Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable

Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable

Author:George C. Rable
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Published: 2002-05-17T04:00:00+00:00


24 Morale

The human heart is the starting point in all matters pertaining to war.

—Maurice de Saxe

On the day after Christmas, Halleck telegraphed Burnside about a possible enemy advance in the Shenandoah Valley; he considered it “probable” that the Confederates “will take advantage of the inactivity of the Army of the Potomac” to march toward Harpers Ferry. To Burnside the implied rebuke must have cut deeply even though he was already planning a new campaign. A cavalry expedition commanded by Brig. Gen. William Woods Averell would cross the Rapidan and Rappahannock, slide around Lee’s left, and cut the rail line to Richmond. Averell would advance with a “thousand picked men,” both Regular and volunteer cavalry, along with four artillery pieces and twenty engineers. Troopers would gallop toward the James River Canal east of Richmond and also strike at the Petersburg Railroad. With additional cavalry and infantry supporting these maneuvers, Burnside intended to cross the bulk of his army below Fredericksburg, though exactly where remained uncertain.1 The plan was complicated and perhaps unworkable, as it required the coordinated movement of detached forces over a wide area. Given the skepticism of many officers and enlisted men in the aftermath of Fredericksburg and the factiousness, in some cases bordering on disloyalty, among Burnside’s generals, the odds against success were long.

By December 27, detachments of cavalry, artillery, and infantry had left their camps. Some soldiers still anticipated going into winter quarters, expressed doubts about a new campaign, and expected the orders to be rescinded; others believed the unseasonably fine weather was perfect for such a movement. The first advance toward the upper fords of the Rappahannock and the Rapidan appeared to go well, but confusion about roads, the effects of wading through cold water, and shivering in chilly bivouacs with little food hardly made the men hopeful of success. The fear of being led into another slaughter like Fredericksburg dogged the march. A Massachusetts lieutenant in the Sixth Corps considered the entire movement a “desperate effort, in the dark, to retrieve his [Burnside’s] fortunes by one who does not know what he is about, and I think the first idea of its feasibility . . . that Burnside will get will be when he sees his shattered army drowning in the Rappahannock.”2

Unfortunately such attitudes extended much further up the chain of command. Around Hooker’s headquarters, open criticism of Burnside poisoned the atmosphere. Fighting Joe, according to one artillery colonel, “talked as wildly as ever in condemnation of everybody.” At a lavish Christmas dinner, staff officers toasted the general as the Army of the Potomac’s next commander, and while feigning humility and embarrassment, Hooker promised in true mock heroic style to do everything in his power to crush the rebellion.3

Why Burnside had not been shelved baffled several generals, and the loss of faith among the high command grew palpable. A staff officer summarized what was rapidly hardening into conventional wisdom: “Burnside says he has no confidence in himself as commander of the army—can the Army then



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