Historical Marker Text
In Jan. 1863, after the Federal defeat at the First Battle of Fredericksburg on 13 Dec., Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside sought to restore the army’s morale by crossing the Rappahannock River at Banks’s Ford two miles south and attacking the rear of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army. The march began on 19 Jan.; that night a warm front thawed the frozen roads with 48 hours of pouring rain. Confederates across the river taunted the sodden Federals with large signs: “This Way to Richmond” and “Burnside Stuck in the Mud.” Burnside canceled the march on 23 Jan., and two days later President Abraham Lincoln replaced him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Union General Ambrose Burnside had only been commander of the Army of the Potomac since November 7, 1862, and already he had suffered a humiliating defeat in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, which cost the Union 12,600 men in casualties (Greene). The army was camped for the winter in Stafford County by the Rappahannock River, but by mid-January, due to political developments, President Lincoln asked Burnside to continue the “On to Richmond” offensive that had begun many months before. The Union had learned that 75,000 Confederate troops of the Army of Northern Virginia had gone to reinforce the Carolina coast (O’Reilly 473). Burnside considered it “the auspicious moment, in the providence of God, to strike a blow” (476). He decided that the divisions of Major Generals Franklin and Joseph Hooker would cross the river a mile apart at Banks Ford, about eight miles west of Fredericksburg, to reach the Confederates, and that General Edwin Sumner’s grand division would follow later (Stackpole 244). They would begin movement on the morning of January 20 and would build pontoon bridges the following morning to cross the river. Some men were excited about the new campaign, while others were unwilling to go into another fight or had no confidence in their success (O’Reilly 476-77).
The march on January 20 toward Bank’s Ford went as planned, but the next day would turn out drastically different. Beginning at 7:00 pm, rain began to fall, which intensified to a terrific storm over night. When the troops awoke they found that the roads had literally turned to mud. As one officer put it, “the mud is not simply on the surface, but penetrates the ground to great depth” (O’Reilly 480). When the troops set out, their uniforms and all they had were drenched and weighted with rainwater. The brigades, with their wagons, artillery, horses, and mules, could hardly get through the mud, and the pontoon trains had little chance of making it to the riverbank. As they tried to walk, they sank knee deep or worse. Wagons sank, and placing logs under them or on the road could not help (481). What the men could not recover with even the best of efforts they had to leave behind. Trapped or exhausted horses and mules died along the way, drowning in the mire. At one impassable ravine, teamsters coaxed and cursed their horses so much that the infantry named the place “Profanity Gulch” (482). By the night of January 21, some Federal brigades had reached the Rappahannock, but it had become apparent to Burnside that his army would not be able to cross it the next day. That night it rained even harder and the mud continually worsened.
On the morning of January 22, Burnside finally determined to cancel the operation. Hooker and Franklin received the order late in the day and decided to retreat the next morning (O’Reilly 488). Throughout the day, Confederate soldiers on the other side of the river taunted those Union soldiers whom they could see. One of them jeered, “Say! Yanks! We’ll be over in the morning and haul your guns out of the mud for you,” but the worst was when some painted a sign on a barn roof that read, “Burnside stuck in the mud” which was only too true (485). When the hungry troops turned around to go back to their camps, but the march back was more complicated than on their way over, for the ground was already chewed up. Nevertheless, most made it back to camp by January 24, as stragglers or with their regiments (488-89).
After the Mud March, infantry and officers alike had lost any confidence they may have had in their commander. They were disheartened after all they had been through to no avail. Desertions reached about 200 per day (Finfrock 166). The army was ready for a change in leadership. Burnside took full responsibility for the failed campaign, and on January 25, President Lincoln replaced him as head of the Army of the Potomac with General Hooker.
Sketch by Alfred R. Waud, January 21, 1863, “Winter Campaigning. The Army of the Potomac on the move,” Library of Congress (accessed April 15, 2008).
For Further Reference
Finfrock, Bradley. Across the Rappahannock. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1994.
Greene, Wilson A. “Battle of Fredericksburg.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/frsp/fredhist.htm (accessed April 29, 2008).
O’Reilly, Francis Augustín. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
Rable, George C. Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Stackpole, Edward J. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Drama on the Rappahannock. 2d ed. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1991.
Sutherland, Daniel E. Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville: The Dare Mark Campaign. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.