The staggering Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville are seldom treated as part of a coherent strategy, and they have never been presented as a single campaign. Yet, analyzed as a whole, the two battles go far to explain Lee’s military success. At the same time, the failures and bungling that characterized Federal efforts are more intelligible when seen in the light of the political and military circumstances that thrust unprepared and inadequate Union commanders into predicaments they little understood. The eastern theater in the winter of 1862 and spring of 1863 witnessed sudden shifts in northern command and strategy and increasing political intervention. Lincoln despaired of McClellan and sought a general more willing to fight; whatever the ultimate result of this search, it provided opportunities the canny Lee was willing and able to exploit.
About the Author
Daniel E. Sutherland is a professor of history at the University of Arkansas. His books include The Confederate Carpetbaggers and the award-winning Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a Confederate Community, 1861–1865.
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Of Generals and Politicians
It began in November, and it began in confusion. The skies over northernVirginia cascaded snow all day on Friday, November 7, 1862. As he sat at hisheadquarters in Culpeper, Gen. Robert E. Lee was well satisfied with theperformance of his soldiers at Antietam two months earlier. The Army ofNorthern Virginia had returned home as a result of that Maryland battle,but Lee and his men considered their departure a withdrawal, not a retreat.The men, he said, had needed a period of "repose" after several months ofarduous campaigning. Yet, despite his army's undeniable successes sinceJunethe Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, if not Antietam-Leesensed they must soon prove their mettle again. Gen. George B.McClellan's Army of the Potomac had finally roused itself and, with blue-cladcavalry already prowling below the Rappahannock River, had pressedas far as Warrenton and Waterloo. Lee had hoped to spend a peaceful winterin Culpeper. He hated the thought of campaigning in such weather with "insufficientclothing, blankets and shoes" for his men. Yet McClellan, quitecontrary to his nature, suddenly seemed determined to wage war.
This need for a winter campaign was all the fault of President AbrahamLincoln. And what Lee did not know on November 7and would notknow for another three dayswas that Lincoln had already ordered Gen.Ambrose E. Burnside to replace McClellan as commander of the Unionarmy. The president could suffer McClellan no longer. There was too muchat stake, and McClellan had disappointed Lincolnonce too often, both ascommanding general of the Union armies and as leader of the Army of thePotomac.
In hindsight, McClellan's ouster had been in the cards since his failure onthe Peninsula the previous summer. First stymied in his drive on Richmondby Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in late May and early June, McClellan had donelittle since then to earn his sobriquet as the "Young Napoleon." Lincolnwanted to replace McClellan that summer, but he had no one better. Gen.John Pope, whom McClellan detested, might have been a candidate, butwhen Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson beat him at Cedar Mountain onAugust 9 and Lee bloodied him at Second Manassas a fortnight later, thepresident shipped Pope off to fight Indians in Minnesota. McClellan remainedbecause he had an undisputed knack for training an army and buildingits confidence, and he enjoyed enormous popularity among his men.
McClellan had an opportunity to regain Lincoln's favor at Antietam, buthe bungled it. A day of intense fighting and the sacrifice of twelve thousandFederal soldiers on September 17, 1862, could have produced the climacticbattle of annihilation for which all little Napoleons yearned. Instead, Leeslipped away, bloodied, with thirteen thousand losses of his own, but as lethalas ever. Lincoln and Gen. Henry W. Halleck, general in chief of theUnion armies since July 11, prodded, cajoled, and very nearly orderedMcClellan to pursue Lee, but McClellan claimed to have insufficient men,insufficient horses, insufficient shoes, blankets, overcoats, insufficient everything.Not until October 26 did his army, which had grown to over onehundred thousand men, begin to lumber across the Potomac River from itsMaryland camps.
For a tantalizing moment, it looked as though a genuine southwardthrust was in the offing. Lincoln expressed his excitement on October 27. "Iam much pleased with the movement of the army," he informed his commander."What do you know of the enemy?" By November 7, McClellanknew much, for his army covered a front that stretched from the Orangeand Alexandria Railroad on its left flank to the Shenandoah Valley on theright, a distance of some forty miles. It seemed a sound position. He hadplaced himself between the halves of Lee's divided army, with Gen. JamesLongstreet in Culpeper and Stonewall Jackson in the Valley. McClellan'scavalry, commanded by Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, had already engaged theRebels in more than a dozen skirmishes at Snicker's Gap, Upperville, Ashby'sGap, Warrenton, and elsewhere.
But the old McClellanindecisive, dawdlinglurked just beneath thesurface. If he had a plan of action beyond crossing the Rappahannock, henever conveyed it fully to Lincoln or Halleck. He continued to excuse, justify,and complain. When Gen. James E. B. Stuart led an October raidthrough Maryland and Pennsylvania that netted some twelve hundred cavalrymounts, McClellan blamed his own lack of horses for his inability tohalt such forays. He did not believe Lee would seriously contest a crossing,and he fully expected that the Rebel commander would risk a fight no"nearer than Richmond." He ignored Lincoln's pointed suggestion that aswift advance would place him between Lee and Richmond. "All goeswell," he assured his wife, Ellen, on November 4, "except secesh who aretraveling too fast to meet my views."
This old, overly cautious McClellan would not do, for both the militaryand political dimensions of the war had changed since July. Enormous politicalpressure grew against Lincoln after the failed Peninsula campaign asDemocrats and Republicans alike demanded a more forceful prosecution ofthe war. They wanted no more campaigns of feint and maneuver. It wastime to end the "kid-glove warfare," time to take the war to the enemy. Lincolnhad momentarily silenced his critics by appointing Halleck general inchief and allowing John Pope, commander of the newly created Army ofVirginia, to initiate a more aggressive military policy against the peopleof north-central Virginia. Pope had failed, and Lincoln dared not allowMcClellan, who had been extremely critical of the Lincoln-Pope strategy inany case, to resume his cautious ways. The president needed generals eagerto advance and punish the Rebels.
Lincoln had also become more comfortable directing military affairs bythis time. While allowing soldiers like Halleck to formulate strategy, thepresident, who had been reading tactical manuals for several months past,felt free to give advice. In October, he went so far as to lecture McClellan on"the standard maxims of war," to formulate a detailed plan for the invasionof Virginia, and to tell the general what he would do if he commanded thearmy. Lincoln had his own ideas about how the war should be fought, and ifMcClellan or anyone else failed to share that vision or faltered in its execution,he would not retain command for long.
Complicating political matters, the Radical wing of Lincoln's own partysaw in his call for more forceful military action an opportunity to press itsdemands for black emancipation and the recruitment of black troops. Lincolnhad consistently rejected these extreme measures. He had vetoed morethan one military commander's efforts to place freedmen in blue uniforms,and he had undermined all congressional initiatives to broach the subject ofuncompensated emancipation. Yet the new tide seemed likely to sweep overthe president as Congress debated legislation that would allow freedmen tojoin the army and permit legal confiscation of Rebel property. On July 17,Congress passed the Confiscation Act to appropriate the property of "traitors."The law defined slaves as part of that property, or "contraband," eligiblefor confiscation. On the same day, Congress passed the Militia Act,which allowed "persons of African descent" to serve in the United Statesmilitary. The legislature suddenly threatened to take control of the emancipationissue if the president failed to take swift, convincing action.
Lincoln, seeking some way to retain public confidence and political support,understood that he could use confiscation and emancipation to fashiona tougher military policy. In September 1861, he had reprimanded Gen.John C. Frémont for attempting a policy of emancipation in Missouri. Aslate as May 1862, he had reproved Gen. David Hunter for following a similarcourse in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. But circumstances hadchanged by summer. The president now considered emancipation a legitimatetool to "subdue the enemy." Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles reasonedcorrectly that "the reverses before Richmond and the formidablepower and dimensions of the insurrection" had altered Lincoln's thinking.The president had even drifted closer toward accepting the most extreme ofall military measures: the use of black soldiers. While still unwilling to advocateor take definite steps along such a course, Lincoln did seem "not unwillingthat Commanders should, at their discretion, arm, for purely defensivepurposes, slaves coming within their lines."
At the same time, Lincoln told his cabinet that he would issue a proclamationof limited emancipation at an appropriate time, namely, after aUnion victory. He waited nearly two months, until September 22, andMcClellan's "victory" at Antietam. When, two days later, he also suspendedthe right of habeas corpus nationwide (extending a more limited decree ofApril 1861) and announced that civilians accused of "disloyal" acts wouldhenceforth be tried in military courts, the president had taken firm controlof both the military and political situations. The legislation, he knew, proclaimeda revolution in the nation's social consciousness, and the war, nowto be fought in the shadow of that revolution, would be "a sterner war."
Unhappily for Lincoln, the Democrats turned his revolution against himin the fall elections. As citizens from Massachusetts to Illinois selected theirgovernors, congressmen, and state legislators, they passed judgment indirectlyon the Lincoln administration's handling of the war, civil liberties,and emancipation. The voters disapproved. Democrats won the governorshipsof New York and New Jersey, gained thirty-five congressional seats,and piled up huge majorities in Lincoln's home state of Illinois. The resultsstartled no one; all understood what had happened and why. Military defeatshad spawned political ones. "The people," reported an Ohio newspaper,"are depressed by the interminable nature of this war, as so far conducted,and by the rapid exhaustion of the national resources without progress."Even Lincoln admitted that the "ill-success of the war had much todo" with the outcome, and he would have agreed with the judgment of NewYork lawyer George T. Strong: "It looks like a great, sweeping revolution ofpublic sentiment.... We the people are impatient, dissatisfied, disgusted,disappointed ..., suffering from the necessary evils of war and from irritationat our slow progress."
McClellan either ignored or defied the shifting military and political rulesof war. He had opposed either publicly or privately nearly every militaryand political initiative taken by Lincoln since July. He was horrified by thethought of waging war against civilians and told Lincoln as much. He privatelycriticized the Emancipation Proclamation and issued a general orderto the army that, while reminding his troops of the necessity of military subordinationto civilian authority, barely concealed his contempt for the president."The remedy for political errors," he told them, "is to be found onlyin the action of the people at the polls." Whether Lincoln interpreted thisstatement as a direct challenge is unknown. We do know that the day afterthe polls closed, Lincoln directed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to relieveMcClellan of his command.
McClellan's supporters did not miss the timing, and they raised a howlwhen the ax fell. "How can we succeed when mere trickster politicians controlthe movements of our generals and dictate when and how they mustmove?" asked a Michigan infantry lieutenant. McClellan had run afoul ofHalleck, clear and simple, and his "offence was of a much older date than hisremoval," reasoned the Wolverine. "It is known that his removal wasplanned & to be carried into effect the moment the Elections were over,"insisted another officer. "They did not dare to remove him before theElection."
The president regretted having to dismiss McClellan. Although he consideredthe matter carefully and believed that not even the politically drivenArmy of the Potomac would mutiny as a result, public reactionand thuspublic confidencewas far less predictable. Political pressure and publicopinion had already forced Lincoln to remove another general from commandin October. Gen. Don Carlos Buell had run afoul of some midwesternpoliticians by failing to invade East Tennessee before the onset of winter.Like McClellan, Buell was a known Democratic partisan and practitioner oflimited warfare, and like McClellan, he seemed to have a bad case of the"slows." He certainly had not won favor with either Lincoln or Halleck byallowing Gen. Braxton Bragg to escape Kentucky after the battle of Perryville.Now the personable and politically noncontroversial Gen. William S."Rosey" Rosecrans commanded the Army of the Ohio.
Even so, the removal of McClellan would have to be softened by politicaldiscretion. Gen. Catharinus P. Buckingham went by special train throughthe snowstorm of November 7 to deliver the president's fateful orders. Hewent, however, not to McClellan's camp at Rectortown, but rather to thecamp of Burnside's IX Corps, at Waterloo, eighteen miles to the north.Stanton wanted Buckingham to persuade Burnside to accept command ofthe army, a position he had already refused in July and September. As expected,Burnside protested the assignment, but Buckingham convincedhim that McClellan was doomed in any case. If Burnside did not accept thepost, the president would be forced to appoint someone else, most likelyGen. Joseph Hooker, a favorite with the public, the press, and several influentialpoliticians. That did it. Burnside detested Hooker, whom he consideredvain, arrogant, and devious. Together, Buckingham and Burnsidetraveled by train and on horseback to McClellan's camp. They arrived about11 P.M. to find the commander composing a letter to his wife. McClellan suspectedthe purpose of the visit as soon as his visitors entered the tent, and aglance at General Order 182, which Buckingham handed to him, confirmedit. "Well, Burnside," he said brusquely, "I turn the command over to you."
Meantime, Robert E. Lee had already reacted to the Federal movementswith a spurt of messages on November 6 and 7 to superiors and subordinates.With the bluecoats in motion above the Rappahannock, bent, itseemed, on crossing into Culpeper County and striking his army, the generaltook precautions. He ordered Stonewall Jackson's corps, which hadbeen guarding the Shenandoah Valley and threatening Federal communications,to move eastward in anticipation of rejoining the divided army. He orderedall surplus stores removed from Culpeper to Madison Court House,fourteen miles to the southwest. He requested additional shoes, clothing,and blankets for his men from Richmond, and, as McClellan had, he askedfor more horses. Not even the animals rounded up by Stuart in Pennsylvaniahad satisfied his needs. "Our cavalry diminished by the casualties of battleand hard service," Lee informed Secretary of War George W. Randolph,"is now reduced by disease among the horses, sore tongue and soft hoof."Unlike McClellan, Lee was ready to move with or without the requestedsupplies and horses. Yet he knew that without sufficient cavalry he would behard-pressed to maintain his pickets, shield his flanks, gather intelligence,and strike those people across the river.
And to strike was what Lee intended. He had been patient all year, lookingfor opportunities to work against the enemy's flank and rear while confrontingthe Federals only at a time and place of his choosing. The strategydid not suit Lee's aggressive nature, but President Jefferson Davis had encouragedhim to be prudent. Even so, Lee had retained the freedom to attackwhen he enjoyed a numerical or topographical advantage.
On the morning of November 6, Lee had thought the Federal advancemight be intended primarily to forage below the Rappahannock andthrough the counties that bordered the Blue Ridge Mountains. The size andspeed of McClellan's progress soon convinced him that the Yankees hadsome other design. Little Mac would not throw his entire army into a foragingexpedition. "He is ... moving more rapidly than usual," Lee informedPresident Davis later that day, "and it looks like a real advance." He thenordered Longstreet, recently promoted to lieutenant general, to retirethrough Madison County and unite with Jackson, another newly mintedlieutenant general. Lee would let the Federals cross the river, but his armywould also be on McClellan's rear and right flank should he turn south towardRichmond. Lee knew that as the Federals advanced, McClellan'snumbers and material advantages must decrease. If he remained patient andwaited for the right moment, Lee could "strike a successful blow."
North of the Dare Mark, most men wished Burnside well, even thoughhe clearly lacked the flamboyance and force of personality that had enabledMcClellan to inspire the army and dazzle the public. Indiana-born Burnsidewas, at thirty-eight years, two years older than Little Mac, but he had beenthe youngest available candidate to replace him. His playful nature andgood-heartedness made him popular with many officers and men. His "winningsmile and cordial manners bespoke a frank, sincere and honorablecharacter," recalled one friend, and no one doubted his "sincerity andtruthfulness, his unselfish generosity, and his devoted patriotism." Others,however, thought Burnside a poor judge of character, and he had no talentfor delegating authority. He was not quick or clever, and, perhaps most regrettably,he really did not want to lead the army.
"Burnside will try to do well, is patriotic and amiable, and, had hegreater powers and grasp, would make an acceptable, if not a great, general,"estimated Gideon Welles. Another cabinet member, Secretary of theTreasury Salmon P. Chase, admitted that Burnside had "some excellentqualifies," but he preferred a more aggressive general, like Fighting JoeHooker. In the army, longtime McClellan supporters reserved judgment.The army's provost marshal general, Marsena R. Patrick, reported that themen received Burnside "handsomely, but not enthusiastically.... Allseemed to think there was one they liked much better." Many peoplethought the change ill-timed. "I don't care whether McClellan or Burnsidecommands the army, if the commander is only a capable man," concludedCapt. Robert Gould Shaw of the Second Massachusetts Infantry, "but I stillbelieve the former is the best general we have. No one has proved himselfbetter yet." More ominously, Col. Robert McAllister, who led the EleventhNew Jersey Infantry, concluded, "Burnside is a good man, but he is to betried on a large scale. If he fails, the results will be disastrous." Even peoplewho had endured enough of Little Mac concluded, "Wait and see how muchbetter Burnside does, before 'rejoicing' over the removal of McClellan."
Surely Lincoln harbored doubts, too, but he likely had a soft spot forBurnside. The general's critics, after all, sounded very much like his own.Just a year earlier, Attorney General Edward Bates had written confidentially,"The Prest, is an excellent man, and in the main wise; but he lackswill and purpose, and I greatly fear, has not the power to command." Burnsidewas just as politically conservative as McClellan, just as determined to spareSouthern civilians the ravages of war, but at least he had a plan, and heseemed willing to share it with the president. The unfolding of Burnside'sdesign in the thirty-odd days following his appointment, and Confederateresponses to it, would determine where and how the battle of Fredericksburgwould be fought.
Diverging dramatically from McClellan's apparent intention to cross theRappahannock and strike Longstreet's isolated corps, Burnside saw Richmondas "the great object of the campaign." He would concentrate his armyaround Warrenton, only a dozen miles above the river, he informed Halleck,thus giving the appearance that he intended to strike at Culpeper orGordonsville. At the same time, he would gather enough supplies for a four-tofive-day march and move quickly toward Fredericksburg, a little overthirty miles southeast of Warrenton. By crossing the river at that point, thearmy would have an open road to Richmond, almost fifty-five miles to thesouth. This plan, Burnside emphasized, would allow the army to remain betweenLee and Washington DC, while taking the shortest route to the Rebelcapital.
It sounded plausible, but Lincoln saw flaws in the strategy. In his October13 letter to McClellan, Lincoln had, in fact, asked for a line of advanceagainst Richmond similar to that proposed by Burnside. He saw the samepotential benefits of the Fredericksburg route: it would keep the army betweenLee and Washington, and the army could be readily resupplied bywagon, water, and rail. But while Burnside saw Richmond as the great objectof the campaign, Lincoln believed too much attention had been given tothe capture of that city. To seize Richmond, Lincoln admitted, "would tendmore to cripple the rebel cause than almost any other military event," withbut one exception, and that was "the absolute breaking up" of Lee's army.
Lincoln would become more convinced of this strategic principle as thewar progressed, but for the moment he seemed unwilling to press the issue.Instead, he dispatched Halleck, Q.M. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, and militaryrailroad superintendent Gen. Herman Haupt to discuss the optionswith Burnside. The trio, arriving at army headquarters on November 12,explained that the president preferred a move against Lee. They wrangled,but two days later, after Lincoln's emissaries had returned to Washington,Halleck informed Burnside, "The President has just assented to your plan.He thinks that it will succeed, if you move very rapidly; otherwise not."
Ah, speed; here was another hazard. Lincoln probably approved Burnside'splan for two reasons. First, it would demonstrate his confidence inBurnside's judgment, a vote of confidence everyone agreed Burnsideneeded. Second, even if Burnside had selected the wrong target, he at leastseemed prepared to move. Still, Burnside's success would depend on a hugelogistical effort requiring precise coordination and extraordinary cooperation.He asked that at least thirty canal boats and barges loaded with commissarystores and forage be dispatched to Belle Plain in anticipation of thearmy's arrival at Fredericksburg. He required that stores and forage to subsistthe army for thirty days be delivered to Falmouth. He wanted freshhorses and mules as well as beef cattle driven to Fredericksburg. He wouldalso need pontoons at Fredericksburg to bridge the Rappahannock. Onceacross, he planned to load his wagons with at least twelve days' worth of provisionsand embark on "a rapid movement" toward Richmond.
Excerpted from Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville by DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND. Copyright © 1998 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.