Monthly Archives: January 2013

Fighting Joe Hooker

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Major General Ambrose Burnside met with President Lincoln at the White House. Burnside presented the commander-in-chief with an order for the dismissal of four generals from the Army of the Potomac and the relieving of six others from active duty, most of whom had been sharply and openly critical of Burnside’s ability to command. Either they must go or he, Burnside, must go, but things could not continue as they were.

A few of the generals were sent packing, but the man who Burnside most wanted dismissed was Major General Joseph Hooker. Hooker’s criticism of Burnside had been the loudest and sharpest of all. President Lincoln made a most difficult and pivotal decision. He relieved Burnside and promoted Hooker to the command of the Army of the Potomac.

The new commander was without a commission at the start of the war, but he finally was made a brigadier general of volunteers. He fought his commands bravely during the Peninsula Campaign, at Second Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam. At Fredericksburg, he commanded two corps that fought valiantly, but in vain. Lincoln knew Hooker was a fighter, but he also had strong reservations about the man Joseph Hooker, which the president made abundantly clear in the following famous letter he wrote to Hooker:

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker

Executive Mansion, Washington, January 26, 1863:

Major General Hooker:

General, I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of it’s ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.

And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly,

A. Lincoln

The Mud March

It was one of those fiascos that is just too absurd to be anything but true history. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, unwilling to be condemned for doing nothing with his vast army like his predessessor George McClellen, issued orders for the army to begin a grand movement around the western flank of Lee’s positions at Fredericksburg. (The map in my previous post shows the roads along the north bank of the Rappahannock River.) It seemed a sound strategy at first, but Burnside lacked one thing we take for granted today: The Weather Channel. Capt. Samuel Fiske of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry gave this colorfully detailed account:

“Tuesday morning (January 20, 1863) camps were broken up, tents struck, knapsacks packed, and soon long lines of troops were in motion over hill and dale all around us. The roads for miles were choked with supply wagons, ammunition trains and rumbling batteries. All was noise, confusion and utmost activity. Trumpets sounded, drums beat, whips cracked, mules squealed, and teamsters cursed.”

The men of the Fourteenth would be among the last to join the march. Their huts were stripped of their shelter tent roofs, and the men stood with three days rations and sixty rounds of ammunition, watching and waiting all day for their turn to join the slow procession. Again from Fiske’s narrative:

“The clouds gathered all day thicker and darker, and night ushered in a storm of wind and pouring rain, harder for that moving army to encounter than a hundred thousand enemies; a driving rain that drenched men and horses, and that poached the ground into mud deeper than the New England mind can conceive and stickier than—well, I am at a loss for a similitude. Pitch (tar), for cohesive attraction is but sand compared with it.”

By Wednesday morning the long columns of troops and war material were stuck fast in the mud. The grand movement was cancelled. The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut rebuilt their shelter-tent roofs, stoked up their cooking fires, and spent the next three days watching one mud-caked regiment after another shuffle back to their encampments. Fiske reported: “All the roads and streams are full of dead horses and mules…and pieces of wagons, and the way obstructed with caissons and pieces of artillery and pontoons and all sorts of vehicles fast in the mud.”

To add insult to injury, the rebels were aware of the march almost as soon as it began. They stood at their posts on the opposite side of the river laughing and jeering at the stuck Federals. The Rebels called across offers to help in rebuild the pontoon bridges so they could resume the slaughter of Fredericksburg. A large sign was also hoisted in plain view of the enmired troops: “Burnside stuck in the mud.”

“The Mud March” was Gen. Burnside’s final act as commander of the Army of the Potomac. On January 25, President Lincoln demoted him, and within a few weeks Burnside was sent to Ohio to take a new command.

NOTE: My favorite Civil War artist is Mort Kunstler. To view an image of his dramatic painting “The Mud March” click here.


Picket Duty

I know many of my readers already know what picket duty is, but here’s a quick lesson for those who aren’t familiar with the term.

An army at rest must also be an army on guard. While the Army of the Potomac was encamped in and around Falmouth, VA, a screen of soldiers was sent a few miles out from the camp in every direction to sound the alarm if the Rebels attacked. These sentries were known as “pickets,” and the screening action was called “picket duty.” It was commonplace for a soldier to refer to being “on picket.,” as in “I must close this letter now and will post it when we go on picket.”

Different units of the army were responsible for gaurding different sections of the perimeter, and this responsibility was supposed to be taken seriously. The men of the army’s Second Corps guarded a long section of the northern bank of the Rappahannock River. The duty rotated among the regiments, so the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut went on picket duty every four or five days. Sometimes they picketed directly opposite the city of Fredericksburg and at other times they picketed upriver near Banks Ford (see map below).

One day the regiment could not supply its full complement of men for picket duty. Capt. Bronson was arrested for this offence and Capt. Samuel Fiske (a.k.a. Dunn Browne), who had just been promoted to captain of Company G on January 19th,  commanded the regiment until Bronson was restored to duty a few days later.

While on picket in the dark of night, it was common for Union and Confederate soldiers to strike up conversations and even trade possessions, although any such contact with the enemy was strictly forbidden. The Rebels craved northern coffee and the Yankees loved southern tobacco, so many deals were struck and goods were exchanged in the middle of the river.\r\n\r\nThe often solitary nature of picket duty also gave rise to a problem that both armies were forced to deal with, sometimes in a deadly manner—desertion. Some men simply left their posts and headed for home. Captured deserters were punished severely. Some were sentenced to death by military courts-martial and executed by firing squads.

Fiction Connection: In An Eye for Glory Michael Palmer discovers that a comrade has deserted and is forced to admit within himself the strong temptation to do likewise. Rap_fords-640x288Map from the Library of Congress Digital Map Collection (Banks Ford in center).

Winter Quarters

Captain Samuel Moore, Company F, Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry was in Washington on regimental business when the Battle of Fredericksburg took place. When he returned to Falmouth several days later, he was shocked to see how small the regiment now was, how many good soldiers had been killed, and how many lay close to death in hospital tents.

For a few weeks the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut settled into a daily routine of military duties and subsistence living. Log huts were finished, firewood details made regular forays into the woods, fresh water was procured, latrines were dug. Their diet consisted of the usual army issued rations of hard crackers, salt pork, coffee, and sugar, which was occasionally supplemented with rations of fresh meat and a few vegetables such as onions or potatoes.

The men knew they needed more than army rations to avoid diseases such as scurvy and maintain their health overall, so a good portion of their meager pay was often spent on overpriced canned or dried foods offered for sale by the sutler, who was licensed by the army to operate a travelling general store. The soldiers also depended upon food sent by loved ones at home, but sometimes these boxes did not reach their intended recipients or the contents were pilfered. It became a common practice to have care packages such as these addressed to the company commander, because it was much less likely that an officer”s possessions would be tampered with.

Command of the regiment fell upon Captain Bronson, Company I, the most senior officer in the regiment. Some of the less seriously wounded or sick men returned to the ranks, and on January 17, when Gen. Burnside reviewed the regiment, there were about 200 men present, only eight of whom were commissioned officers. (A regiment at full strength would have had about thirty to thirty-five commissioned officers.)