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Burnside's Mud March

Sketch by Alfred Waud of the Mud March

After Burnside's humiliating defeat at the battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862, his army remained in place around the town of Falmouth, Virginia, just across the Rappahannock river from Fredericksburg.  In late January Burnside decided once again to attack the Confederates.  The following is an account of that ill fated attempt.

 ". . . . . Beneath that hat and the gray weather, Burnside scouted up and down the Rappahannock. Everywhere he looked across he saw Lees troops digging deeper, throwing up earthworks, covering the riverside plain beneath the heights with interlocking lanes of fire from muskets and artillery. Lee was able to cover more than 25 miles of river line with his thinly stretched divisions, and guard at least 50 miles. Burnside, grieved by his own folly in direct assault in December, determined on deception. He ordered preparations as though for crossing at scattered points, miles apart. New roads were cut, pontoons brought up, guns dug in, companies marched back and forth, cavalry sent to demonstrate under enemy eyes.
        Because the hills along the narrower Rappahannock upstream were the best site for his covering artillery, Burnside decided to move across United States Ford, ten miles above Fredericksburg. This sweeping maneuver would put him on the flank of Lees army. The New York Times man on the scene reported that "The plan was an excellent one. Every military man disapproved the mode of attack adopted last time. Every military man approved the mode of attack adopted this time." As Burnsides lumbering army began to move westward, all the while carrying on an elaborate feint downstream, Lee started to strengthen his left arm to fend off the coming thrust. Burnside, with a head start, altered his plan to aim at Banks Ford, a closer, quicker crossing. At dawn of January 21, engineers would push five bridges across; after that, two grand divisions (temporary Union command elements of two corps each) would be over the river in four hours. Meanwhile, another grand division would distract the Rebels by repeating the December crossing at Fredericksburg.
        Burnsides order said the "great and auspicious moment has arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country." But before Union soldiers could start hauling their guns and pontoons into place, cold rain swirled down. The Times man, William Swinton, looked out. "The heavens showed all the signs of a terrible storm," he wrote. It became "a wild Walpurgis night."
        By morning, the roads "were becoming shocking." Some 150 pieces of artillery were scheduled to be in place, and pontoons for five bridges. At the appointed hour, there were not enough for even a single bridge. Double and triple teams of horses and mules were hitched to each pontoon wagon. Long ropes were attached, and men leaned into them, sometimes 150 trying to move one boat. "They would founder through the mire for a few feet--the gang of Lilliputians with their huge-ribbed Gulliver--and then give up breathless." Night came again, and the pontoons still had not reached the river. Burnside rode up and down the columns. Here, he did the work of a captain by siting an artillery piece overlooking the river. There, he all but got down and put his shoulder to a rope. As the afternoon waned he rode through the camp of Brig. Gen. Albion P. Howes division. Burnside and his horse were "completely covered with mud, the rim of his hat turned down to shed the rain, his face careworn with this unexpected disarrangement of his plans," recalled the surgeon of the 77th New York. "We could but think that the soldier on foot, arm oppressed with the weight of knapsack, haversack and gun, bore an easy load compared with that of the commander of the army, who now saw departing his hopes of redeeming the prestige he had lost at Fredericksburg."
        Burnside refused to give up; he ordered food forward for two more days. Next morning he authorized a whiskey ration for everyone. But the rain kept on. Swinton rode out and reported: "One might fancy some new geologic cataclysm had overtaken the world; and that he saw around him the elemental wrecks left by another Deluge. An indescribable chaos of pontoons, wagons and artillery encumbered the road down to the river. Horses and mules dropped down dead, exhausted with the effort to move their loads through the hideous medium. One hundred and fifty dead animals, many of them buried in the liquid muck, were counted in the course of a mornings ride." Burnsides problem was no longer how to cross and fight, but how to retrieve his army from the elements.
        From across the river, the taunts of Rebels sang out. Every Yankee there remembered the sting of the broad signs put up by Lees watching men-- 'Burnside stuck in the mud" was the most frequent, and "This way to Richmond," and "Yanks, if you cant place your pontoons, we will send help." The Rebels had plowed the earth along their side of the river so that if any of Burnsides men did get across, they would sink into more mire.
        But no Union soldiers would cross in the operation that history knows as the "Mud March." Their morale sank with their wagons and animals. That first night of rain, a captain of the 3rd New York Artillery sought out the sergeant of the guard. He found the sergeant drunk and reprimanded him. The sergeant ran for his pistol, and "like a madman" took out after the captain, who hid behind a tree, then stepped out and cut the man down with his sword. James Coburn, of the 141st Pennsylvania, wrote in his diary, "Continued cold and rainy--mud growing deep, deep, deeper--have had enough of winter campaigning. My diarrhea is growing worse. . . . This storm and exposure will kill thousands of our brave boys."
        As Burnsides men dragged back toward their camps, mud-coated regiments were indistinguishable one from another. The army had become a disorganized crowd. And when the troops returned, they regretted the unthinking enthusiasm with which they had set out. Many, assuming they were on their way to Richmond, had burned their huts to the ground, so not a plank was to be found. J. L. Smith of the 18th Pennsylvania wrote home about passing other outfits and asking," 'Say, did you see Burnsides stuck in the mud back there? They said 'h--l with Burnsides! . . . Burnsides has bad luck. The men have no confidence in him; they all remember the terrible bloody Fredericksburg. If the troops don't have confidence, why the General may as well resign."
        That very day, the general did. . . . . "
Source: "Chancellorsville 1863, The Souls of the Brave" by Ernest B. Furgurson

This Page last updated 12/16/03


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