150 Years Ago This Week: Gen. Burnside moves his army south

Gen. Burnside
Gen. Burnside

November 1862

The Federal Army of the Potomac, concentrated in Fauquier County around Warrenton, and now commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside (for whom sideburns was named, because of the general’s luxurious sideburns) began moving on Saturday, Nov. 15, towards Fredericksburg.  His intent was to sweep his troops around the Confederate army encamped in and around Culpeper Courthouse, and make another drive on the Confederate capital at Richmond before Gen. Robert E. Lee mobilized his army.  This same day, in Richmond, President Jefferson Davis quickly accepted the resignation of Sec. of War George W. Randolph, which came without prior notice.  Sec. Randolph had trouble over many things, especially with their chief’s operation of their department.  In Washington, also on the 15th, President Lincoln called for “the orderly observance of the Sabbath by the officers and men of the Army and the Navy.”

Closely watched and followed by a part of Gen. Lee’s army, Gen. Burnside’s men marched south and Gen. Burnside moved his headquarters to Catlett’s Station in Fauquier County on Nov. 16.  This movement involved a small fight between opposing forces at U.S. Ford on the Rappahannock River not far from Fredericksburg.  In Arkansas this same day, a five-day Federal expedition began from Helena against Arkansas Post.  On Nov. 17, Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner’s Right Grand Division of the Army of the Potomac arrived at Falmouth, on the bluffs on the east side across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg.   Thirty miles to the south, without a Secretary of War due to Mr. Randolph’s resignation two days before, President Davis appointed Maj. Gen. Gustavus Smith temporarily to the post until a permanent replacement could be named.  

Gen. Lee sent Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet and the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia to Fredericksburg; on Nov. 18, the Confederates occupied the heights above Fredericksburg on the west side of the Rappahannock River.  Gen. Burnside established his headquarters at Falmouth, on the opposite side of the river.  It was apparent that the next clash between the armies would take place at or near this colonial Virginia city.  The following day, Nov. 19, Gen. Lee arrived and set up his headquarters above Fredericksburg, and sent word to Lieut. Gen. Thomas Jackson and his Second Corps of the Army at Winchester to march southeast.  In the western theatre of the war, the Confederate Army of Tennessee was formally established under Gen. Braxton Bragg with three army corps, commanded by Lieut. Gens. Edmund Kirby Smith, Leonidas Polk, and William Hardee, respectively.  On the high seas, the Confederate raider CSS Alabama entered the harbor at Martinique, followed by the USS San Jacinto.  The next day, despite efforts by the San Jacinto to stop the Alabama, the Confederate raider eluded the Union warship,  left the port, and continued the raiding on Union commerce ships.

President Davis appointed James A. Seddon as Secretary of War on Nov. 20 in Richmond.  Mr. Seddon was a Richmond lawyer and former U.S. and C.S. congressman.  Though he did not appear to be warlike, Mr. Seddon was to prove to be the most able of the Confederacy’s War Secretaries, though he was often subject to verbal abuse and criticism.  Gen. Burnside called upon the mayor of Fredericksburg on Nov. 21  to surrender the city but he refused.  He was threatened with bombardment of the city and given sixteen hours to remove the sick and wounded, women and children,. and aged and inform.  The mayor requested more time.  To the north, Gen. Jackson’s men were marching to Fredericksburg from Winchester.  In Tennessee, Gen. Bragg sent Nathan Bedford Forrest and his Confederate cavalry to sever the lines of communications of Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Union army in the western part of the state.

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 537 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.