150 Years Ago This Week: ‘Mud March’ debacle

January 1863

The weather during the five weeks since the Battle of Fredericksburg had been, for the most part, fine. The Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside remained in their camps across the river from Fredericksburg, while Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army still occupied the high ground west of the city.

Gen. Burnside remained stung by the severe defeat his army sustained in the battle, and his subordinate officers were in no mind to recross the river and attack the Confederates. Gen. Burnside desperately wanted to snatch a victory from defeat, and on Jan. 19, the Federals began moving out of their camps and headed west.

Gen. Burnside’s intent was to cross the Rappahannock upstream from Fredericksburg and come in behind the Confederate lines to attack them. By evening on Jan. 20, cold winter rains started falling. During the night, the Union army’s artillery and pontoon boats were dragged into position through an ever-thickening mud. The next day, the heavy rains became Gen. Burnside’s worst enemy. The advance bogged down in the mud and slime, and the incessant cold rains drove against the troops.

This same day, President Jefferson Davis ordered Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to go to Gen. Braxton Bragg’s army in Tennessee and investigate the retreat from Murfreesboro and criticisms of Gen. Bragg’s conduct. There was an apparent lack of confidence in Gen. Bragg by his officers; it was vital to the Confederacy that the situation be corrected.

In Washington, President Lincoln endorsed a letter from Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck to Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant in Tennessee, and explained the revocation of Gen. Order No. 11. The President wrote that he did not object “to expelling traitors and Jew peddlers, but as it in terms proscribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deemed it necessary to revoke it.”

The President also formally cashiered and dismissed from the service of the nation Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, and forever disqualified him from holding any office of trust or profit in the government. This followed the investigation into Gen. Porter’s conduct for his part in the Second Battle of Manassas at the end of August. A review of the case in 1879 resulted in a decision in Gen. Porter’s favor, but it was not until 1886 that he was reappointed in the Army as a colonel.

Another winter storm on Jan. 23 lashed the Army of the Potomac in its efforts to cross the Rappahannock in its offensive against the Confederates. The army was literally stuck in the mud, often as much as two feet deep on the roads. Horses and mules dropped dead from the exertion of trying to move equipment through the quagmire. It was now a question of how to get the army back to their camps at Falmouth. The entire army was soaked and dispirited.

In Tennessee, Gen. Grant assumed command of all Union troops within reach of his orders. Maj. Gen. John McClernand was reduced to a corps commander. President Lincoln let his friend Gen. McClernand down easily: “For my sake and for the country’s sake, you give your whole attention to the better work.”

Opposite Vicksburg, Gen. Grant’s men began working on a canal on the Mississippi River at “Swampy Toe” in an effort to move boats and men around the Confederate fortified Vicksburg, which had command of the river.

Gen. Burnside, stung by both the defeat at Fredericksburg and the debacle of the Mud March (as his efforts to circumvent the Confederates and attack their rear became known), issued orders on Jan. 23 that Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, Maj. Gen. William French, Maj. Gen. William H. Smith and a number of other subordinate commanders be removed from command, with Gen. Hooker to be dismissed entirely from the service.

The proposed orders also included a request by Gen. Burnside personally to see the President; they were never carried out. Other orders issued this day were the President’s orders reinstating Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler to command in New Orleans, replacing Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks. These orders also were never completed or implemented.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.