Thinking of Burnside on the Eve of His Disaster

By this point, I imagine the heavy stone sitting in the pit of Ambrose Burnside’s stomach has gone away, replaced by something else that maybe resembles scampering mice.

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?

2 Responses to Thinking of Burnside on the Eve of His Disaster

  1. Ambrose Burnside was an intelligent man who designed a carbine, led a successful amphibious landing in North Carolina early in the war, and later on saw the ingenuity of tunneling under Confederate earthworks to explode a mine at Petersburg. But he was also a tragic figure in Civil War history. He was never really successful as a commander after the North Carolina expedition because of unfortunate bad luck. At Fredericksburg, the pressure of the Lincoln Administration for a decisive victory goaded him to continue a fruitless assault. He had an excellent strategic plan, but the delay in supplying him with the requested pontoons sealed his fate. Had the pontoons been there before Robert E. Lee solidified his forces, it is likely that Richmond would have fallen. Again, his infamous mud march was a colossal failure in its execution due to the weather; but the plan was so good, that Joe Hooker used it in May, 1863, which led to the disaster at Chancellorsville, not because of the strategy but rather Hooker’s failure to execute decisively. He was not as prompt to deploy on the filed, nor was he as charismatic as other corps commanders, but Burnside’s willingness to tunnel underground to set off a mine at Petersburg demonstrated that he could think “outside the box,” so to speak. Too bad that he did not get the strong support of Meade and Grant who both botched Burnside’s plan to attack once the explosion took place by changing the force that was to lead the assault at the last minute. We tend to view the failures of men like Burnside by looking at the result rather than assessing who or what caused the plan to unravel. But after Lee lost at Gettysburg, many did not ascribe the loss to Lee personally, but rather looked around for other factors or other subordinates to blame. The question was always “Why did Lee lose at Gettysburg” as if there is always an implied assumption that he would be successful each time around. That same courtesy was never extend to commanders like Burnside. To be sure, Burnside should have withdrawn once he realized that Lee was firmly entrenched at Fredericksburg. But Burn was also a victim of political pressure and succumbed to it against his better judgment. Keep in mind, though, that the Federals nearly won at Fredericksburg earlier in the day when the Pennsylvania Reserves made a breakthough, but had to withdraw for lack of support. Also keep in mind that the Federal commanders always had the pressure of the Committee on the Conduct of the War at their backs while Lee had the full support of Jeff Davis without the same political back stabbing.

  2. Thanks be to Mr. Piatek for that very important comment on Burnside and our general thoughts about the failures of some leaders because of the result with little thought as to how and why something occurred.

    I would like to point out that Burnside was successful in the Knoxville Campaign in 1863 in tying up Longstreet’s command, occupying and defending Union control of Knoxville, and featured some pretty intriguing marches in difficult, mountainous terrain.

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