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Recommended Reading

The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision of the Rappahannock

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Fredericksburg Campaign of 1862: Maneuver Warfare at its Worst
Fredericksburg Campaign of 1862: Maneuver Warfare at its Worst 
by Richard Podruchny

The aim of this article is to present to the reader an example of an unsuccessful maneuver campaign. For this example, we will scrutinize the Fredericksburg Campaign of 1862. The audience will see this campaign from the Union perspective where concentration will be placed on how Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside developed his campaign strategy, how he executed the campaign as well as the maneuvers that followed the Battle of Fredericksburg which resulted in the "Mud March."

The initial dispositions and the condition of the Army of the Potomac at this point in the war could have been better. The Army of the Potomac was stationed in Warrenton, Virginia at this time and on November 7, 1862. Lincoln replaced Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside due to his slowness and his failure to accomplish more at the Battle of Sharpsburg. Burnside was chosen due to the distinction he won in the operations that gained control of ports along the North Carolina coast, as well as how he led the IX Corps at Sharpsburg[1]. Keep in mind that even though Lincoln thought that Burnside was deserving of the post, Burnside accepted but with great reluctance. Overall, Burnside possessed some critical flaws in his character, such as being obstinate, unimaginative and unsuited both intellectually and emotionally for high command. It appears that Lincoln chose Burnside for command even though he was not the ideal choice but Burnside was the one who presented the fewest liabilities.[2]

Figure 1 [3]
Available from internet,

After assuming command of the Army of the Potomac, Burnside faced a very steep learning curve as to knowing where all of the Army of the Potomac's corps was located as well as their relative strengths. President Lincoln wanted action from his new commander and he wanted it immediately and any delay would cause Burnside's removal as well. Lincoln imposed a plan on McClellan which would also be expected to be followed by Burnside, which was to chase Lee southward, moving along the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and remain astride his lines of supply in order to press Lee to fight if the opportunity presented itself with the overarching objective of beating Lee back to Richmond.[4] Burnside was now faced with a difficult choice; he could continue the march Lincoln firmly suggested despite the obstacle that Longstreet's corps now posed; he could try to get between the two halves of Lee's army and deal with them separately or he could devise a new plan of action.[5]

Now that Burnside has taken command of the Army of the Potomac, his strategy proposal consisted of concentrating his forces along the route southwest towards Gordonsville to convince Lee that he intended to continue their advance in that direction. Burnside would then move his army rapidly southeast from Warrenton to Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. Burnside justified this movement that by shifting to the east, the army would be closer to Washington and its supply base, as well as being on a more direct route to Richmond and Fredericksburg stood on the main road midway between the two capitals.[6]

Burnside's aim in this maneuver was to cross the Rappahannock River and take Fredericksburg before Lee could block him, which would enable him to move further south and threaten Richmond.[7] In order for this to be successful, everything depended upon speed. It appears that Burnside even made a stipulation regarding the seizure of Fredericksburg that as soon as the army arrived in front of Fredericksburg, the attack should be made.[8] However, the seizure of Fredericksburg depended upon Burnside's request of thirty canal boats and barges that were to be loaded with supplies and sent down the Potomac River to a new supply base at Belle Plain, ten miles northeast of Fredericksburg.[9] Most importantly in his request was that he receives enough pontoons to build several floating bridges across the Rappahannock River to help facilitate his army's speed in crossing the river. These pontoons will prove to be the lynch pin to Burnside's plan.

With Burnside detailing his plan of action for this campaign, he felt it necessary to reorganize the Army of the Potomac in order to streamline his operations. Burnside proposed to reorganize his command by creating three Grand Divisions with each containing two corps and each with its own staff. The command of each Grand Division went to Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner, who received the Right Grand Division, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, who received the Center Grand Division, and Maj. Gen. William Franklin, who received the Left Grand Division. In total, Burnside would have control over 116,683 men of all arms within the Army of the Potomac.[10]

Now that Burnside's overall plan has been identified, he led off the campaign with Sumner's grand division in the lead, setting off from the Warrenton area at dawn on November 15, a day ahead of the remaining two grand divisions. Two days later, Sumner's advance elements marched into Falmouth, situated on the north bank of the Rappahannock River a little more than a mile upriver from Fredericksburg. Franklin was able to reach Stafford Courthouse, eight miles from Falmouth and Hooker halted at Hartwood just seven miles away.[11]

This dazzling display of speed by Burnside demonstrated a radical change from his predecessor, McClellan. Only in command for less than two weeks, he had formulated a viable plan, reorganized his army and commenced a campaign and now his troops stood poised at their first objective, Fredericksburg. Better yet, Fredericksburg and the heights beyond were held by just four companies of Confederate infantry, a cavalry regiment and a battery of light artillery.[12] In comparison, Longstreet's corps was still thirty miles away at Culpeper and Jackson's corps remained in the Shenandoah Valley.[13] At this point all Burnside had to do was get his forces across the Rappahannock River quickly and the town was his, however, this is where Burnside hesitated and lost his nerve because his pontoons had yet to arrive.

While waiting in Falmouth, Burnside had a choice of three options in continuing his campaign. First, Hooker suggested crossing at the upstream fords of United States and Bank's Fords in order to try and sweep behind Lee's left flank while Fredericksburg was still lightly defended. Hooker wanted to abandon his supply line and cross at the United States Ford, after which he proposed to march on Bowling Green and draw provisions from Port Royal. The problem with this course of action was due to the two day downpour that should have closed any ford, as well as the approach of Longstreet's corps that might prevent his speedy advance.[14]

Burnside, on the other hand, would take no such risk since he expected the pontoons to arrive at any moment. It appears Burnside did not want to accept the risk of part of his army becoming isolated on the far bank of the Rappahannock River, which his pontoons would have mitigated this risk. Since Burnside chose to wait for his bridging material, it did not arrive for a few more days which gave the Confederates additional time to prepare, so he planned for a crossing several miles downstream at Skinker's Neck, which was his next option that was within range of Port Royal and the protection of Union gunboats.[15] Now, after a week or so, the Confederates began countering Burnside's move towards Skinker's Neck and this movement proved to be difficult for Burnside's forces due to the horrible road conditions that existed between Falmouth and Skinker's Neck as well as his supply base which forced Burnside to give up on this option too.[16]

Burnside's last option was to bridge the river in the immediate vicinity of Fredericksburg, which is what Burnside initially proposed to do. He had hoped to cross into Fredericksburg quickly and catch Lee by surprise which he would then throw his army between Longstreet's and Jackson's corps that he supposed held the defenses at Skinker's Neck. Burnside wanted to deploy Sumner's and Hooker's grand divisions through Fredericksburg and against the heights outside the city while Franklin's grand division would sweep across the plain below Fredericksburg.[17]

Due to the time wasted on waiting for bridging material, Burnside resorted to a plan of attrition which goes against the premise of maneuver warfare. He was essentially forced to make this poor decision due to the amount of risk involved in potentially using flooded fords, waiting for bridging material and the political pressure driving Burnside to carry on the offensive. Overall, Burnside developed a very sound strategy in dealing with Lee, however, due to the friction that was generated, Burnside did not effectively deal with the situations at hand and made the poor choice of attacking Lee head on in his entrenchments.

Up until the Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside was performing very superbly as was mentioned earlier. However, in employing his cavalry, Burnside followed the precedent that was established by his predecessor who never learned how to properly use the mounted brigades. Burnside dissipated the cavalry strength instead of assembling a strong mounted force on the critical left flank to seize the key terrain along the Rappahannock east of Hamilton's Crossing, from which Franklin could have more effectively launched his enveloping attack.[18] Even though Burnside chose to apply the strength of his own force to that of Lee's, Franklin's grand division did meet with some limited success during the attack on Hamilton's Crossing. This attack could have actually penetrated Jackson's lines at Hamilton's Crossing if it had been properly supported. This would be the only case on this battlefield where strength versus strength netted any positive results.

After the disastrous loss at Fredericksburg, Burnside remained determined to renew the offensive in the Fredericksburg area. He resolved to move his army a short distance up the Rappahannock River, then cross and circle to the south to get behind Lee, starting on December 30, 1862. The cavalry units would go first, crossing Kelly's Ford, twenty-five miles northwest of Fredericksburg and severing the vital Confederate supply routes on two railroads; the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac. Due to the interference by Lincoln, after receiving word of the Fredericksburg disaster, he needed to be informed of Burnside's next movement. This would delay Burnside's plan approximately three weeks. Burnside's idea was sound and it might have worked since he was able to disengage from Lee without him realizing the Army of the Potomac was gone. Had this plan been launched around December 30, it could have worked but due to the winter weather in Virginia, it would effectively halt all army movement because of the torrential rainfall. Nevertheless, Burnside elected to go along as planned but because of the rainfall, his movement has been dubbed the "Mud March" and the Army of the Potomac was forced into winter quarters.[19]

In this example of an unsuccessful maneuver, the Fredericksburg Campaign is an excellent case in point of an army commander unable to deal with friction. The strategy that Burnside developed both before and after the Battle of Fredericksburg were very sound plans of action. However, his dependence upon bridging material and his inability to be flexible ruined his chances of success against Lee. Burnside was presented with some very plausible alternatives that could have met with victory had he been more decisive in his actions.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Podruchny.

Written by Richard Podruchny. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Richard Podruchny at:

About the author:
Richard Podruchny is currently an active duty member of the USAF for the last 14 years. Over those 14 years, I have been stationed or deployed in the United Kingdom, Turkey, South Korea, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Texas, Virginia, and Alaska. As of lately, I'm an instructor for our Combat Targeting Course where we teach our students, both officer and enlisted, the doctrine and methods through which the Air Forces wields Air Power. I have been married for the last 10 years and my wife and I have two beautiful children, an 8 year old daughter and a 5 year old son.

Published online: 05/18/2008.
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