Sunday, January 20, 2013

Burnside's Mud March

After his disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg in December, Burnside looked for a new way launch an offensive. He did not plan to put his army in winter quarters, as would normally be done, but instead strike to restore his reputation and the morale of the army and the nation. He planned to move in the first days of January. Feinting at the fords upstream of Fredericksburg, the main army would cross seven miles downstream. At the same time, he would send the cavalry on a large scale raid. Up to this point in the war, the Confederate cavalry under JEB Stuart literally rode circles around the Union cavalry, which was of a much lesser quality. However, as soon as Burnside was prepared to move, he received a message from Lincoln, saying that “no major army movements are to be made without first informing the White House."
Burnside had only told his plans to a few close confidants, so he knew someone had told the President. He was right. Brigadier Generals John Newton and John Cochrane had taken leave and gone to Washington. There they had the opportunity to meet with the President. They told him that the Army of the Potomac had no confidence in Burnside and that if Burnside attempted to move, the army would fall apart. It was this meeting which inspired Lincoln's telegram. Burnside came to the White House to investigate. He wanted to court marshal the generals, but Lincoln would not reveal their identities. Burnside resigned, “to relieve you from all embarrassment in my case,” but Lincoln did not accept it. Although Burnside was in many ways incompetent as a general, unlike McClellan he recognized his mistakes and accepted responsibility for them.
After this altercation with Lincoln, Burnside revised his plan. He switched the locations, feinting to the downstream of Fredericksburg, and crossing at the United States Ford upstream. The move began on January 20th, 150 years ago. The weather had been good up to this point, but once the army started moving this quickly changed. On the night of the 20th, it began to rain. The rain continued to fall over the next days, turning the roads into quagmires, streams into rivers and rivers into rushing torrents. For several days, the soldiers foundered in the mud, making no progress. Burnside finally ordered the army to return to its camps, as by now he knew Lee had been alerted to his move. The soldiers remembered the march with a ditty:
Now I lay me down to sleep 
In mud that's many fathoms deep. 
If I'm not here when you awake 
Just hunt me up with an oyster rake


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