Mud stalls the Army of the Potomac
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Terrible weather conditions impaired the Army of the Potomac on their attempt to flank the Confederates near Fredericksburg
After the costly defeat at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, Gen. Ambrose Burnside withdrew back across the Rappahannock River and ordered the Army of the Potomac to construct winter quarters. To the Union soldiers, it appeared the army would not resume an offensive until winter subsided and roads became manageable.
Across the river, the Army of Northern Virginia followed suit except further strengthened their lines situated on the ridges south of Fredericksburg. What had been considered strong grew nearly impregnable.
Burnside had other thoughts. He devised a plan to launch a surprise march upstream of Fredericksburg, cross the Rappahannock River, and outflank the Confederates. It was a bold initiative, and with winter under way, would be an unexpected maneuver. The greatest factor lay in something no one had control over — the weather. So far, January had been relatively dry and unseasonably warm. Would it last?
The Army of the Potomac received orders to march Jan. 20. Burnside attempted to buoy his soldiers’ spirits with an optimistic proclamation that “The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive weather which is due to the country.”
Bands played patriotic tunes as the men departed from their camps.
By the afternoon, the weather changed. Sgt. Frederick Godfrey of the 4th Vermont described the weather front: “It commenced to rain soon after we started but the bands played some lively tunes, and we minded nothing about it.” After halting to set up camp, it continued to rain, only harder, and Godfrey stated, “we were completely wet through.”
A nor’easter settled in and it poured incessantly for two days. Dry roads became quagmires. One New York soldier swore, “the mud, I think, without doubt was over two feet in places.” George Benedict, who wrote of Vermont’s role in the Civil War, stated, “The bottom dropped out of the roads; and the march of the army next day became an exhausting flounder in the mud.”
Despite the rain, engineers nearly spanned the Rappahannock, but mud trapped the remaining pontoons required. Teams of horses and mules could not extract them from the gooey conditions. Soldiers added their muscles to assist, but the expected speedy movement slowed to a crawl, although men from the Vermont Brigade “lugged and tugged in the mud and rain until dark.” Artillery pieces sunk up to their wheel hubs and a few nearly disappeared from sight. Even putting 150 men onto the draglines failed to help.
A Michigan chaplain wrote, “The scenes on the march defy description. Here a wagon mired and abandoned; there a team of six mules stalled, with the driver hallooing and cursing, dead mules and horses on either hand; ten, twelve, and even twenty-six horses vainly trying to drag a twelve-pounder (cannon) through the mire.” The parson must have also witnessed much foul language as another soldier told of hearing “prodigious blasphemy.”
One quartermaster with the V Corps hindered the situation. Apparently he issued a generous ration to one Union brigade on empty stomachs. Soon the soldiers were drunk and two regiments, the 118th Pennsylvania and 22nd Massachusetts, who suffered from animosity, dropped their weapons and brawled in the roadway. The fighters suffered no injuries, but illustrated how badly conditions had developed.
During the Army of the Potomac’s attempts to advance, the Confederates learned of the flanking attempt and shifted troops to protect their flank. A Confederate artillery officer, Porter Alexander observed, “every road became a deep quagmire, and even small streams were impassable torrents.” The Southerners laughed at their adversaries and some creative Confederates even erected a large sign on their side of the Rappahannock which read “Burnside’s Army Stuck in the Mud.”
On one occasion the deep mud saved a Vermont soldier. Wallace Kendall of the 4th Vermont had both his legs run over, but the mire saved the limbs from being crushed
With any possibility of surprise long gone, and the men totally discouraged, Burnside ordered his force back to camp Jan. 23. The optimistic strategy had turned into a failure. A member of the 3rd Vermont remembered being “covered with mud from head to foot” and a fellow comrade complained that it consumed “all forenoon to clean up my gun.”
So concluded the “mud march.” The failed movement drove morale downwards, and desertions increased. A New Jersey officer summed up the feelings of many soldiers in the Army of the Potomac in a letter home: “The Army of the Potomac is no more an army. Its patriotism has oozed out through the pores opened by the imbecility of its leaders, and the fatigues and disappointment of a fruitless winter campaign.”
Within two days Burnside became a past commander of the Army of the Potomac.
President Abraham Lincoln selected Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the army’s “Right Grand Division,” as the army’s new leader. Would “Fighting Joe” become the savior of the army?
Donald Wickman is an author and historian who lives in Rutland.