On this date of January 20, 1863 – 150 Years ago today – the famous Mud March of General Burnside commenced. Stung by his futile failures in the foolish attacks upon the Confederate lines at Fredericksburg a month earlier, Burnside was eager to strike a decisive blow to Lee, saying in his order that 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.”
Burnside considered where to make his crossing over the Rappahannock River – planning to demonstrate south of Fredericksburg while actually crossing at the United States Ford, which was 10 miles north of the city. In all honesty, it was a respectable plan.
The grand movement began on this date with unseasonably fine weather. However, the rains and wind of an intense storm began that evening and continued for four days. Burnside appeared to simply be one of those fellows for whom, if it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.
Getting the head start on Lee, Burnside continued in the rain on the 21st, altering the plan to quickly throw five pontoon bridges across at a closer point called Banks Ford. The roads quickly became swamps of mud, sucking down horses, wagons, pontoons, cannons, and the very shoes upon the soldiers’ feet.
The element of surprise was lost and Lee responded quickly. EVERY account that I have read of this disaster writes about seeing a large sign posted on the Confederate shore that said, “Burnside Stuck in the Mud.” In an incredulous effort to lift morale, on the 22nd Burnside ordered whiskey rations to the troops – resulting in drunken brawling and even regiments fighting with one another.
At last, the entire effort had to be abandoned and the troops sent back to their recent winter quarters. The men were completely covered with mud so as to be undistinguishable from one another. The morale of the army sunk in the mud, along with Burnside’s career.
Come back the next three days … where I will post three very colorful and detailed stories of the general descriptions written here today. Monday will be the account of George F. Noyes, Tuesday featuring A.P. Smith, and then Wednesday – the best – a new writer for this blog in the account of William Swinton of the NY Times.