Burnside rolls the dice to destroy his army: Mud March, part 1

Waving his hat from horseback (center), Gen. Alexander A. Humphreys leads his division in its charge against Confederate-held Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, Va. on Dec. 13, 1862. The Army of the Potomac lost 12,500 during the battle. (Library of Congress)

His bloody ambition unquenched by the 12,500 soldiers sacrificed at Fredericksburg, Ambrose Burnside took another crack at Robert E. Lee in mid-January 1863.

The resulting fiasco almost destroyed the Army of the Potomac, instead. “Words are inadequate to describe the scenes of that eventful campaign,” acerbically commented 1st Sgt. Edwin B. Houghton of Co. A, 17th Maine Infantry Regiment.

On Saturday, December 13, 1862, Burnside had hurled his magnificent army at the Confederates deployed along Fredericksburg’s high ground, from Marye’s Heights in the north to Howison and Prospect hills to the southeast. Written into American history as the jovial inventor of a pretty good pre-war rifle, Burnside deigned to even cross a Rappahannock River pontoon bridge to watch his brave warriors go forward into a lead maelstrom.

An idiot could have predicted the outcome as the Union divisions charged the Stone Wall beneath Marye’s belching cannons or across the artillery-zeroed-in plain outside the town. Union boys paid a terrible price, and memoirs left by eyewitnesses Joshua L. Chamberlain, Elijah Walker, and other Maine soldiers describe the cost.

Afterwards the battered Army of the Potomac regrouped in its Stafford County camps. Neglected by Burnside and his command staff — and to a lesser extent by some corps and division commanders — Union lads sickened, deserted in astounding numbers, and came down with scurvy.

Capt. J.W. Forsyth, an Army of the Potomac provost marshal, sits on a 50-pound box of hard tack inside a warehouse at Aquia Creek, Va. in winter 1863. Fresh, canned, and dried food piled up in such warehouses, but command incompetence and quartermaster venality left the food there. Army soldiers ate hard tack and salted meat through late January 1863. (Library of Congress)

Burnside ate well; with their food both fresh and dessicated (dried) essentially impounded at Aquia Creek warehouses by command-staff incompetence, his men did not.

Morale plummeted.

“The moral spirit and confidence of the army was greatly impaired,” grunted Pvt. John Day Smith of Litchfield and Co. F, 19th Maine Infantry Regiment. “A gloomier or more disconsolate body of men would be difficult to find.”

Five 19th Maine boys were wounded at Fredericksburg. Now camped about two miles upriver from the city and near “the little village of Falmouth,” the regiment continued losing men.

“There has been considerable sickness in this Regiment since the cold weather set in[,] and its numbers have decreased sadly,” Capt. Charles E. Nash of Co. C and Hallowell noted on January 1, 1863. “The sick and wounded have been sent to Washington and other places.”

His “other places” included the cemetery. “Sickness made its encroachments, and the mettle of the men was severely tested,” said Orderly Sgt. George R. Palmer of Co. I. By late winter the 19th Maine would lose some 100 men to sickness. “The burial of the comrades was a pathetic sight,” Palmer said.

“Some one from an adjacent regiment said that ‘the Nineteenth Maine men are building a railroad to the graveyard,’” he commented.

“The lack of confidence in General Burnside was general throughout the army,” Smith observed. “The men … objected to giving their lives an unavailing sacrifice to the blundering stupidity and incapacity of their commanders.”

A Union soldier plows through a snow-buried camp near Stoneman’s Switch in Stafford County, Va. in winter 1863. (Edwin Forbes/Library of Congress)

After dealing with borderline mutinous subordinates and meeting with an angry Abraham Lincoln, Burnside almost finished destroying his army after issuing General Order No. 7 on Tuesday, January 20, 1863.

“The Commanding Gen. announces to the Army of the Potomac that they are about to meet the enemy once more,” opened the order, issued “by command of Maj. Gen. Burnside” by Assistant Adjutant Gen. Lewis Richmond.

“The late brilliant actions in North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, have divided and weakened the enemy on the Rappahannock, and the auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country,” read No. 7.

“Let the gallant soldiers of so many brilliant battle fields accomplish this achievement, and a fame the most glorious awaits them,” Burnside-via-Lewis Richmond heaped praise on his weary warriors.

Superfluous except for its exhortation to “the Providence of God,” a third paragraph urged soldiers to restore “peace to the country, and the Government to its rightful authority.”

With General Order No. 7, Burnside launched his army toward dissolution in the disaster soon dubbed the “Mud March.”

Sources: Edwin B. Houghton, Campaigns Of The Seventeenth Maine, Short & Loring, Portland, Maine, 1866, p. 42; John Day Smith, The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry, Great Western Printing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1909, pp. 32-35; Burnside’s Address To The Potomac Army, Republican Journal, Friday, January 30, 1863

Next week: Even the weather fights the Yankees

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

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.