One hundred a forth nine years ago today, his army sat on the west side of the Rappahannock River facing Confederates ensconced along the heights just outside the city.
It was a hard time crossing, as Kris White pointed out in his excellent series this fall. But moreso, it represented the culmination of what had to be the most nerve-wracking month of Burnside’s life.
I’ve thought about the hapless Burnside much over the past couple of weeks.
Think about it: He ascends to command only after one of his best friends and sponsors, George B. McClellan, gets the boot for inaction. So, of course, Burnside knows that he has to do something. He has Lincoln breathing down his neck and the Emancipation Proclamation hanging over him, so the entire political climate is hypercharged.
He comes up with a plan to flank the Confederates by crossing at Fredericksburg, but he loses all element of surprise when the pontoon boats he needs to cross the river there don’t get delivered in time. He ordered the pontoons on November 9, but the quartermaster’s department didn’t deliver them until the evening of November 24 and into November 25. By then, Confederates already occupied Marye’s Heights, west of Fredericksburg.
That, I imagine, is when the rock appeared in Burnside’s stomach. What to do, what to do?
He looked downriver, but the Rappahannock is wider, deeper, and affected by the tides.
He looked upriver, where the river is indeed shallower, but the confluence of the Rappahannock and the Rapidan rivers is just upriver from the city, so Burnside’s men would have to cross the steep banks of not one but two rivers in the face of enemy fire.
At least if he crossed in Fredericksburg, he could use the city as a shield to protect his army. Besides, he told President Lincoln, if I cross there Confederates will be just as surprised as if I cross anywhere else—meaning, of course, that they wouldn’t be much surprised at all. Not a very ringing endorsement of his own plan.
But what choice did he have? He had to do something. Lincoln—and the Emancipation—demanded it. Winter was setting in, which would make campaigning impossible. He had to do something, and he had to do it now.
What does one do when one has to do something and all the options are bad?
The difficult river crossing on December 11 presaged the awful fight ahead. But I imagine Burnside felt a shift in his gut because the plan was underway. If nothing else, things were in motion. That had to mean something for him, didn’t it? An odd mix of anxiety and a little relief, perhaps? Was he feeling nauseous? Invigorated and enlivened by activity? Numb?
I’ve thought about Burnside a lot this month, wondering how he felt. He was keenly aware of his poor options, which even his ever-affable nature couldn’t put much of a positive spin on.
I’m no Burnside apologist by any stretch, but I can’t help but ponder his very, very human-ness, particularly since I know how the story turns out. He tried to instill confidence in his shaken men, but I wonder what nagging concerns Burnside felt in the unspoken corners of his heart. What was sitting in the dark pit of his stomach?