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;
• 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.
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.
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.
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.