Tuesday, November 20, 2012

November 21, 1862 (Friday): Sumner Reaches Fredericksburg

Pontoon bridges such as would ultimately be established at Fredericksburg

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, Camp Fredericksburg, November 22, 1862-8 p.m. 
General S. COOPER,
Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.:
    GENERAL: I have the honor to report, for the information of the President and Department, that General Burnside's army, apparently in full force, is on the other side of the Rappahannock, opposite this place, stretching from the banks of the river toward Aquia Creek. I have learned from our scouts sent toward the Potomac, but who were unable to reach Aquia, that it is reported by citizens that the enemy were making preparations to reconstruct the wharves at that place, by means of their pontoon trains. I have not heard of a commencement being made to rebuild the railroad. Their immense wagon train is actively engaged, apparently, in provisioning their army, which, during the last three days of rain and could, I know has been a difficult operation, and must have been attended with suffering among the troops. I have with me two brigades of Stuart's cavalry, Pendleton's reserve artillery, and four divisions of Longstreet's corps. The Fifth will be here to-morrow. If the enemy attempt to cross the river I shall resist it, though the ground is favorable for him. Yesterday he summoned the corporate authorities of Fredericksburg to surrender* the city by 5 p.m.,and threatened, in the event of its not being delivered up, to commence to shell the town at 9 a.m. to-day.
    Upon the reference of this communication to me, as I was unable to prevent the city from being commanded, I requested General Longstreet to inform the authorities that they might say that I would not occupy or use the city for military purpose, but that I would resist its occupation by the enemy, and recommended that the women and children be at once removed. Our wagons and ambulance have been employed all last night and to-day in accomplishing this object. This morning the authorities were informed that the bombardment would not commence at the hour threatened, but that a definite answer would be returned in a short time. I have not learned whether it has yet been received.
    General Stuart reports, as the results of his reconnaissance north of the Rappahannock, that Fauquier and Loudoun Counties have been abandoned by the enemy, except the force retained at Harper's Ferry, under Generals Slocum and Geary; that the bridges on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, from the Rappahannock to Bull Run, inclusive, have been destroyed, and the stores at Warrenton Junction and Manassas burned. Two divisions of Sigel's corps (those of Stahel and Carl Schurz) passed through Centreville to Washington. The rest of his corps is with Burnside.
    I have the honor to be, with great respect you, obedient servant,

   R. E. LEE,

*See demand for surrender of Fredericksburg, November 21-22, 1862, pp.783-788. 

Official Records, Series I., Vol. 21, Part 1, Page 1026.

Lee states, "If the enemy attempt to cross the river I shall resist it, though the ground is favorable for him."  It is probably not too much a liberty to take to say Lee is referring to the favorability of the crossing (under cover of guns on Stafford's heights).  After crossing into town the ground favored the defenders on Marye's Heights.  At the point of this writing it was not a certainty Fredericksburg would be the site of battle.  Later, some would lament that Lee gave battle this far north and did not assume a position along the North Anna line where an attacker from the North would have been further from supplies with a longer retreat if defeated.   It is worth noting how early Sumner was able to reach Fredericksburg and how long it was until a battle ultimately occurred, the pontoon bridges not being ready for the crossing on the arrival of the first troops or even soon thereafter.  The lack of preparation by McClellan for any overland advance on Richmond is evident in the lack of preparations at Aquia Creek.

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