Hell awaits the Army of the Potomac

In autumn 1862 President Abraham Lincoln sacked Gen. George McClellan and named Gen. Ambrose Burnside as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac. Feeling the intense political pressure to do something about Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Burnside proposed crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Va. to attack and destroy Lee’s troops. (National Archives Photo)

Ambrose Burnside, the man selected by Abraham Lincoln to command the Army of the Potomac, the same man who told subordinates that he was not fit to do so, has brought his cold, hungry troops to Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River this Wednesday, December 10, 1862.
Burnside has replaced George McClellan, the man who, while beloved by his soldiers, hurled them into the butcher’s maw at Miller’s Cornfield and the West Woods and the Sunken Road at Antietam only 84 days ago. Throughout the day-long slaughter, he crossed Antietam Creek only once to confer with senior generals; then he monitored the carnage safely from a distance.
Last spring McClellan left his corps and divisional commanders to develop battlefield strategy at Seven Pines and Gaines Mill and White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill in Virginia. During no battle in the Peninsula Campaign did McClellan ride “to the sound of the guns” and lead his men from the front.
In fact, McClellan habitually disappeared whenever and wherever the shooting started.
His brave warriors, including the battle-hardened veterans from Maine, deserved better. Now they get Burnside, a genial soldier effectual at divisional and corps command, but even by his own admission unfit to command the Union soldiers gathering at Falmouth near Fredericksburg.
Burnside envisions a sweeping assault across the Rappahannock River and over the hills that stretch from northwest to southeast beyond Fredericksburg. He envisions success because:
• From Washington, D.C., Army General-in- Chief Henry W. “Old Brains” Halleck has promised to deliver the requisite pontoon bridges in time;

Union wagons cross a pontoon bridge spanning the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Va. Union troops crossed on similar bridges to attack Confederate troops dug in on the high ground beyond the town in December 1862. (National Archives Photo)

• Robert E. Lee cannot possibly concentrate his Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg in time to meet the sudden Union attack;
• Union troops will attack the Confederate lines in two locations a few miles apart, forcing Lee to split his troops to meet the hopefully simultaneous assaults.
But Burnside’s grand strategy will fall apart after today. The pontoons arrive late, preventing Union divisions from crossing the river and capturing Fredericksburg before Lee’s men entrench themselves along the heights and, farther south of town, along the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad.

United States Army Chief of Staff Henry Wagner Halleck failed to keep his promise to deliver pontoon bridges on time, thus delaying the Army of the Potomac from crossing the Rappahannock River and surprising Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg. (National Archives Photo)

This Thursday, Mississippi troops commanded by William Barksdale will dig in amidst the buildings in downtown Fredericksburg and shoot the Federal engineers trying to build two pontoon bridges across the 400-foot-wide Rappahannock. Union artillery will pound the town while trying to silence Barksdale’s deadly snipers.

Under intense and accurate from Confederate troops concealed in Fredericksburg’s ruins, Federal combat engineers take heavy casualties as they build a pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock River on Thursday, Decemeber 11, 1862. (Artist Andrew Waud, Library of Congress)

Union troops will clamber aboard the pontoons, paddle them across the river, and take the fight to the Mississippians. Often fighting hand-to-hand and house-to-house, the Union boys will capture the town. The fighting will be so savage and close quarters that Federal troops are ordered to bayonet every armed Confederate they can find.
Friday will dawn damp and chilly, with fog covering the battlefield. In a destructive orgy unparalleled in American wars to date, Union troops will loot the town’s shattered ruins.

Union troops pillage the ruins of Fredericksburg on Friday, December 12, 1862. (Artist Arthur Lumley, Library of Congress)

Other Union regiments will cross the downstream pontoon bridge and deploy on the bottomlands stretching from the heights to the river. They can see the higher elevations, such as Howison Hill and Prospect Hill.
Burnside will launch his attack on Saturday, December 13. Until darkness ends the slaughter, his courageous heroes will hurl themselves repeatedly at Confederates dug in so well that six Johnnies defend every horizontal foot of Southern defenses.
We remember Gettysburg for Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge and the 20th Maine and Joshua Chamberlain.
Let us remember Fredericksburg for James Hall and George Leppien and their respective 2nd and 5th Maine batteries, Moses Lakeman and the 3rd Maine Infantry, Chamberlain and his 20th Maine, Elijah Walker and his 4th Maine, Charles Tilden and his untested 16th Maine, and all the other Maine units and Maine boys who fought and died on the muddy slopes and fields.
Let us remember these Maine warriors for the hell that they endured at Fredericksburg — and we will meet them during the next few Maine at War posts.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.