Question of the Week: 11/20-11/26/17

In November 1862, Union General Burnside began his advance toward Richmond, only to stop across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg to wait for the delayed pontoon bridges.

In Burnside’s situation, what would you have done if you were the commanding general? What if you were a subordinate officer to General Burnside?

18 Responses to Question of the Week: 11/20-11/26/17

  1. I certainly would not have attacked right at Fredericksburg. Despite the massive artillery bombardment that precluded the advance across the river, the Confederate positions outside the city were impenetrable. Burnsides was not going into that battle blind. He knew the potential cost. I live in Fredericksburg, authored two books about it, produced a documentary, and provide tours. I always maintain that Burnside’s impatience and arrogance cost the unnecessary lives of thousands of troops. He was the army’s own worst enemy. They accomplished nothing other than acquiring mass casualties. If I had been Burnsides I would have looked further down the river for a crossable site. If I had been a subordinate I would have been more adamant about postponing the advance until a plan to deal with the surrounding heights could be proposed and analyzed.
    – Michael Aubrecht

    1. Certainly the Confederate defenses along Marye’s Heights proved impenetrable, but as Meade demonstrated on the south end of the field, the line certainly had vulnerabilities. Lee hadn’t even finished consolidating that part of his line until Dec. 12, so had Burnside attacked then instead of waiting a day, he would’ve hit an even weaker part of the line than he did. In fact, I would argue that it was not his impatience but, rather, his overcautiousness by delaying the attack by that single day made all the difference in the battle.
      Looking at Second Fredericksburg also offers some instruction on the vulnerabilities of the Confederate position (not that that did Burnside any good, but it does allow US to better assess the position).

      1. As usual you make some great points. Yes he waited too long but I still believe his overconfidence in himself and his troops in that situation proved disastrous. I assume you are talking about Prospect Hill where the line was breached if only temporarily. Great point. Also we usually get caught up in the pontoon crossing and the heights but wasn’t it the Slaughter Pen that had a major impact on the battle’s outcome? – Michael Aubrecht

  2. To postpone, until a truly feasible plan could have been developed, may have simply led to another relief for cause. An attempt at the heights, less vigorous and more quickly concluded with less loss, may have barely satisfied Lincoln and Stanton but some attempt would have to be made. Remember that Rosecrans was only allowed to ‘adamantly’ reconstitute for six months at Murfreesboro because he fought the battle of Stones River.

    As long as Lee’s Army retained it’s mobility, any attempt to lay a pontoon bridge before crossing in large numbers would have resulted in a battle on Lee’s chosen ground. Hooker’s plan to feint an assault crossing in order to fix Lee along the river, and then outflank him by rapid marching over fords may have been best. However, Burnside did not possess the self-confidence, the capacity for careful attention to logistic details, or the confidence of his senior subordinates to essay such a plan.

  3. He had no pontoons and, so, no way to cross the river–and so, no choice but to stop.

    He also had no choice but to push forward. The political pressure from Washington, because of the Emancipation Proclamation, necessitated action of some sort. As Burnside evaluated his options, he saw way to get across the river downriver, where the Rappahannock is wider, deeper, affected by the tides, and not serviced by a very good road network. Upriver, he’d have to cross both the Rappahannock and Rapidan–so, TWO contested river crossings–and then try to push through the Wilderness without a way to secure his supply line effectively.

    So, among his terrible options–and they were all bad–Fredericksburg still offered him his best chance at success. It’s easy to armchair general Burnside’s decisions now, but he was dealt a bad hand that several subordinates made worse. He shares culpability, but it’s worth nothing that he did NOT get canned from his job after the battle because Lincoln and the War Department recognized there was plenty of blame to go around.

  4. IIRC, he got there significantly ahead of Lee. Instead of waiting for delayed pontoons, why not cross at a ford (there were fords over the river upstream of the town), cut down some trees, and get to work building bridges?

    1. Jim: Excellent points. Focusing narrowly on December 13, I would add that the plan was for the initial effort to be made on the Union left and it actually almost worked, in part due to Jackson’s/Lee’s major gaffe in leaving a large gap in the ANV’s front due to terrain which they wrongly deemed impassable. Discrepant maps and command confusion prevented ultimate success (keep in mind that the mediocre William B. Franklin was in charge over there). It was then that Burnside made the fatal mistake of converting the attack on the Union right into the main effort.

    2. A good question. And the answer is again, the weather. The fords up from Fredericksburg from Banks Ford, U.S. Ford, Ely’s Ford, were all negated from rain and snow. So to get across to cut those trees down you’d need the hot commodity of the day, pontoons.

      1. Fair point, Mr. Quint. Were there no trees on the Union side of the river? As I recall, the RR bridge at the town still had the stone piers in place—you’d think a jury-rig bridge could have been made there.

        (John’s point is also a good one, BTW.)

      2. James, you’re absolutely right that there were the piers from the railroad bridge. But don’t forget that Col. William Ball had about 1,500 Confederates in town. So if you try to build a bridge into town you’re back to building a bridge under fire. Still not a great situation.

        And John’s points about the actual battle are well-founded, but as we’re still in the lead up to the battle, it becomes readily apparent just how few choices Burnside had.

    3. Immediately upriver from town, the river is easily waded, so infantry could get across, but horses and artillery would have a nearly impossible time. Farther upriver, yes, perhaps the fords offered a viable option, except weather made them an iffy prospect. The rivers flooded during rain- and snowfall, potentially trapping any forces that might’ve crossed before the river rose. This post gets into some of that in greater detail:

      Hooker set his eyes on those fords in April during the Chancellorsville campaign, as did Burnside in January. As the Mud March taught him, the weather was not to be trusted! (And Hooker found out a similar lesson–ask George Stoneman’s cav.)

  5. For starters, Lincoln in his quest to find an aggressive fighter to head the Army of the Potomac may have misread Burnside. His offensive action at the bridge at Antietam may have impressed Lincoln, but may have actually indicated his intransigence & mental inflexibility. Clearly Burnside was given his marching orders with his new command. The initial plan was solid IF Halleck had properly supported him with pontoons. Burnside’s delay was necessary given the lack of bridging material & the inability to support the Army via available fords. Burnside’s forced crossing was effective in mid December in establishing solid bridgeheads. However, the plan unraveled when Burnside selected his main attack against Maryes Heights moving his troops through the city against an impenetrable position. And then after several costly repulses he failed to curtail the assaults. Meanwhile his secondary attack in the south (despite modest reinforcement) penetrated the rebel line but halted due to lack of support. Had Burnside reversed his main & secondary attacks; reinforced the southern assault (instead of the northern); and assigned his aggressive subordinate commanders in the south & more hesitant subordinates in the north, the outcome could have been significantly different.

      1. Chris: That’s a good point. For all of his demonstrated unfitness for high command, Burnside ran a nice amphibious operation in NC. One can make arguments about the quality of opponents, etc., but the coordination and logistics required posed significant hurdles that he overcame.

  6. Hoopker’s plan for the Chancellorsville campaign could have been an alternative to waiting for the pontoons. Moving west along the northern bank of the Rappahannock could have brought a sizeable force to crossable fords while waiting for the pontoons. Then when they arrived, both portions of the army could have crossed the Rappahannock putting Lee in a squeeze play. However, Burnside would have been hesitant to do so as it violated the basic rule of dividing one’s forces in the face of the enemy. But the Rappahannock was as difficult for Lee to cross as it was for Burnside. Of course Lee could have used the same tactic of attacking each portion of the Federal army with his entire force. In short, the deck was stacked against Burnside, especially since Lee had Longstreet’s entire command with him at Fredericksburg most of which was absent at Chancellorsville.

    1. Burnside did try that move in January, but of course, that didn’t work out so well. One reason it worked better for Hooker (aside from better weather) is that he left a huge decoy in Fredericksburg to convince Lee the Federals remained in place on the far side of the river. After months of complacency, the Confederates were better primed to fall for it in April than they might have been had Burnside tried it in November. Just speculating there, though.

      1. Excellent point above, Chris, and points in this discussion generally. Let’s not also forget from which direction the Confederates were approaching Fredericksburg. Had Burnside crossed (assuming he could with the weather) upstream and marched into the Wilderness/Chancellorsville area, he would have had an encounter battle with at least Longstreet’s corps as they marched in from the west. No army commander would risk an encounter battle in poorly mapped terrain, unpredictable weather, and with uncertain communications back across the river.

  7. Burnside apparently exhausted what originality he had when he waddled up to the river. When faced with any unexpected eventuality, his mind congealed. If he had his mind set on a winter campaign, he should have recognized that he needed to have at least had a Plan B and C. Throw across a detachment into the hills, and expedite the pontoons, or build an alternative. It was not that deep. Or just lay the Rhode Island porker in the water and float the army across.

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