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On this day: Burnside’s plan to defeat Confederacy fails

On this day (Nov. 12) in 1862, Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside (1824-1881) submitted a hastily devised plan to President Abraham Lincoln to attack and defeat Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which would lead hopefully to the capture of the Confederate capital at Richmond.

The president had earlier (Nov. 5, 1862) fired the discredited Gen. George B. McClellan for his failed and poorly conducted Peninsula Campaign and particularly for his failure to immediately attack Lee’s exhausted, demoralized army after he had successfully thwarted the Confederate general’s first invasion of the North at the bloody Sept. 17 Battle of Antietam Creek.

Appointed Commander of the Army of the Potomac to replace the inept McClellan, Burnside was pressured by the president to submit a plan to attack Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Burnside reluctantly had accepted this new command, which he had twice previously declined. He apparently felt himself incapable of leading the huge Army of the Potomac.

However, he was urged by friends and family that he was obligated to now accept what was a presidential order. He quickly devised a plan that involved crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Va., and racing to Richmond before Lee could gather his spread-out forces: Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was in the Shenandoah Valley and Gen. James Longstreet at Culpeper Court House.

Burnside told Lincoln that he was hoping to fool Lee into thinking he was going to attack Longstreet at Culpeper when in fact he, in unwonted speed, moved his army to Falmouth in preparation for an attack across the Rappahannock on lightly defended Fredericksburg.

With the defeat of Lee’s small army at Fredericksburg, Burnside then planned to attack and defeat Longstreet’s army of 45,000 with his well-rested, well-equipped force of 113,000. With the defeat of both Lee (at Fredericksburg) and Longstreet (at or near Culpeper) Burnside would then be able to race to and capture Richmond, thus bringing an end to the war.

Burnside apparently believed, as if he was a chess player, that capturing the opponent’s capital city (taking or checkmating the king) would result in victory. It would be, of course, Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman who finally secured Union victory by completely defeating Confederate armies in the field in a 1864-1865 war of attrition.

Lincoln approved of Burnside’s plan of attack but warned that “it will succeed if you move rapidly; otherwise not.” However, Burnside was unable to “move” (attack) “rapidly” because Army Chief of Staff Henry W. (”Old Brains”) Halleck had forgotten to order the materials needed to construct a pontoon bridge on which the army could cross the river.

During the almost two-week delay in getting the pontoons, Jackson and Longstreet were able to join Lee in Fredericksburg. When Burnside finally (Dec. 11-13) was able to cross the river into the town, he was confronted with a well-entrenched Confederate force of 75,000 on top of Prospect Hill, Howson Hill and the Sunken Road just beyond the town.

This Battle of Fredericksburg with Union troops charging uphill against entrenched Confederates resulted in a disastrous Union defeat (Union casualties 1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded against Confederate 595 killed and just more than 4,000 wounded).

The Battle also resulted in Burnside being replaced on Jan. 25, 1863, by Gen. “Fighting” Joseph Hooker as commander of the now demoralized Army of the Potomac.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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