This third account of the Mud March comes from the pen of William Swinton in 1866, from his book “Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac.” He was a NY Times reporter who aggressively pursued stories on the front lines – aggressively to the extent that on a couple of occasions he was in danger of being shot by some of the leading generals of whom he wrote! Apparently in one event, Grant was concerned enough that Burnside was going to execute Swinton, that he had the reporter expelled from the army for his own safety!
Picking up his Mud March story on the 20th, he wrote, “Preparations for crossing were pushed on during the 20th, positions for artillery were selected, the guns were brought up, the pontoons were within reach a short distance back from the river, and it was determined to make the passage on the following morning. But during the night a terrible storm came on, and then each man felt that the move was ended. It was a wild *Walpurgis night, such as Goethe paints in the Faust. Yet there was brave work done during its hours, for the guns were hauled painfully up the heights and placed in their positions, and the pontoons were drawn down nearer to the river. But it was already seen to be a hopeless task; for the clayey roads and fields, under the influence of the rain, had become bad beyond all former experience, and by daylight, when the boats should all have been on the banks ready to slide down into the water, but fifteen had been gotten up — not enough for one bridge, and five were wanted. Moreover, the night operations had not escaped the notice of the wary enemy, and by morning Lee had massed his army to meet the menaced crossing.”
*For those who are no more literary than I, here is what a Walpurgis night is: It is a northern European festival on or before May 1st – at the one-half point of the year from All Hallows’ Eve – celebrated with dancing and bonfires. It was a scene in Goethe’s Faust. Recalling the Mud March stories in other accounts of bonfires on this evening, along with the searing rains, one can see why this illustrative term would be well-used of the occasion. Swinton continued:
In this state of facts, when all the conditions on which it was expected to make a successful passage had been baulked <meaning = pulled back>, it would have been judicious in General Burnside to have promptly abandoned an operation that was now hopeless. But it was a characteristic of that general’s mind (a characteristic that might be good or bad according to the direction it took), never to turn back when he had once put his *hand to the plough; and it had already more than once been seen that the more hopeless the enterprise the greater his pertinacity. The night’s rain had made deplorable havoc with the roads; but herculean efforts were made to bring pontoons enough into position to build a bridge or two withal. Double and triple teams of horses and mules were harnessed to each boat; but it was in vain. Long stout ropes were then attached to the teams and a hundred and fifty men put to the task on each. The effort was but little more successful. Floundering through the mire for a few feet, the gang of *Lilliputians with their huge-ribbed Gulliver, were forced to give over, breathless. Night arrived, but the pontoons could not be got up, and the enemy’s pickets, discovering what was going on, jocularly shouted out their intention to “come over tomorrow and help build the bridges.”
Again this paragraph above contains some literary analogies. The phrase of *“putting the hand to the plough” is a Scriptural reference to the words of Christ – where he says that any who put their hand to the plough (meaning having made a choice to follow him), but look back, are not worthy of being his disciples. The only way to plough a straight furrow was to look ahead and toward an object in the distance. A second literary reference is of course to the popular Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift, 1726), and to the tiny nation of little people called the Lilliputians. Again, the illustrative picture is so excellent.
Morning dawned upon another day of rain and storm. The ground had gone from bad to worse, and now showed such a spectacle as might be presented by the elemental wrecks of another Deluge. An indescribable chaos of pontoons, vehicles, and artillery encumbered all the roads — supply wagons upset by the roadside, guns stalled in the mud, ammunition trains mired by the way, and hundreds of horses and mules buried in the liquid muck. The army, in fact, was embargoed: it was no longer a question of how to go forward — it was a question of how to get back. The three days’ rations brought on the persons of the men were exhausted, and the supply-trains could not be moved up. To aid the return all the available force was put to work to corduroy the rotten roads. Next morning the army floundered and staggered back to the old camps, and so ended a movement that will always live in the recollection of the army as the “Mud March,” and which remains a striking exemplification of the enormous difficulties incident to winter campaigning in Virginia.
Having read these and other accounts of the Mud March over this past week, I think I’d rather be in any battle on solid ground on a warm day, than to have had to endure this experience.