Morale was not looking good for the Union Army in the winter of 1862/83. Burnside’s failed attempt to cross the Rappahannock and the disaster upon Maryes Heights gave little hope to the folks back home – and in Washington. Even though Burnside’s debacle had nearly destroyed his reputation as a capable leader, he wanted to give the crossing one more try.
Richmond was still the objective and the Confederate Army stood stubbornly in Burnside’s way. The commander came up with a plan. This army was divided under three generals. Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin. During the battle at Fredericksburg, Franklin had been assigned to take on the crossing south of the town. This time, he and Sumner would switch places. Sumner was to put up a demonstration on that section of the Rappahannock and distract the Rebel defenders while Franklin and Hooker would bring up their corps to cross north of the town, a couple of miles apart from one another along the river. The plan was to make a wide swing around the Confederates and either catch them off guard or completely bypass them to get to Richmond. Pontoon bridges they had used a month prior would have to be brought up to aid them in the crossing, but otherwise, the logistics of the plan looked sound.
Many agreed that the plan was good. It was better than what he had tried to do in December, anyway. The New York Times man on the scene reported that “The plan was an excellent one. Every military man disapproved the mode of attack adopted last time. Every military man approved the mode of attack adopted this time.” Burnsides order said the “great and auspicious moment has arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country.” The army’s confidence in their leader might have been on the rise.
Burnside first decided on crossing at U.S Ford, ten miles west of Fredericksburg along the river. On January 20th, 1863, the army started out for their objective while Sumner made a good show downstream for the Confederates. New roads were cut, pontoons brought up, guns dug in, companies marched back and forth, cavalry sent to demonstrate under enemy eyes. It wasn’t quite enough. Lee might have seen what Burnside was aiming for, because he chose to strengthen his left flank while Sumner was harassing his right instead. Burnside altered his plan a bit and decided to go for a closer crossing at Banks Ford. The idea would be to set up five bridges for two divisions to cross in a matter of four hours, all on January 21st.
The weather had another idea. January had been a dry month up to that point, but upon the night of the 20th, the heavens opened up and a storm descended upon the Union Army. By morning, the roads were so muddy that it was nearly impossible for the army to move at all. One regiment logged that in an entire day, they only managed to cover a little over a mile. One officer put it as, “the mud is not simply on the surface, but penetrates the ground to great depth”. The 150 artillery pieces that were supposed to cross the Rappahannock missed the appointed time for crossing, their wheels so deep in the mud that they couldn’t be pulled out. For that matter, so did the pontoons. Over a hundred men tried to pull the structures from the quagmire to no avail.
Men, horses, and mules all worked tirelessly through the continuing downpour to get everything into place. Logs were put under the wheels of wagons and artillery pieces to help them traverse the mud, but nothing helped. Labor animals died of exhaustion under their loads. Men cursed so much that they were nicknaming the pass to the river “Profanity Gulch”. Night fell and the plan was officially a day behind with little hope that the following day would be better, since it was still raining and the roads were only becoming worse and worse.
Burnside, tenacious as always, sent up two days worth of rations to the men and pushed them further. He even threw in his own efforts by helping to lug a piece of artillery, doing the work of a captain or grunt soldier. Anything to get his plan underway. It was for naught. In many cases, the mud was so unforgiving that supplies and artillery were left behind. One report says that desertion was rampant during what became known as the “Mud March”. Nearly 200 soldiers a day were saying, “To hell with Burnside” and abandoning their camps.
To add a little salt to this wound, the Confederates saw the whole thing. Soldiers along the south side of the river shouted and jeered at the struggling Federals. They would scream things like “This way to Richmond!”, “Yanks, if you can’t place your pontoons, we will send help!”, or “Say! Yanks! We’ll be over in the morning and haul your guns out of the mud for you!” Signs were waved saying “Burnside Stuck In The Mud”. Confederates even took to plowing up the soil on their side of the Rappahannock, so that if – by some miracle – the Union Army could get their pontoons in place, this new piece of ground would just swallow them whole.
Humiliated and exhausted, the men were given extra whiskey rations as a sort of consolation to the trouble. This only made matters worse as drunkenness became the new problem next to the mud and the desertions. Brawls erupted in the camps, further convincing Burnside that his plan would not succeed.
By January 23rd, the general finally gave up and issued the order for them to fall back to their position across from Fredericksburg. They weren’t going to catch the Confederates off guard and even if they could cross the river, the elements had depleted their supplies and their morale. They returned to the site of their former camps on January 24th, but had to rebuild completely. The wooden cabins they had made that winter had been torn down, since the soldiers really believed that they would be well on their way to Richmond.
Burnside failed again and took full responsibility. Whether Lincoln had already planned it or if the Mud March was the last straw, he replaced Ambrose Burnside with Joseph Hooker on January 25th. The very man Burnside didn’t want to have control over the Army of the Potomac, had taken his place. Those soldiers who endured the Mud March would remember it for the rest of their lives as one of the more disastrous days of the war. But, there was still nearly three more years to go.
Furgurson, Ernest B. Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave Vintage Books, 1992
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.
[i] Sneden, Robert Knox. The Mud march … shewing sic movement on Bank’s Ford Jany. 19thby Hooker, Franklin & Sumner. [to 1865, 1861] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00128/.
[ii] The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The campaign [Burnside’s Mud March].” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 3, 2019. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-fa59-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99