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Perhaps it would have been better, if General Burnside had sent an aide or some trustworthy staff officer to Washington, especially upon the errand of despatching the pontons. It certainly would have been better, if he had held his army at Warrenton until he had received positive assurances, that the pontons had started and were well on the way under sufficient guard. But he trusted in General Halleck's promises and in General Woodbury's despatches. Between the two the movement failed, and General Burnside paid dearly for his misplaced confidence.
On the 22d of November, while awaiting the arrival of the pontons, General Burnside addressed the following letter to General Cullum:
By reference to my plan of operations, submittted by order of the General in Chief, it will be found that one of the necessary parts of that plan was to have started from Washington at once ponton trains sufficient to span the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg twice, and I was assured that at least one train would leave as soon as the General-in-Chief and General Meigs returned, and I proposed that, if an escort was required and I was informed of the departure of the train by telegraph, I would furnish it from my cavalry. Receiving no information of its departure, I ordered Lieutenant Comstock to telegraph in reference to it.
"It is very clear that my object was to make the move to Fredericksburg very rapidly, and to throw a heavy force across the river before the enemy could concentrate a force to oppose the crossing, and I supposed the ponton train would arrive at this place nearly simultaneously with the head of the column. Had that been the case, the whole of General Sumner's column, of thirty-three thousand strong, would have crossed into Fredericksburg at once over a ponton bridge in front of a city filled with families of rebel officers and sympathizers with the rebel cause, and garrisoned by a small squadron of cavalry and a battery of artillery, which General Sumner silenced within an hour after his arrival. Had the ponton bridge arrived, even
on the 19th or 20th, the army would have crossed with trifling opposition, but now the opposite side of the river is occupied by a large rebel force under General Longstreet, with batteries ready to be placed in position to operate against the working parties building the bridge and the troops in crossing.
"The ponton train has not yet arrived, and the river is too high for the troops to cross at any of the fords.
"You can readily see that much delay may occur in the general movement, and I deem it my duty to lay these facts before and to say that I cannot make the promise of probable success with the faith that I did, when I supposed that all the parts of the plan would be carried out.
"Another very material part of the proposition, which I understood to be approved as a whole, was that all the surplus wagons that were in Washington were to be loaded with bread and small commissary stores, and sent to this place at once, which would probably have supplied our army with from five to ten days' provisions. These trains could have moved with perfect safety, as they would have been protected by the movements of this army.
"I do not recall these facts in any captious spirit, but simply to impress upon the General in Chief, that he cannot expect me to do as much as if all the parts of the plan had been carried out. In fact, a force can be arrayed against us at this place that would very materially retard us.
"The work of the Quartermaster and Commissary Departments at Aquia Creek and Belle Plain has been most completely accomplished, and I am not prepared to say that every effort has not been made to carry out the other parts of the plan, but I must in honesty and candor say, that I cannot feel that the move indicated in my plan of operations will be successful, after two very important parts of the plan have not been carried out,—no matter for what reason.
"The President said that the movement, in order to be sucful, must be made quickly, and I thought the same.”
General Halleck replied on the 23d, by telegraph :
“WASHINGTON, 12.20 P. M., Nov. 23d, 1862.
“MAJOR GENERAL BURNSIDE:
"You are aware that I telegraphed from your quarters in Warrenton to General Woodbury to send the ponton trains to Aquia Creek. Immediately on my return I saw him myself to urge them forward. He left for Aquia Creek with his brigade to report to you. He is there, under He is there, under your command. If there has been any unnecessary delay, call him to an account. There has been no delay at these Headquarters in ordering him as you requested.
"H. W. HALLECK, General-in-Chief."
In the above correspondence, it is taken for granted by both that the main body of the army is at Falmouth.* General Halleck expresses no surprise that such is the fact. He has no word of censure for a movement which he afterwards characterized as made without authority. So far as appears in subsequent correspondence, General Halleck did not discover that General Burnside had moved the main body of his army in a different direction from what was intended and agreed upon at Warrenton, until after six weeks had passed, a great battle had been lost, and the General in Chief was suffering therefor in the public estimation.
*In regard to this subject the question would naturally arise: suppose, that General Burnside had taken the main body of his army across the upper Rappahannock and brought it down to Fredericksburg, how would it have been supplied? One hundred thousand men with animals would have to be fed, yet General Halleck would have put them in a position, between which and their depot of supplies a deep river would flow with no means of crossing.
HE question with General Burnside now was:
I put my army into winter quarters, or shall I, with the means at my disposal, press the enemy, as the country expects, the President and General in Chief advise, and my own sense of duty enjoins upon me to do?" The decision to which he came was this: "I did not take command of this army simply to idle away another winter, but to do what I could to end the rebellion. The strength of this treasonable movement lies in the rebel army upon the other side of the Rappahannock. I must at least try to break it. If I fail, it will not be for the want of a vigorous effort. If I succeed, the only reward I ask is the consciousness of having performed my duty." He was now convinced that the Army of the Potomac and the army of Northern Virginia must again enter into conflict. The indolence of winter quarters was as distasteful to him as to the public. He determined to fight, not for the sake of winning glory if victorious, but because he felt that his duty to the cause and to the country demanded it. He immediately set about his preparations. In the course of the next three weeks, he had made himself and his command ready to deliver battle.
Where and how? It was clear that General Lee had no intention of assuming the offensive. He had been badly shattered by the unsuccessful invasion of Maryland and the battle of Antietam. He wished to recuperate his forces by giving them a winter's rest along the Rappahannock, and, for convenience of subsistence and supplies, on the line of the railroad. between Fredericksburg and Richmond. He therefore brought
down his army from the upper waters and the mountains to the heights behind Fredericksburg, and occupied the country in the rear and below, reaching as far as Bowling Green in one direction and Port Royal in the other. The hills behind Fredericksburg were immediately selected as sites for defensive lines and were soon covered with earthworks, large and small redoubts. Rude works were also thrown up opposite the fords. The south bank of the river was picketed for a distance of fifteen and twenty miles. Guinney's station became the chief depot of supplies, and General Lee established his headquarters at Alsop's, about five miles distant from the river. The rebel army was preparing for a desperate resistance against any attempt to dislodge it from its position, or seize the road to Richmond.
General Lee had well chosen his position for defence. The country in the rear of the Rappahannock was admirably calculated for that kind of warfare, in which the enemy was most proficient. Like the banks of most American rivers, the land on either side rose in successive natural terraces, cut here and there by little streams making their way to the main channel. On the first of these, immediately upon the bank, but sufficiently high above the river level to escape the inundations of the spring freshets, lies the chief part of the city of Fredericksburg, regularly laid out, with the streets crossing each other at right angles. The plain which it occupies is about a mile and a half in length by a half mile in width. Two bridges once spanned the river, one belonging to the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad Company, the other the continuation of the county road. The railroad bridge was a half mile below the public bridge. Both had been destroyed in the course of the war. The railroad, after crossing the river and passing through the town, follows down the bank for a distance of about three miles, and then turns southward towards Richmond. From the lower part of the town, a road runs out towards Port Royal. About two miles below Deep Run, another road strikes off from this to the right, crosses the