Civil War Profiles – January: The Civil War’s cruelest month

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Everett Burnside commanded the Union Army of the Potomac from late 1862 until early 1863 and presided over the disaster that occurred at Fredericksburg, Va., on Dec. 13, 1862. Formidable Rebel positions on Marye’s Heights repulsed repeated Union assaults, resulting in the death or wounding of nearly 13,000 Northern soldiers.

The Christmas season came and went without much fanfare on either side, and the weather turned colder. Uncertain about the army’s immediate plans, Union troops began to build log cabins as refuge from the winter temperatures.

However, in an attempt to recoup his losses, as well as his reputation, Burnside ordered a march to a location from which the army would be able to attack the enemy’s flank. Unfortunately for the success of this endeavor, the skies opened up, and it rained for two days.

George C. Rable describes what happened that January in 1863 in “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg.” The author quotes a New Hampshire soldier, “No one sorry to move.” This was because, “Almost anything is preferable to this vile [wintertime] camp.”

Following the crushing defeat in front of Marye’s Heights, a Union officer described the men as hopeless, despondent and dispirited — not a recipe for success for Burnside’s proposed march designed to conduct a surprise attack against the Rebels on the opposite side of the Rappahannock River.

Delays in getting the movement underway because of the fretful weather caused further disenchantment with Burnside’s plans among the officers and men. Rations cooked in preparation for the march began to spoil.

Some of Burnside’s top commanders rebelled at the idea of the planned march. Both Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin and Maj. Gen. William F. Smith argued that the campaign would fail. Despite these objections, Burnside was determined to plow ahead.

Finally, by Jan. 20, Burnside issued General Orders No. 7, stating “The Army of the Potomac [is] about to meet the enemy once more.” The orders explained, “The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion.”

The problem was the men had witnessed what they considered Burnside’s ineptitude as a commander who continually sent his troops to certain death in repeated attacks at Fredericksburg. Confidence in his leadership was sorely lacking at all levels of the army.

When the march began, temperatures were around the freezing mark, and the roads were in relatively good shape. Problems began to develop when rain started that evening after the troops halted to make camp and began pouring overnight.

Water flowed into some tents, and wind blew others away. One soldier wrote in his diary, “O! what a night.” Those without tents put blankets over their heads. Some lucky enough to fall asleep awoke at dawn lying in a pool of water.

The next day, Jan. 21, the rain having caused a “complete sea of mud,” horse- and mule-drawn wagons sank up to their axles. By noon, troops began to fall out of line, exhausted from tramping along the soggy route. Men and beasts were covered with the “sacred soil.”

The futility of winter campaigning was never so apparent. One imaginative soul composed this doggerel:

Now I lay me down to sleep In mud that’s many fathoms deep; If I’m not here when you awake Just hunt me up with an oyster rake.

Even the ordinarily reliable mules pulling wagons and artillery could not handle the horrible conditions. Many became entrapped in the quagmire and died as a result.

Harper’s Weekly artist Alfred Waud, traveling with the army, sketched a memorable depiction of the forlorn army slogging through the rain and mud.

Burnside was now facing rebellion from his senior generals. He wired General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington that a storm had delayed the march and allowed the enemy to “discover our designs.”

By Jan. 22, Burnside had finally concluded the march was a complete failure and ordered the army back to camp. Naturally, the return trip was no joyful experience.

This episode was one of the lowest points of the war for the Northern army and, consequently, for President Lincoln’s objective to restore the Union by putting down the rebellion of the Southern states.

With desertions multiplying daily stemming from this demoralizing experience, the president had little choice but to replace Burnside as commander, with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. The January doldrums had taken its toll — a lesson that Union commanders learned well.

From that point on, both the Northern and Southern armies paid close attention to the calendar. On the whole, they found it wise to go into winter quarters until spring, when roads once again became passable.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at, or visit his website at