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Burnside's successful operations in North Carolina and the fine generalship he had shown at Antietam had brought him into marked prominence, and when the Government, exasperated at the slowness of McClellan after his victory, decided to remove him from command, Burnside appeared to be the most suitable person to succeed him. The order relieving McClellan and putting Burnside in his place, as commander of the army of the Potomac, reached the camp near Fort Royal on November 7, 1862. Burnside accepted the honor reluctantly, but the orders of the Government were peremptory, and on the roth he agreed to try to do his best.
It is a question if the Government did not make a serious mistake in the removal of McClellan at this juncture, when his period of preparation seemed at an end and he was apparently on the point of delivering battle, with promise of success. McClellan's plan was to attack Lee directly and seek the destruction of his army. Burnside, on the contrary, made the capture of Richmond his object. He accordingly advanced to the Rappa hannock, opposite the city of Fredericksburg, with the intention of crossing at once and occupying the city and the commanding heights in the rear.
This might easily have been done at the time, but Burnside delayed to bring up pontoon bridges and repair the railroad to Acquia Creek, his line of supplies. He feared that a heavy rain might cut off any party that crossed the river before the pontoons had reached him. In consequence weeks of delay and inaction followed, and by the time Burnside was ready to move, Lee had fully occupied and built strong fortifications on the Fredericksburg heights. The works were so formidable that to attack them, with Lee's veterans behind them, seemed but a forlorn hope, if it could be called a hope of any kind.
A plan was devised by Burnside to cross at a point twelve miles down the river, but Lee discovered the movement and sent out a heavy force to that locality, where it was kept in readiness. Burnside now fancied that he might win by a sudden movement at Fredericksburg while Lee's forces were divided, and during the night and morning of December 11 the pontoon bridges were thrown across the river. But a party of sharpshooters concealed in the town so delayed the work that it was evening before the bridges could be crossed and the town occupied, and the following day passed before the army was across.
All had passed the bridge except the centre division, under Hooker, which was held back as a reserve.
The fallacious hope which Burnside had entertained, of taking Lee by surprise while the army was divided, had been destroyed by the delay in crossing. Jackson's force, whose extreme right had been posted eighteen miles down the river, had been called in, and the whole of Lee's army, eighty thousand strong, lay behind the works on the heights, in which three hundred cannon were posted.
An assault on so strong and well defended a position was perilous, but Burnside felt that he had been put at the head of the army to fight, he had crossed the river to fight, and to withdraw now without a struggle might be hailed as sheer cowardice. His troops were accordingly set in motion and were hurled along the whole line of Confederate works. Franklin on the left, Sumner on the right, marched gallantly against the intrenchments, which belched out torrents of cannon and musket fire and rent great lanes through the columns of attack at every discharge. They fought hard and well, those gallant men, but no living being could stand against that frightful tempest of bullet, ball, and shell, and before the day was half over dead and dying by thousands strewed the field and every charge was driven back in dismay.
Finally, as a last resort, Burnside ordered Hooker to cross with the men still under his command, saying, “That crest must be carried to-night!" Hooker surveyed the field and hastened back to Burnside, telling him that the effort was hopeless, and begging him to desist. The day's misfortunes had half maddened the unfortunate commander and he would listen to no remonstrance, saying that the works could and must be taken. Hooker accordingly sent out Humphreys's division, four thousand strong, in the terrible path which French, Hancock, and Howard had followed to slaughter. They were directed to march with empty muskets and to use the bayonet only.
They had no opportunity for a bayonet charge. When near the fatal stone wall before which death had reaped so fatal a harvest, they were met with a terrible storm of rifle bullets, seventeen hundred of them being prostrated on the field, and the remainder driven in utter dismay down the blood-stained hills. Night soon after closed the awful contest, leaving the army of the Potomac fifteen thousand weaker than it had been that morning. Lee had probably lost not more than onethird of that number.
Burnside, seemingly half distracted by his losses, was eager to renew the attack with his own old corps, the ninth, on the following morning, but the brave Sumner, whose men had lost so heavily the day before, dissuaded him from the mad effort, and nearly every general in the army joined in the protest. He therefore reluctantly agreed to desist, and during the night of the 15th the entire army was withdrawn across the river and the pontoon bridges were taken up, leaving Lee master of the field.
When the news of this terrible and, as it seemed to many, useless slaughter spread through the country there was a general feeling of horror, mingled in many quarters with execration. Burnside was regarded as a butcher or an imbecile and the Government was bitterly blamed for replacing McClellan with such a man. For a time his reputation lay under a dark cloud, the feeling of the people being shared by his officers and men, who lost all faith in his ability as a commander.
Burnside made no effort to shift the responsibility for the blame. It lay in considerable measure on those who had delayed the coming of the pontoons, but he made no excuses. Eager to retrieve the disaster, he formed new plans for an advance on Richmond, proposing to make a feint of crossing the Rappahannock above Fredericksburg, and then to flank Lee by crossing with his whole army below. At the same time twenty-five thousand cavalry were to sweep through the country in the rear of Lee's army, cutting his communications, destroying railroads and bridges, and doing all the damage possible.
These projected movements were checked by an order from the President, telling him not to undertake any active operations without his knowledge. Surprised by this order, for he had been given full powers of action, Burnside instantly recalled the cavalry expedition and hastened to Washington to learn what it meant. The President informed him that the officers in his army had sent word to Washington that the feeling of the men was so bitterly against him that no movement he might undertake would be safe. As for the cavalry expedition, Lee had in some way been informed of it and it would be dangerous to attempt.
Despite all this, Burnside determined to carry out his plan of flanking Lee. The cavalry expedition was withdrawn, but the army was put in motion, General Couch being directed to make a feint below the city, while Hooker and Franklin crossed above. All was in readiness to make the crossing on the night of December 20, but that night there came a terrific storm of wind, snow, sleet, and rain, and the troops who were marching towards the fords found themselves mired and held almost immovable. Wagons and guns sank hub deep in mud, and morning dawned before an attempt could be made to cross.
The foe now quickly discovered what was in progress and made quick movements to contest the fords. As for Burnside, it was impossible to get his bridges into position in time to act effectively, and the army remained stalled in the mud until its three days' rations were nearly consumed, while the supply trains could not come up. It was then led back to its old position. The futile attempt was known in the army as the “ Mud March.” The elements had worked to the discomfiture of the unlucky commander.
Burnside now proceeded to Washington and laid complaints before the President against a number of his generals, Hooker heading the list. He accused them of “fomenting discontent in the army” and asked for their dismissal from the service. Lincoln was perplexed. He could not consent to the dismissal