Caught by a cold rain while attempting to outflank Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg on January 20, 1863, Union soldiers, horses, and mules suffered immeasurably as the Ambrose Burnside-planned attack dissolved into the “Mud March.”
With horses and mules unable to pull mud-stuck cannons, caissons, and wagons, Union infantrymen taking to the flooded roadside terrain near the Rappahannock River did not get far before officers nabbed them to help the beleaguered animals.
Mounted on wagons, the heavy pontoon boats went belly to earth; even with 150 soldiers hauling on long ropes and multiple horse teams straining at the lash, the pontoons bogged down.
The army struggled 7 miles (at best) on Wednesday, January 21. Once in camp, Pvt. John Haley and a companion from Co. I, 17th Maine Infantry Regiment, “sallied forth to get a squint of the people across the raging Rappahannock.” Bursting its banks, the flooding river swirled around the soldiers as they “wallowed and waded and floundered” to a place near the submerged shore.
Haley and his friend studied the right bank, above which rose “clouds of smoke” indicating “the woods are full of them (Confederates).” The Yankees noticed “some waggish Rebels” holding up “an old barn door” emblazoned with the invitation (in an Old Dominion font), “Burnside’s stuck in the mud. Why don’t you come over?”
The rain-swollen Rappahannock meant “our artillery could not be moved on the other side of the river,” a Boston Herald correspondent reported. Yet, determined to advance, Burnside ordered Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Center Grand Division, to deploy his men “in corduroy road building” during the afternoon on Thursday, January 22 and the next morning.
Soaked to the skin, soldiers tore down fence rails and “cut down” small trees and placed rails and logs on the road, at right angles to its surface, and threw “fine brush … over this in the road bed,” the correspondent said.
“Even after the road was corduroyed, it required 6, 8, 10, 12, and 16 horses to draw a single field piece and as many to haul a single caisson,” he noted. Even “with all this horse power to draw them,” artillery got stuck.
Burnside and his army went no farther. Thursday night, the 17th Maine lads “built rousing fires and tried to dry ourselves,” Haley recalled. “Turned out early” on Friday in anticipation of another stab at moving upriver, the Maine boys “got started” around noon, “turned our faces to the foe,” and moved on the mud-covered corduroy roads back to the camp abandoned on Tuesday.
“Our feet are well encased in the soil of Virginia,” Haley muttered.
“In consequence of the terrible conditions of the roads,” Burnside ordered the advance abandoned, the Boston Herald correspondent reported. Men straggled into the camps for days afterwards, many soldiers vanished altogether, and company rolls shrank accordingly.
While almost countless soldiers deserted, other men maintained their pride. Francis A. Walker, II Corps’ assistant adjutant general, had spent the past days “snugly in camp” while “the other corps struggled toward their destination through fathomless mud” and “toiled at pontoons and cannons that would not budge for all the pulling and hauling of man or beast.”
Walker watched “the bedraggled troops of the less fortunate corps pull themselves wearily back to camp.” On “that final day of the ‘mud march,’” he came upon “a small band of perhaps twenty men, a sergeant at their head,” their wretched, mud-flecked countenances leaving no doubt these soldiers had endured another Burnside-imposed hell.
As the ad hoc platoon tramped toward their homes in a distant camp, Walker asked, “Who are these men, sergeant?”
“Stragglers of the Seventeenth Maine, sir!” the sergeant thundered.
Walker would “never … forget the uncompromising tone in which the answer came back. Had the reply been ‘the color guard,’ or ‘a forlorn hope,’” it could not have been more cheerfully and promptly given.”
Sources: Francis A. Walker, History of the Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York, 1886, p. 200; John Haley, The Rebel Yell & the Yankee Hurrah, edited by Ruth L. Silliker, Down East Books, Camden, Maine, 1985, pp. 67; Condition Of The Army, Republican Journal, Friday, January 30, 1863
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.