Submitted by C.J. Johnson
On November 9, 1862, Union General Ambrose Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing General George McClellan, who had been removed from command. Following McClellan would not be an easy transition. General Henry Halleck had recommended Burnside to Lincoln, although others had preferred General Joseph Hooker.
At the beginning of the war, Burnside had been in charge of the 1st Rhode Island Volunteers, who fought at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. He also saw action at Antietam with the 9th Corps. Burnside had been a good corps commander, but he did not want to command an army. Following Antietam, even though Burnside protested, he was chosen to replace McClellan.
On the 14th of November, Burnside’s plan to take Richmond, the capital city of the Confederacy, was approved by the President. The plan required the Union Army of the Potomac to move to Fredericksburg and then travel south to Richmond, while protecting Washington, D. C., unlike McClellan’s spring 1862 James Peninsula campaign. There was still controversy, as Burnside focused on Richmond, while General in Chief Halleck wanted Lee’s army to be destroyed. When Lincoln gave his approval, he mandated that action happen quickly.
According to nps.gov, “The first Federal infantry tramped into Falmouth on the evening of November 17, and General Sumner asked permission to cross some cavalry over a precarious ford to take Fredericksburg, which was lightly defended. Burnside declined, lest the horse soldiers find themselves trapped by rising water, and indeed rain began to fall as though on cue. Burnside ached to cross while the city was lightly defended, too, and when he rode into Falmouth on November 19 he wrote Halleck that he would do so as soon as the pontoons arrived.
The first of the pontoons did not even leave Washington until that day, and (because General Halleck had not apprised his engineer officer how badly Burnside needed them) they rolled out on ponderous wagons. The same storm…turned Virginia roads into muck, and the pontoon train slowed to a crawl, stopping altogether at the washed- out bridges over the Occoquan River. Only then did the engineer in charge of the work divert some of the pontoons to a steamboat, which delivered them at Belle Plains landing on November 22. ”
Meanwhile, in the Confederacy, on November 18, 1862, a new Secretary of War was appointed. James A. Seddon, a successful lawyer, had been in favor of secession, yet, he was a member of a peace convention held in 1861 in Washington, D. C. which hoped to avoid war.
Almost immediately, Seddon faced serious situations. Major General Burnside had moved a small force just east of Fredericksburg, Virginia. This move raised the alarm in Fredericksburg and called for the evacuation of women and children. With urgency, Rebels initiated work to re-enforce, enhance, and strengthen the earthworks around the city.