Sunday, December 16, 2012

December 17, 1862 (Wednesday): Burnside's Answer

General Ambrose Burnside

Major-General HALLECK.
    I have the honor to offer the following reasons for moving the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock sooner than was anticipated by the President, Secretary, or yourself, and for crossing at a point different from the one indicated to you at our last meeting at the President's:
    During my preparations for crossing at the place I had at first selected, I discovered that the enemy had thrown a large portion of his force down the river and elsewhere, thus waking his defenses in front; and I also thought I discovered that he did not anticipate the crossing of our whole force at Fredericksburg; and I hoped, by rapidly throwing the whole command over at that place, to separate, by a vigorous attack, the forces of the enemy on the river below from the forces behind and on the crests in the rear of the town, in which case we should fight him with great advantages in our favor. To do this we had to gain a height on the extreme right of the crest, which height commanded a new road, lately built by the enemy for purposes of more rapid communication along his lines; which point gained, his positions along the crest would have been scarcely tenable, and he could have been driven from them easily by an attack on his front, in connection with a movement in rear of the crest.
    How near we came to accomplishing our object future reports will show. But for the fog and unexpected and unavoidable delay in building the bridges, which gave the enemy twenty-four hours more to concentrate his forces in his strong positions, we would almost certainly have succeeded; in which case the battle would have been, in my opinion, far more decisive than if we had crossed at the places first selected. As it was, we came very near success. Failing in accomplishing the main object, we remained in order of battle two days-long enough to decide that the enemy would not come out of his strongholds and fight us with his infantry. After which we recrossed to this side of the river unmolested, and without the loss of men or property.
    As the day broke, our long lines of troops were seen marching to their different positions as if going on parade; not the least demoralization or disorganization existed.
    To the brave officers and soldiers who accomplished the feat of this recrossing in the face of the enemy I owe everything. For the failure in the attack I am responsible, as the extreme gallantry, courage, and endurance shown by them was never excelled, and would have carried the points, had it been possible.
To the families and friends of the dead I can only offer my heartfelt sympathy, but for the wounded I can offer my earnest prayers for their comfort and final recovery.
    The fact that I decided to move from Warrenton onto this line rather against the opinion of the President, Secretary, and yourself, and that you have left the whole management in my hands, without giving me orders, makes me the more responsible.
    I will visit you very soon and give you more definite information, and finally will send you my detailed report, in which a special acknowledgment will be made of the services of the different grand divisions, corps, and my general and personal staff departments of the Army of the Potomac, to whom I am much indebted for their hearty support and co-operation.
    I will add here that the movement was made earlier than you expected, and after the President, Secretary, and yourself requested me not to be in haste, for the reason that we were supplied much sooner by the different staff departments than was anticipated when I last saw you.
    Our killed amounted to 1,152; our wounded, about 9,000; our prisoners, about 700, which have been paroled and exchanged for about the same number taken by us.* The wounded were all removed to this side of the river before the evacuation, and are being well cared for, and the dead were all buried under a flag of truce. The surgeon reports a much larger proportion than usual of slight wounds, 1,630 only being treated in hospitals.
    I am glad to represent the army at the present time in good condition.
    Thanking the Government for that entire support and confidence which I have always received from them, I remain, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

    Major-General, Commanding Army of the Potomac.

*But see revised statement, pp.129-142. 

Official Records, Series I., Vol. 21, Part 1, Page 67.

Burnside steps through the decision making process during the campaign, beginning with the decision not to move toward Warrenton and attempt to interpose between Longstreet and Jackson.  With hindsight, this was not a bad decision.  Lee believed Jackson could move to Culpeper and hold Burnside's troops, but still reunite with Longstreet before Burnside could finish the movement.  In any case, Jackson made the point moot by crossing at Fisher's Gap and coming up by way of Madison Court House.

At this point Burnside desired, and the administration seems to have concurred, with a move in the vicinity of Port Royal.  But the slowness of the arrival of pontoon bridges, and the alacrity with which Lee posted Jackson's troops in the area negated this move.  Where Burnside appears to have erred was in believing he could move directly on Fredericksburg before Lee could bring up Jackson front the Port Royal area.  Instead of seizing the key military road behind the Confederate line described here, and compromising the rebel positions on Marye's Heights after breaking through, his forces were fed into the grinder piece meal to no good effect.

The comments regarding the ratio of wounded requiring hospital treatment (1,630) to total wounded (9,000) is interesting if this number is accurate.  It would means the ratio of killed to seriously wounded was very high, but the number wounded to the extent of being out of action was not high. 

At this point Burnside, Halleck, and Lincoln are considering the options to renew the offensive, primarily by moving across the river either above (as at Chancellorsville) or below (at Port Royal).

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