across, General, and it’s damned cold. You sure it’s shallow?”

Hancock assures him it is and suggests they move the entire Second Corps across the river by nightfall.

Alex Hyde-White’s portrayal of Burnside in the movie version of Gods and Generals came across as particularly dismissive.

Word goes up the chain of command where the man at the top, Burnside, pooh-poohs it. “General Hancock, I certainly appreciate your efforts at reconnaissance, but that possibility has been considered and rejected,” Burnside says. “The pontoons will be here at any time, and then we will be able to not only send the men across, but the wagons and supplies as well. It would be foolhardy to send the men without the wagons.”

Hancock tries to persuade Burnside otherwise, but the commander calls the idea “risky.”

“Those men could be cut off,” Burnside says. “This weather…the river is already rising a bit.” Hancock and Couch try to change Burnside’s mind, but the finally cuts them off with a wave of his hand. “Gentlemen, please, we have beaten this to death,” he says. “We will cross the river when the bridges arrive, and not before. You must understand, I do not have the luxury of deviating from the larger plan. The President has approved my strategy, and I will stick to it.”

Shaara spends much time thereafter sympathizing with Hancock as the division commander stews in his own juices. As one of the novel’s main heroes, Hancock enjoys a privileged position in the narrative, and so his opinions enjoy privilege, too. The author takes Hancock’s side in the debate, and readers do, too. Hancock’s solution seems so obvious, Burnside’s opposition so thickheaded and wrong.

Burnside goes so far, Shaara writes, “to persuade his subordinates that loyalty was their primary concern, not the soundness of his plan.”

Because Burnside is already so easy to vilify, the misconceptions captured in this episode just add fuel to the fire.

But, you see, Burnside really didn’t have the luxury of deviating from the larger plan, despite any assertions by Shaara’s characters that “he can deviate from any plan he chooses.” The shadow of the Emancipation Proclamation cast a political pall over Burnside’s every move. On top of that, the Army of the Potomac was, by its very nature, a political beast. Most people today, then, just don’t appreciate the incredible political pressure Burnside labored under. The over-the-shoulder observations of Lincoln, Stanton, and Halleck—not to mention the specter of the recently fired McClellan—made it nearly impossible for Burnside to even flinch without someone second-guessing it.

Political considerations aside, Burnside had reason to be concerned about the river itself. He didn’t have the benefit of Doppler radar to tell him what weather might be blowing in from the west—or what weather conditions might be out there already near the river’s headwaters. A rainstorm could make water levels rise precipitously, and if that happened with part of the army on the far bank, those men would be cut off, making them vulnerable.

The Rappahannock is shallow enough to ford above the fall line, north of the city. (photo by Caity Stuart)

Burnside’s point about the wagons, too, was valid. The rocky stretch of river Hancock pointed out would not have been wheel-friendly, so wagons would’ve had a tough time. It would be no small thing for part of the army to position itself across the river without any supplies. Now imagine if they got cut off.

“There is a difference between ‘a crossing of a river’ and ‘a military crossing of a river,” Kris said to me the other day while talking about his series. “It is all well and good to deploy your infantry across the ford, but the infantry can’t advance far with out the support of the artillery and the wagon train.”

Oh yeah, that pesky artillery that Shaara conveniently leaves out of the argument altogether (perhaps because it might strengthen Burnside’s position). What about that artillery?

Cannons, like wagons, would be dependent on a wheel-friendly crossing, meaning the artillery would have a tougher time getting across than the cows. (As it happens, though, once the army does cross, the deployment of artillery on the northern end of the battlefield would be ineffectual at best.)

While Shaara does at least present Burnside’s perspective, he paints Burnside as a dunderhead by oversimplifying the argument in Hancock’s favor: if a cow can cross the river, surely an army can, right? This plays to the “Burnside was an idiot” stereotype, so readers don’t give Burnside’s rationale any credence.

Shaara does this, at least in part, because his hero, Hancock, needs a foil to play against. Hancock looks more heroic if Burnside looks more idiotic—and the Union defeat at Fredericksburg looks all the more tragic.

Whether Burnside was a complete idiot or not remains a question we’ll explore in future posts, but at least in this instance, he had smart reasons for keeping his army safe on the north bank of the river.

11 Responses to “Hey, General Burnside, why don’t we just wade across?”

  1. Hmmm–maybe this is why Middle School and High School teachers shouldn’t show movies and read novels as the bulk of their curriculum. Any yet . . . so many do. Once in a while a student will ask me just where Owl Creek Bridge is.

    1. I’m actually a big fan of showing movies as a way to snag a student’s interest–but then it’s incumbent on the teacher to explain away the movie’s myths and kindle enough excitement for the student to go learn more on his/her own. We get a lot of battlefield visitors that way!

    1. Thanks, Emmanuel. I know Burnside is as tough to talk about there in Petersburg as he is in Fredericksburg. I’m no Burnside apologist by any means, but he wasn’t a TOTAL idiot.

      Glad to have you reading!

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  3. Once again, people forget his good work during the successful Burnside Expedition, spring 1862 in the Carolina Sounds and Outer Banks, which gained strategically vital objectives and required much amphibious work. It was one of the reasons Lincoln looked favorably on him as army commander. He was very familiar with water crossings and no dummy.

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