His direct assaults on Confederate-defended Fredericksburg handily repulsed in mid-December 1862, Ambrose Burnside decided to outflank Robert E. Lee’s dug-in veterans 5½ weeks later.
Burnside planned to wheel his Army of the Potomac over the Rappahannock River to flank Lee’s army and force it to fight on open ground, where the Yankees could surely outmaneuver the Johnnies. Dry and cold weather had solidified the local roads in mid-January, so Burnside started his men marching up the Rappahannock’s left bank on Tuesday, January 20.
The day dawned “cloudy, threatening,” noticed John Day Smith of the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment. “Infantry, batteries, artillery, ammunition wagons and pontoon boats mingled in some confusion” as “all pressed forward toward the place of crossing,” which he believed was Bank’s Ford, 7 miles upriver from Fredericksburg.
The 19th Maine boys fortunately belonged to II Corps, left behind by Burnside. Assigned to the 3rd Brigade of Brig. Gen. Hiram Berry of Rockland, the 17th Maine Infantry lads belonged to III Corps, led by Brig. Gen. George Stoneman. Rousted before first light on January 20, the 17th Maine boys headed out.
Despite the best Federal attempts “to keep our move a secret,” the jig was already up, Pvt. John Haley of Co. I, 17th Maine, quickly realized. Confederate signals flashed in the darkness to warn “where the attack was to be made.”
Maine men accustomed to winter’s capricious weather appreciated Tuesday’s initially dry air and chill temperatures. Then, shuffling northwest while burdened with their rifles, ammunition, and ration- and gear-packed knapsacks, individual Mainers sensed the shifting breeze.
Here and there in the ranks, a Maine man glanced over a shoulder and gazed skyward as the breeze brushed his face. Accustomed to “reading” the weather in their former civilian employment as farmers, sailors, and loggers, the outdoorsmen in the Maine (and Union) ranks knew a northeast wind when its dampness caressed their cheeks.
Home in Maine, a northeasterly or easterly breeze usually meant “weather coming,” typically snow and wind during winter and rain in warmer temperatures. Some country boys correctly predicted that the darkening clouds probably meant rain, not snow.
Scattered rain drops spattered the Union troops as they camped that evening. “About midnight a most violent rain and wind set in, and by daylight the roads were in horrible condition, impassable for anything but men,” Haley noted.
The rain drew the frost from the red Virginia soil, runoff flowed and ponded, and the roads went south, literally dissolving into a glutinous, quicksand-like morass that sucked horses, mules, and all wheeled vehicles toward miry graves.
“A four-mule team could nor pull an empty supply wagon through the mud,” wrote a Boston Herald correspondent probably familiar with a New England “mud season,” those weeks from late winter to early spring when warming weather unthawed the region’s deeply frozen soil.
“The obstinacy of the mule on the wheel” caused that critter “to dump himself” in the Virginia mud. Turning the air blue with cursing, soldiers beat stubborn mules to no avail, for nothing would induce a willfully stuck mule “to rise till he was unhitched,” the reporter noticed.
Gambling that Virginia’s capricious winter weather would hold in his favor, Burnside lost another roll of the dice to give Bobby Lee a good drubbin’. Soaking the weary Union troops now stringing out along the road back to the Falmouth camps, the rain continued all night.
Burnside’s vaunted flank attack mired in the mud.
Sources: John Day Smith, The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry, Great Western Printing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1909, p. 37; John Haley, The Rebel Yell & the Yankee Hurrah, edited by Ruth L. Silliker, Down East Books, Camden, Maine, 1985, pp. 66-67; Condition Of The Army, Republican Journal, Friday, January 30, 1863
Next week: Obstinate Maine soldiers muck home: Mud March, part 3
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.