Failed Union Civil War Generals

This entry is part 2 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Civil War GeneralsThe American Civil War probably had the greatest number of failed general officers in the history of the United States. In fact, both sides saw more general officers who were either relieved of command or later investigated by various Congressional committees.

In the defense of general officers on both sides, none of them had commanded any formation larger than a regiment. Most had commanded companies, battalions or batteries. A number of these officers had been at West Point most recently.

The antebellum United States Army had about 16,000 officers and men scattered across the United States at isolated posts and forts. Many of the West Pointers, like Robert E. Lee, spent the majority of their non-Mexican War service as engineering officers building coastal defenses or supervising the maintenance of harbors and waterways.

Imagine their shock when they were assigned to command formations with thousands of soldiers. At the Battle of First Manassas the combined number of troops engaged was 36,000. The combined armies had between 60,000 and 69,000 men. In the early fighting the armies were really armed mobs. It wasn’t until 1863 that the troops and their officers became hardened veterans.

In this series we’ll start by looking at failed general officers in the Union Army. The most notable, of course, was Maj. Gen. George McClellan, General-in-chief and commander of the Army of the Potomac. He was followed by Maj. Gens. Joseph Hooker and Ambrose Burnside.

There were a number of general officers throughout the history of the Army of the Potomac and other Eastern commands who were relieved of command. Perhaps the most notable was Maj. Gen. Gouvernour K. Warren who spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name.

In the Western Theater, there were Maj. Gens. Don Carlos Buell and William S. Rosecrans. Both of them were relieved of command. Rosecrans carried on a feud with his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, until his dying day.

Many of the Union Army’s failed general officers were so-called ‘political generals’ like Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler and Franz Siegal. Many of them were Democrats whose support Abraham Lincoln saw as critical to the war effort. He did not want the war to be a Republican one but rather wanted it to be a Union effort.

However, some of the ‘political generals’ were not schooled in any type of military training or if they were their experience dated from the Mexican War of 1846-1848 when they were junior officers. These officers tended to make a hash of their battle assignments.

One successful ‘political general’ was Ben Butler who precipitated the ‘contraband’ rules that the Union government adopted when he was the commander of Fortress Monroe. He was also successful when he was the military commander of occupied New Orleans. However, he was never very successful as a battle commander.



“Fighting Joe” Hooker

This entry is part 6 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General Joseph HookerMaj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was elevated to the command of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. Up to that point Hooker had a distinguished record of achievement both before and during the Civil War.

Hooker was a graduate of West Point’s class of 1837 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the artillery. His initial assignment was in Florida fighting in the second of the Seminole Wars. He served in the Mexican-American War in staff positions in the campaigns of both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott.

He received brevet promotions for his staff leadership and gallantry in three battles: Monterrey (to captain),National Bridge (major), and Chapultepec (lieutenant colonel). His future Army reputation as a ladies’ man began in Mexico, where local girls referred to him as the “Handsome Captain”.

Hooker left the army in 1853 after he had testified against General Winfield Scott in defense of Gideon Pillow who had been charged with insubordination. He left the army in California and settled in Sonoma County working as a farmer and land developer. In actuality, he was more devoted to gambling and liquor than to agriculture. In 1858, he asked to be reinstated but nothing came of his request. Instead, he served as a colonel in the California militia.

At the start of the war he again asked for reinstatement but was again rejected perhaps because Winfield Scott, the General-in-Chief, harbored some lingering resentment from the Pillow trial. After the disastrous Battle of First Manassas he wrote directly to President Lincoln offering his services. This time he was reinstated with the rank of brigadier general in August 1861.

He commanded a brigade and then a division in the Army of the Potomac. During the fighting on the Peninsula he distinguished himself while leading the 2nd Division of the III Corps at the Battle of Williamsburg and throughout the Peninsula campaign and the Seven Days Battles. He was promoted to major general on May 5, 1862.

Ever the aggressive commander, he chafed under the cautious leadership of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. He openly criticized McClellan for his failure to take Richmond. Of his commander, Hooker said, “He is not only not a soldier, but he does not know what soldiership is.” During these campaigns Hooker became known for his devotion to the welfare and morale of his men, and his hard drinking social life, even on the battlefield.

Hooker’s division was transferred to John Pope’s Army of Virginia. He was appointed to the command of the III Corps after the defeat at Second Manassas replacing Samuel P. Heintzelman who was relieved of command and shunted off to  the command of the Washington defenses.

His corps was redesignated I Corps and returned to the Army of the Potomac in early September 1862. They joined the army for the fighting  at South Mountain and Antietam where Hooker and his troops distinguished themselves. At Antietam Hooker’s corps launched the initial assault of the day at the Cornfield against “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps.

Hooker’s men paid heavily in the fighting, suffering 2,500 casualties in the first two hours of the battle. It was estimated that the Cornfield changed hands no fewer than 15 times in the course of the morning.

Major Rufus Dawes who assumed command of the Iron Brigade’s 6th Wisconsin Regiment in comparing the fighting to latter battles said that “the Antietam Turnpike surpassed them all in manifest evidence of slaughter.”  When Confederate Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood was asked by a fellow officer where his division was, replied: “Dead on the field”, having suffered 60% casualties.

Hooker was wounded in the foot during the fighting and carried from the field. He later insisted that if he had not been wounded his attack would have succeeded. General McClellan’s caution had again cost the Union a clear-cut victory and Robert E. Lee had once again succeeded in extricating his smaller force to the safety of Virginia.

President Lincoln apparently agreed because he relieved McClellan of command when he did not pursue the enemy. In his place, Lincoln appointed Ambrose Burnside to the command of the Army of the Potomac. Recovering from his wound Hooker was at first given command of the V Corps and then a “Grand Division” of the of both III and V Corps. Hooker’s Center Grand Division had a total of 6 divisions of infantry and one brigade of cavalry.

Hooker thought that Burnside’s plan of attack was “preposterous”. His Grand Division suffered serious losses after 14 futile, frontal assaults against the Marye’s Heights defenses. After the humiliating Mud March in January Burnside proposed a wholesale purge of his commanders but instead Lincoln relieved him of command and replaced him with Hooker.

During the spring of 1863 Hooker set about reviving the morale of the Army of the Potomac. Among his changes were fixes to the daily diet of the troops, camp sanitary changes, improvements and accountability of the quartermaster system, addition of and monitoring of company cooks, several hospital reforms, and an improved furlough system (one man per company by turn, 10 days each).

Other orders addressed the need to stem rising desertion (one from Lincoln combined with incoming mail review, the ability to shoot deserters, and better camp picket lines), more and better drills, stronger officer training, and for the first time, combining the federal cavalry into a single corps.

Hooker said of his army:

I have the finest army on the planet. I have the finest army the sun ever shone on. … If the enemy does not run, God help them. May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.

Hooker relieved a number of officers who had been McClellan’s favorites and sent Burnside’s old corps to the Virginia Peninsula. His headquarters acquired a reputation as a combination of a “bar-room and a brothel” according to Charles F. Adams, Jr.

Hooker had an elaborate plan for the spring and summer campaign against Lee. He first planned to send his cavalry corps deep into the enemy’s rear, disrupting supply lines and distracting him from the main attack. He would pin down Robert E. Lee’s much smaller army at Fredericksburg, while taking the large bulk of the Army of the Potomac on a flanking march to strike Lee in his rear. Then he would move on Richmond.

However, the execution of his plan required commanders as daring as he was. The cavalry was commanded Brig. Gen. George Stoneman who cautiously moved forward and met none of his objectives. The flanking march started off well but Hooker lost his nerve and pulled back to the small crossroads of Chancellorsville.

While the Army of the Potomac sat immobile and on the defensive, Lee split his army twice and sent “Stonewall” Jackson on a flank attack against the Union right where they routed the XI Corps. In the midst of all this Hooker was knocked unconscious when a cannonball hit the porch where he was standing. He refused to turn over command of the army to his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch.

Hooker ordered his army back across the Rappahannock. Meanwhile, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia set off for their second invasion of the North. Lincoln ordered Hooker to pursue Lee and forego any movement toward Richmond.

When the general got into a dispute with Army headquarters over the status of defensive forces in Harpers Ferry, he impulsively offered his resignation in protest, which was quickly accepted by Lincoln and General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. On June 28, three days before the climactic Battle of Gettysburg, Hooker was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Meade.

However, Joe Hooker’s career was not over. He returned to combat in November, leading two corps from the Army of the Potomac to help relieve the besieged Union Army at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and achieving an important victory at the Battle of Lookout Mountain during the Chattanooga Campaign. He continued in the Western Theater under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, but left before the end of the Atlanta Campaign when he was bypassed for a promotion to command the Army of the Tennessee.


McClellan’s Failed Successors: Ambrose Burnside

This entry is part 5 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General Ambrose BurnsideMaj. Gen. George B. McClellan was relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac on November 9, 1862. The main reason for his removal was his failure to us the instrument of war that he created. Commanders love the army but the great commanders must risk the destruction of the thing that they love to achieve victory. George McClellan was not a great commander.

McClellan was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. A West Point graduate in the class of 1847, Burnside had served in Mexico but by the time that he had arrived hostilities had ceased and he saw only garrison duty. He then served two years on the western frontier under Captain Braxton Bragg. In 1852 he returned east to Rhode Island where he met and married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1853 Burnside resigned his commission and entered the business world where he devoted his time and energy to the manufacture of the famous firearm that bears his name, the Burnside carbine. He obtained government contracts and invested heavily in manufacturing equipment. But through devious means he lost the contracts and was ruined financially. He then moved west where became treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad. He worked for, and became friendly with, one of his future commanding officers, George B. McClellan.

At the start of the Civil War Burnside was a brigadier general in the Rhode Island Militia. He raised a regiment, the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, and was appointed its colonel on May 2, 1861. Within a month he was given a brigade which he led without distinction at the First Battle of Manassas. He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers but relegated to training provisional brigades for the Army of the Potomac.

Burnside commanded the Coast Division, or North Carolina Expeditionary Force—three brigades assembled in Annapolis, Maryland, which formed the nucleus for his future IX Corps—and the Department of North Carolina, from September 1861 until July 1862. He conducted a successful amphibious campaign that closed over 80% of the North Carolina sea coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war.

He was promoted to major general of volunteers and his units were assigned to the Army of the Potomac as the IX Corps. After McClellan’s failure on the Peninsula Burnside was offered command of the Army of the Potomac, citing his lack of requisite experience. His corps was detached for service with Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia. After the defeat at Second Manassas, Burnside was again offered the command of the army and again refused due to lack of experience and loyalty to McClellan.

At Antietam Burnside commanded his corps which was placed at the southern end of the Union position. His corps was tasked with crossing the Rohrbach’s Bridge, a three-span, 125-foot (38 m) stone structure that was the southernmost crossing of the Antietam. His four divisions of 12,500 men faced a small Confederate force of 3,000 men and 12 guns. However, the superior Confederate defenses stymied Burnside’s men for critical hours until their eventual breakthrough. The Union casualties  at Burnside’s Bridge amounted to 20% of their strength.

After McClellan’s relief in November Burnside was again offered the command of the army. He reluctantly accepted when he was informed that Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was the alternative. Disliking Hooker, Burnside accepted command. President immediately began pressuring Burnside to launch an attack on the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Burnside formulated a plan to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg using pontoon bridges. But the plan was poorly executed and Gen. Robert E. Lee was given sufficient time to concentrate his army and repulse the Army of the Potomac. He ordered a series of bloody frontal assaults against Marye’s Heights. The Army of the Potomac suffered 12,653 total casualties while the Confederates sustained only 5,377. Detractors labeled Burnside the “Butcher of Fredericksburg”.

In January 1863, Burnside launched a second offensive against Lee, but it bogged down in winter rains before it accomplished anything and has been derisively called the Mud March. In its wake, he asked that several officers, who were openly insubordinate, be relieved of duty and court-martialed; he also offered to resign. Lincoln chose the latter option on January 26 and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, one of the officers who had conspired against Burnside.

It turned out that Ambrose Burnside was a better corps commander than an army commander. Lincoln refused Burnside’s offer to resign from the army altogether. He was placed back at the head of the IX Corps and sent to command the Department of the Ohio, encompassing the states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. While in command of this department he clashed with the anti-war Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham.

Burnside’s IX Corps was heavily involved during the Knoxville Campaign. He occupied the city of Knoxville unopposed. At the Cumberland Gap he forced the surrender of 2,300 Confederate troops. He then clashed with James LOngstreet’s corps but he was able to outmaneuver him and return to the safety of Knoxville. Tying down Longstreet’s corps at Knoxville contributed to Gen. Braxton Bragg‘s defeat by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga.

Burnside’s corps was returned to the Eastern Theater where it eventually became part of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside fought at the battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, where he did not perform in a distinguished manner, attacking piecemeal and appearing reluctant to commit his troops to the frontal assaults that characterized these battles. After North Anna and Cold Harbor, he took his place in the siege lines at Petersburg.

Troops under Burnside’s command suggested that they dig a mine under a fort named Elliot’s Salient in the Confederate entrenchments and ignite explosives there to achieve a surprise breakthrough. The fort was destroyed on July 30 in what is known as the Battle of the Crater. Because of interference from Meade, Burnside was ordered, only hours before the infantry attack, not to use his division of black troops, which had been specially trained for this mission. He was forced to use untrained white troops instead.

He could not decide which division to choose as a replacement, so he had his three subordinate commanders draw lots. The division chosen by chance was that commanded by Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie, who failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk well behind the lines, providing no leadership. Ledlie’s men entered the huge crater instead of going around it, becoming trapped, and were subjected to heavy fire from Confederates around the rim, resulting in high casualties.

Burnside was relieved of command for the final time and was never given another command. A court of inquiry later placed the blame for the Crater fiasco on Burnside and his subordinates. In December, Burnside met with President Lincoln and General Grant about his future. He was contemplating resignation, but Lincoln and Grant requested that he remain in the Army. At the end of the interview, Burnside wrote, “I was not informed of any duty upon which I am to be placed.” He finally resigned his commission on April 15, 1865, after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War later exonerated Burnside, and placed the blame for the Union defeat at the Crater on General Meade for requiring the specially trained USCT (United States Colored Troops) men to be withdrawn.

Despite all of his failures Ambrose Burnside was elected to three one-year terms as Governor of Rhode Island (May 1866 to May 1869).


The Sacking of Fredericksburg

This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Sacking of FredericksburgThe town of Fredericksburg was at the center of fighting in Central Virginia from 1862 until 1864. Early on the town on the Rappahannock River was occupied by Union troops. The Union Army withdrew but returned to the area in December 1862.

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside chose to cross the Rappahannock from his bases around Falmouth on the north side of the river. With this decision Robert E. Lee had no choice but to contest the crossing. The ensuing battle which ran from December 11th until the 15th led to artillery bombardments by both sides.

The Union artillery bombed the private residences to prevent their use by Confederate sharpshooters who attempted to prevent the completion of Union pontoon bridges. Eventually Union troops crossed the river in pontoon boats and laboriously cleaned out the Confederate sharpshooters from the buildings in the town.

During the fighting Union troops sacked the town, something that was quite in the Middle Ages. Fredericksburg was the first American town or city to be sacked during the American Civil War. The fact that an American town sacked by Americans was not lost on either side. It would not be the last.

The Union troops crossed the river on the pontoon bridges under enemy fire. Dozens of Union soldiers were wounded by shrapnel. They would be the lucky ones. Early on they were met by an enterprising undertaker who busily handed out cards to all takers. Eventually he was run off but his appearance made the Union troops realize that this might be a one-way trip.

Once across the river Union troops began an exhaustive search for tobacco, food other items. Minor pilfering quickly degenerated into wholesale pillage.  For several hours discipline and order vanished as soldiers dashed from building to building, stealing whatever they could find.

“The ladies [of Fredericksburg] said before the battle they would sooner see the city destroyed & their homes made desolate forever than to see it surrendered to us,” crowed one Union soldier.  “We have accommodated them in every particular for there is not a building left untouched in the whole city.”

Soldiers took whatever caught their fancy , not even thinking about how they would get it home. A Connecticut soldier saw his comrades leave houses carrying absurd plunder: a stuffed alligator, a pair of brass andirons, an apothecary’s pestle, musical instruments, and even mouse traps—“everything that was ever made to eat, drink, wear or use.”

Financial institutions were a favorite target of the thieves.  A group of particularly determined soldiers managed to crack the safe at the Bank of Virginia, where they found silverware, half dollar coins, and a large quantity of currency.  “…Everything valuable was carried away,” wrote an approving lieutenant.

Theft gave way to outright vandalism and systematic destruction of private property. Soldiers bayoneted paintings, smashed mirrors and china, hurled glasses through windows, pulled down draperies, and tore up carpeting.  Books from private libraries were hurled into the muddy streets; barrels brimming with flour were turned over and poured onto the floor.  “The soldiers seemed to delight in destroying everything,” wrote one witness.

Furniture was dragged into the street and smashed for kindling. Pianos were carried into the streets and battered into pieces. “Vandalism reigned supreme,’ wrote one disgusted artilleryman.  “Men who at home were modest and unassuming now seemed to be possessed with an insatiate desire to destroy everything in sight.”

Some soldiers donned women’s clothing and paraded down the street with parasols and bonnets, adding a bizarre twist to the chaotic events of the day.  “It was a rich scene” thought a Minnesota man.  “There was a dirty soldier dressed in the choicest silks, escorted by other soldiers dressed in long tail coats, and plug hats…. One of the boys picked up a violin, and a soldier was soon found who could play it, so they took positions for a cotillion…. But I cannot do justice to the scene.”  A chaplain put the best face on the matter, claiming, “This was simply the spirit of eternal youth exemplified, the thing that kept men’s hearts from ‘failing them.’”

Sketch artist Arthur Lumley described the deplorable behavior of Federal soldiers on the eve of battle fittingly: “Friday Night in Fredericksburg. This night the city was in the wildest confusion sacked by the union troops = houses burned down furniture scattered in the streets = men pillaging in all directions a fit scene for the French revolution and a discrace [sic] to the Union Arms. this is my view of what I saw. Lumley.”


1862: The End of Conciliation in the East

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Map of US with divisionsWhile 1861 same several attempts to settle the war without shedding an ocean of blood, 1862 would see the gradual descent of the war into a bitter conflict on both sides. In order to understand this period we’ll look at the war from various perspectives. This post will cover the Eastern Theater.

After the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run as the losing Union side named it, both sides began a gradual feeling-out process that was the antithesis of the later total war waged by both sides. The reality of First Manassas convinced both sides that their armies were no more than armed mobs. Both armies were deficient in training, leadership and even uniforms.

Both sides had uniforms that in some cases caused confusion on the battlefield. There were Confederate units with blue uniforms and Union units with a sort of blue/gray uniform. Some of the uniforms were garish and impractical like the Zouave uniforms worn by units on both sides. Even the early Confederate battle flags caused confusion because of their similarity to Old Glory.

Both armies in the Eastern Theater spent the fall and winter reorganizing, training and equipping their troops. In the Western Theater there were tentative probes down the Mississippi River and into Kentucky which had tried to remain neutral.

Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would make his first major foray from his base at Cairo, Illinois on November 7, 1861. The Battle of Belmont would see a limited clash of arms on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River with limited aims and a small loss of life.

In the Eastern Theater there were several engagements at the edges of the conflict but Maj. Gen. George McClellan refused to be pushed into major combat before he felt that his massive Army of the Potomac was ready to advance. By the end of 1861, McClellan had fortified Washington into one of the most defended cities in the world with 48 forts, 480 guns and 7,200 artillerymen.

The Army of the Potomac, McClellan’s chosen weapon of “shock and awe” had grown to over 190,000 men, the largest army ever assembled on the North American continent. It was was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times. But McClellan wanted more. He envisioned an army of 273,000 with 600 guns to “crush the rebels in one campaign.”

McClellan continually overestimated the numbers of enemy troops that were facing him in the Washington area. On August 8, believing that the Confederates had over 100,000 troops facing him (in contrast to the 35,000 they actually deployed at Bull Run a few weeks earlier), he declared a state of emergency in the capital.

By August 19, he estimated 150,000 enemy to his front. McClellan’s future campaigns would be strongly influenced by the overblown enemy strength estimates of his secret service chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, but in August 1861, these estimates were entirely McClellan’s own.

The result was a level of extreme caution that sapped the initiative of McClellan’s army and caused great condemnation by his government. Historian and biographer Stephen W. Sears has called McClellan’s actions “essentially sound” if he had been as outnumbered as he believed, but McClellan in fact rarely had less than a two-to-one advantage over his opponents in 1861 and 1862. That fall, for example, Confederate forces ranged from 35,000 to 60,000, whereas the Army of the Potomac in September numbered 122,000 men; in early December 170,000; by year end, 192,000.

Eventually after much debate and arguments between McClellan and the Lincoln government, the Army of the Potomac was transported to the tip of the Peninsula where they began a slow advance northwest to their ultimate goal of Richmond. From the siege of Yorktown to Malvern Hill, McClellan and first, Joseph E. Johnston and then Robert E. Lee slugged it out over a four-month period. Eventually, the Confederates deflected the huge Union army from its goal.

While McClellan was left idle at Harrison’s Landing, Lee turned and thrashed Maj. Gen. John Pope at Second Manassas. He then turned north and headed into Maryland where Lee and McClellan met in the bloodiest one-day battle of the war at Antietam. After a bloodletting that caused almost 23,000 casualties, McClellan was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

With the departure of McClellan the war in the Eastern Theater began a slide to total war. Burnside’s first major battle was at Frederickburg on the Rappahannock River. The Union artillery preparation for the crossing of the river would destroy a large part of the town.

Union cavalry units were sent into the Virginia countryside to seize food and fodder thus denying it to the Confederates. This would establish a pattern for both armies to prey upon the civilian populations. The Confederate cavalry would do the same in Maryland and later Pennsylvania.


Burnside’s Mud March

The Mud MarchFollowing the disastrous attempt to take the Confederate positions around Fredericksburg, Virginia, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, planned a desperate attempt to retrieve his reputation and restore the morale of his troops.

What followed was the another disaster which came to be known as the “Mud March”. It was a plan by Burnside to make a series of feints at the fords upstream of Fredericksburg to distract the Confederates while he took the bulk of the army across the Rappahannock River seven miles south of town.

Burnside and the Army of the Potomac had already broken new ground by executing a winter offensive at Fredericksburg. Most 19th century armies were loathe to attempt ambitious offensives in the winter. They usually used the winter months to rest and refit their troops in preparation for spring offensives.

The pressure from Union authorities in Washington on the newly-minted commander had pushed him into an ill-conceived assault on the formidable Confederate positions at Fredericksburg. Now, it was happening again with the authorities in Washington imploring Burnside to do something.

Mass movement in the winter months was slowed by the weather and the state of the roads in 19th century America. Most roads were dirt and the freezing-thawing cycle tended to make them into rivers of clinging mud that was guaranteed to slow an army on the march. The winter of 1862-1863 was no exception.

On top of his infantry feints and movements, Burnside’s plan called for cavalry movementsGeneral Ambrose Burnside that were supposed to distract the enemy. Burnside detailed 1500 troopers for this planned operation.

Five hundred of them would create a distracting feint in the Warrenton-Culpeper direction and then withdraw back to Falmouth. Meanwhile, the main force was to cross at Kelly’s Ford and swing south and west in a wide arc, all the way around and south of Richmond and ultimately arriving at Suffolk on the coast

The cavalry action was stopped at Kelly’s Ford by micromanaging from Washington. Burnside received a telegram from President Lincoln that stated,  “No major army movements are to be made without first informing the White House.”

How the President knew about Burnside’s plan was a mystery to him. Burnside hadn’t informed a large number of officers on this aspect of his plan. It seems that two officers, Brig. Gens. John Newton and John Cochrane had taken leave and journeyed to Washington.

They initially met with Secretary of State William Seward who after hearing their report arranged for a meeting with the President. It was at this meeting that they give a grim report to Lincoln on the state of the army.

Newton related that conditions had gotten to the point where the army would disintegrate in the event Burnside lost another battle along the Rappahannock. The two then left while adding that Lincoln ought to look into things himself.

Map of the Mud MarchUpon receiving Lincoln’s telegram, Burnside immediately rushed to Washington where he met with the President and General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. After much discussion, Burnside protested that the two officers, who had remained unknown to him, ought to be court-martialed. Halleck agreed with him. Burnside then offered to resign from both army command and the army itself.

Click Map to enlarge.

After Burnside’s departure, Lincoln ordered Halleck to Falmouth to reason with the angry general. Halleck met with Burnside but gave him vague instructions to destroy the Confederate army while taking as minimal damage as possible.

Burnside revived his plan but reversed the original sequence. Instead of crossing the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg, he initially planned to move upstream and cross at U.S. Ford, due north of the Chancellorsville crossroads.

Burnside, with a head start, altered his plan to aim at Banks’ Ford, a closer, quicker crossing. At dawn of January 21, 1863, engineers would push five bridges across the river. Following that, two grand divisions would be over the river in four hours. Meanwhile, another grand division would distract the Rebels by repeating the December crossing at Fredericksburg.

During the night of the 20th, the rain began, and by the morning of the 21st, the earth was soaked and the river banks had the appearance of a quagmire. Already, fifteen pontoons were on the river, nearly spanning it, and five more were amply sufficient.

Burnside began at once to bring up his artillery, which had the effect of making a perfect mortar bed. For a considerable area around the ford all day the men worked in the rain but to little purpose. Quite a number of cannon were advanced near the ford, but the 22nd only added to the storm, and the artillery, caissons and even wagons were swamped in the mud.

The storm had delayed Burnside’s movements, giving Lee ample time to line the other shore with his army, though there was no attempt to interfere with his crossing except from the sharpshooters, who peppered away on all occasions.

No doubt Lee was hoping Burnside would effect a crossing; with a swollen river in his rear, it would have been a sorry predicament for the Union Army indeed, but Burnside finally became resigned to his fate and gave the order for the army to retire to its quarters, and  ended the famous mud march.

It also marked the end of Ambrose Burnside’s career as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln replaced him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker on January 26, 1863.


Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

From the beginning of the war Abraham Lincoln had searched for a military commander in the East. He was looking for a fighting general, one who had the ability to lead the Federal forces to victory in the East and end the war. It take him until March 1864 to find one: Ulysses S. Grant.

At first he appointed Irvin McDowell. McDowell was a professional soldier of no great ability. He led the Federal army to a crushing defeat at the First Bull Run (Manassas).

General George McClellanLincoln then replaced him with George B. McClellan who had served in western Virginia at the beginning of the war. He was a dashing, charismatic leader who forged the Army of the Potomac from the shattered fragments of McDowell’s army. However, McClellan was a perfectionist who did not wish to take his creation into battle under less than ideal conditions.

After a great deal of pressure McClellan embarked on a campaign to take Richmond. He embarked his massive force, moved them by water to Yorktown and marched them up the narrow Virginia Peninsula. After a number of battles, first against Joseph Johnston and then when he was wounded, against Robert E. Lee, McClellan forces where back where they began at Harrison’s Landing.

Rather than sacking McClellan Lincoln took the indirect approach and appointed a western general John Pope who was given the command of the Army of Virginia. Pope immediately blundered into a Confederate trap and was crushed at Second Bull Run. The Confederates then invaded Maryland.

Lincoln swallowed his pride and asked McClellan to resume complete command of the Army.  At Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland the Army of the Potomac fought what was to be the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. At Antietam McClellan was exposed as a timidBloody Lane at Antietam commander. Failing to use his overwhelmingly superior forces in a coordinated attack, he fed his forces into the battle piecemeal. The Confederates were able to blunt all of his assaults. He then compounded his mistakes and allowed the battered enemy to withdraw back to Virginia. Lincoln replaced McClellan for the final time.

He was replaced by Ambrose Burnside who in December 1862 tried to force the Confederate lines at Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. Showing his inability to improvise in the field Burnside persisted in frontal assaults on the main Confederate positions resulting in horrendous casualties. Burnside was replaced by debonair, self-promoting “Fighting Joe” Hooker.

Hooker proclaimed that his headquarters would be in the saddle. One newspaper said that Hooker had his headquarters in his hindquarters. At Chancellorsville Hooker was completely out-maneuvered and defeated by Robert E. Lee with a Confederate army half his army’s size. Lincoln was in complete despair saying: “My God! What will the country say?”

Hooker was replaced by George Gordon Meade in late June 1863 when Lee again led his Army of Northern Virginia on an invasion of the north. At Gettysburg Meade led the Federal army to victory in a three-day defensive battle. Like McClellan at Antietam, Meade failed to follow up his victory and the Confederates returned to the safety of Virginia to rest and refit. Lincoln again despaired for the Union.

That November Meade took his army on a half-hearted offensive that tried to force the Confederate entrenchments at Mine Run. The Army of the Potomac limped back to their encampments with nothing to show for it. Meade was not to answer Lincoln’s need for a fighting general.

Through all of the inept, timid commanders in the East one general in the West stood out as a commander who understood the need to destroy the General Ulysses S. Grantenemy’s army utterly: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was a West Point graduate who had served with some distinction in the Mexican War. After that war he had drifted into civilian life in St. Louis and Galena, Illinois where he worked at his father’s tannery.

At the onset of the war Grant recruited a company of volunteers and led them to Springfield. In the capitol he accepted a position from the governor to train troops. He was good at it but was anxious for a field command. At the end of August 1861 he was given the command of the District of Cairo. He was commanded to make an attack against Confederate forces at Belmont, Kentucky. In an amphibious assault he led 3,100 union troops against Fort Belmont on November 7, 1861. He initially held the fort but was forced to retreat by overwhelming force.

Grant then decided to work his way down the Mississippi River and capture Confederate water fortresses. The lightly manned Fort Henry fell on February 6, 1862. Fort Donelson was a different story. In cooperation with the Navy, his 25,000 man force took this fort ten days later. At Fort Donelson Grant coined what was to be his signature surrender demand:  “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender.” Lincoln promoted Grant to major general of volunteers.

By April the Federal army, known as the Army of the Tennessee, had increased to nearly 50,000 men. At Shiloh, Tennessee they fought a costly battle with Confederate forces number nearly 45,000. On the first day of the battle the Federal army was pushed back to the landing but on the second day Grant ordered a counterattack that defeated the Confederate force. The Confederate commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, was killed. Some 23,700 were killed or wounded at Shiloh making it the costliest battle of the war to date.

Grant was demoted by Henry Halleck to second-in-command of a combined 120,000 man army. It took the persuasions of his friend William T. Sherman to stop him from resigning his commission. Eventually, this massive force was broken up and Grant returned to his command of the Army of the Tennessee.

By December 1862 Grant was resolved to take the Confederate fortress city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi. At first he attempted an overland campaign that became stalled by Confederate cavalry attacks. After a series of unsuccessful river and bayou battles Grant changed his strategy andThe Mississippi River Squadron running the Confederate Blockade at Vicksburg moved his troops down the west side of the Mississippi. He then crossed over to the east side and attempted to take the city by storm. When that was unsuccessful he settled down for a seven week siege. Confederate commander John C. Pemberton surrendered on July 4, 1863.

With the fall of Vicksburg the Mississippi River was completely controlled by the Federal Army and Navy. The Confederacy was now cut in two. Lincoln gave Grant command of the entire Federal war front in the West with the exception of Louisiana.

Grant then commanded his combined armies in a series of battles in and around Chattanooga, Tennessee. These resulted in the eventual defeat of Confederate forces in this region. The decisive 1863 Chattanooga battle opened Georgia and the heartland of the Confederacy to Union invasion by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

Grant was promoted to Lieutenant-General, only the third man to hold that rank; George Washington and Winfield Scott being the other two. He was given complete command of all Federal armies in the field. Grant traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln and plan the next moves in the war. After realizing that eventual victory would need to come from the East he decided to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac.

In short order the country would come to learn more about the man that Lincoln had given the entire Federal army to. When some complainers spoke to Lincoln about rumors of Grant’s drinking, he exclaimed: “I can’t spare the man, he fights”.  Over the next year Grant’s armies would batter the Confederate forces on all fronts into utter defeat.