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was a prisoner in the hands of the enemy. In August, 1862, he was released, to the great joy of his friends, and was immediately appointed Brigadier General of Volunteers, his commission dating from the day of the battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.
On the 8th of September he joined the Ninth Corps at Leesboro', Md., and was assigned to the command of the division lately under the command of the lamented General Stevens. From that time forward until the end of the war, General Willcox was connected with the Ninth Corps, serving sometimes in command of the Corps, sometimes in command of a division, and proving himself, as the reader will have occasion to see in the course of this narrative, a gallant soldier and an honorable gentleman. He had long been an intimate friend of General Burnside, and the two companions in arms shared together many a scene of peril and of glory.
HAT to do with the large army now entrusted to his
guidance was now the anxious question which General Burnside discussed with himself. He accepted the command with the greatest reluctance. With as genuine a modesty as that which characterized Washington himself, when he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the armies in our Revolution, he shrank from the responsibility and the task. He confessed that he was not competent for the command. Washington, with all his consciousness of the possession of great gifts, did not hesitate to write to his wife and his intimate friends, that he considered the duty as a trust too great for ” his “ capacity ;” and also to declare in his place in the Congress that appointed him: “I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”, But, in writing to his wife, he said, “I shall rely confidently on that Providence which has heretofore preserved and been bountiful to me.” General Burnside had as sincere a humility and as profound a trust. He has never rated himself at as high an estimate as his friends are accustomed to place upon him. He has cherished no particle of that overweening self-confidence which considers itself equal to every duty and every occasion, and which boastfully promises large results ere yet the enterprise has fairly commenced. It might have been an undue self-distrust that led him to say that he did not consider himself competent to
command the Army of the Potomac, but the remark was made with entire sincerity.
General Burnside's feelings at this time may be clearly understood by the language which he used in a letter that he wrote to one of his friends, under date of November 21, 1862. “You," he wrote, “who know how much I feel any responsibility placed upon me, can readily imagine how much of my time is occupied with this enormous command. You will remember that when I was with you in the field with a comparatively small command, I felt that I could do nothing of myself, and I then felt, more than ever in my life, the need of an entire reliance upon an all-wise Creator. But now the responsibility is so great that at times I tremble at the thought of assuming that I am able to exercise so large a command. Yet, when I think that I have made no such assumption; that I have shunned the responsibility, and only accepted it when I was ordered to do it, and when it would have been disloyal and unfriendly to our government not to do it, then I take courage, and I approach our Heavenly Father with freedom and trustfulness, confident that if I can act honestly and industriously, constantly asking His protection and assistance, all will be well, no matter how dark everything now seems to me.” In the spirit of such a noble self-distrust and of such a complete faith in Divine Providence did General Burnside take command of the Army of the Potomac.
It was a vast responsibility. All the forces that were guarding the Upper Potomac, and those that were in the defences around Washington, were then subject to the orders of the general commanding this army. Not only was General Burnside to fight the foe immediately before him, but he was also to guard the approaches to the Capital by flank and rear. In round numbers, there were, on the 10th of November, two hundred and twenty-five thousand men, fit for duty, distributed around the points which have been named. Of these, one hundred and twenty-seven thousand five hundred and seventy-four officers and men were in the immediate front facing the enemy.
The command of this immediate army was a position and duty of no small magnitude. It was a force which must be effectively used upon the foes of the country. It must not be allowed to remain inactive. Though the season was now far advanced, and the frequent storms that had prevailed seemed to indicate that winter had set in, it was yet hoped that a decisive blow might be struck. Early in the autumn a levy of three hundred thousand men, for nine months' service, had been made, and it would be ruinous to the finances and faith of the country to leave this immense force unemployed. The country, the President and the General-in-Chief had been impatient of the slow policy which General McClellan had seen fit to adopt, and it was deemed best that the Army of the Potomac should take the aggressive. General Burnside believed that there was ample time yet to carry on a campaign against Richmond. The military strength of the Union seemed to lie in the Army of the Potomac. He who could lead that army to a victory, which would break the military power of the rebellion residing in General Lee's “ Army of Northern Virginia," would · be hailed as the deliverer of the Republic. Such a victory would be a great public benefit, as well as a prize brilliant enough to satisfy any man's ambition. But it could not be won by any hand that derived its strength from personal ambition. Whatever was to be done must be done with a spirit of humble, loyal, faithful duty.
Having received the order assigning him to the command of the Army of the Potomac, General Burnside's next step was to devise some plan for future operations. A movemeut upon Gordons ville, or even upon Culpepper, appeared hardly feasible, as it was liable to the risk of fighting an uncertain battle at a distance from the base. It is most probable that General McClellan had been contemplating a movement in a different direction, as on the 6th of November, before he had been relieved of command, he had given orders for the removal of his ponton train from Berlin to Washington, with a view to its
further use at a subsequent and early day.* General Haupt, the superintendent of transportation, did not report encouragingly respecting the condition of the railroad from Alexandria for forwarding supplies. The President, in his letter of October 13th, had very strongly expressed his opinion respecting the proper route of the army towards Richmond. This letter was placed in General Burnside's hands at the same time with the order assigning him to the command. The suggestions thus made were not indeed to be considered as orders, but rather as indications of the President's plan of action. Of course, they had all the weight which Mr. Lincoln's sagacity and position could give to them. Some of them already had been followed. The army had moved down the east side of Blue Ridge, quite near to the enemy, “ disabling him from making any important move without " the knowledge of the general commanding our army, and “compelling him to keep his forces together for dread of” us.
But Mr. Lincoln had suggested another operation, viz. : moving upon the chord of a circle, while the enemy was moving upon the arc.
* General McClellan, in his report, endeavors to make the impression, without directly asserting it, that he was about to fight a great battle with the enemy at the time of his removal from the command. An examination of his language will show that he does not distinctly state that it was his real intention to fight. He hoped that he could either “ separate the enemy's army and beat it in detail,” or else force him to “concentrate as far back as Gordonsville, and thus place the Army of the Potomac in position either to adopt the Fredericksburg line of advance upon Richmond or to be removed to the Peninsula.” "Had I remained in command,” he says again, “I should have made the attempt to divide the enemy.” Afterwards he declares that he followed the retreating enemy to a position where he was "confident of decisive victory, when in the midst of the movement, while” the “advance guard was actually in contact with the enemy,” he was removed from command. His plan to divide the enemy was to march in between Culpepper Court House and Little Washington. Its success was problematical. He certainly had the Fredericksburg route in mind, and was preparing for it by ordering his ponton bridge to Washington, there to be put upon wheels and be in readiness to march at once. This train was certainly not intended for an early advance towards Gordonsville. What he says about his advance guard was entirely irrelevant, inasmuch as it had been “in contact with the enemy” from the day it had crossed the Potomac. At the time he was relieved, there were no indications of an impending engagement.