Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It (the first two volumes of which have appeared; the third will appear this spring).
After its bloody defeat in December 1862 the Army of the Potomac settled down for the winter around Falmouth, Virginia, on the north bank of the Rappahannock River across from Fredericksburg. Aware that several of his subordinates were actively intriguing for his replacement as the army’s commander, Ambrose Burnside was determined not to sit still for long. He issued orders calling for a march westward, looking to cross the Rappahannock upriver from Fredericksburg and outflank the defensive line held by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
The movement commenced on the morning of January 20, 1863. That night it began to pour. High winds whipped through the army’s columns and camps, rendering it impossible to set a fire or erect a tent, while the heavy rains continued to fall. “You have no idea of how soon the roads turn from good to bad here in Virginia,” wrote Lieutenant Theodore A. Dodge, the adjutant of the 119th New York Infantry. “A clayey soil is hard and the very best for marching on in favorable weather, but let it rain but an hour and troops and wagons march over the road, and the mud is worse than anyone who has not be in Virginia can conceive of.” Yet the rain did not stop. The mud swallowed wagons and cannon as soldiers struggled to make their way through the quagmire. As Dodge observed, “The horses sank into mud up to their bellies, and it is said down near the river you sometimes have to put sticks under the mules’ necks to prevent their being engulfed in the very slough of despond.”1
Burnside called off the movement on January 22, but it took his men several more days to make their way back to their previous encampments. He faced ridicule, scorn, and pity from generals, officers, and soldiers. “I never felt so disappointed & sorry for any one in my life as I did for Burnside,” George G. Meade wrote. “He really seems to have all the elements against him.”2 Exacerbated by the increasingly mutinous behavior of several outspoken subordinates, Burnside traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln. He gave the President a choice: either punish the generals opposing his continuance in command or replace him with someone else.
Lincoln chose the latter course, and in the process rewarded one of Burnside’s most outspoken critics, Joseph Hooker. Months of whispering behind the backs of Burnside and George B. McClellan had paid off for the man they called “Fighting Joe.” But the President was not deaf to the dangers posed by insubordinate commanders. “I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator,” Lincoln wrote to Hooker. “Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.” The President also observed that there was one more thing Hooker might keep in mind. “I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you,” Lincoln warned. “Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.”3 Less than four months would pass before Hooker would have cause to agree.
1 Theodore A. Dodge: Journal, January 21–24, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (Library of America, forthcoming, 2013).
2 George G. Meade to Margaret Meade, January 23, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It.
3 Abraham Lincoln to Joseph Hooker, January 26, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It.
(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)
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