January 20 – 22, 1863
“The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country.” So announced Gen. Ambrose Burnside to his Union Army of the Potomac on the morning of January 20, 1863, as he started out on another great drive to beat Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and capture the Rebel capital of Richmond, Va. Burnside’s battered soldiers had only had but five weeks to recover from their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, but the government demanded action. The Union and Confederate armies still faced each other across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, and Burnside’s plan was to quickly cross the river above Lee’s left and assail that flank of the Confederate position.
The Union soldiers and their great wagon trains of pontoon boats, artillery, and supplies made a good start clearing their camp and moving up the river. Then the sky started clouding, and by mid-afternoon a slow drizzle had begun. But by nightfall a steady, relentless rain was falling, not to stop for days. The next morning the great mule-drawn wagons carrying the pontoons churned the road into a quagmire. The wagons sank to their hubs. The artillery sank until only the muzzles were out of the mud. The exhausted horses floundered, as did the men, as each slippery step through the ooze sucked at their shoes and weighed them down. “The whole country was a river of mud,” wrote one soldier. “The roads were rivers of deep mire, and the heavy rain had made the ground a vast mortar bed.” Whole regiments and triple teams of mules hitched to the wagons and guns failed to move them. Still the rain came down in torrents. By noon the next day, Burnside’s plans to maneuver past Lee’s Rebel army were hopelessly stalled, and his own army was exhausted, wet, and cold. Burnside had no choice but to abandon the movement and order his soldiers back to their camps across from Fredericksburg.
Fascinating Fact: Across the river, the Confederate pickets watched the struggling Union army with amusement. some put up a large sign on the riverbank that said “Burnside’s Army Stuck in the Mud” and another that said “This way to Richmond.”