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Burnside's 'Mud March'

by Greg Bayne

(From his article 'A Wild Walpurgus Night', which appeared in Crossfire No 92, Spring 2010)

The Christmas of 1862 would not have been full of cheer for Ambrose Burnside. His grand strategy of outflanking Lee at Fredericksburg was in tatters and the flower of the Army of the Potomac lay dead on the fields below Mayres Heights. 1 The mood of the Army was not difficult to gauge. Union soldiers in Hancock's division used a Christmas Eve review to show their displeasure. Burnside and Sumner joined the parade at 5:00PM. As the Irish Brigade paraded by, they hailed Sumner enthusiastically but "not so with Genl. Burnside." They met him with stony silence. An embarrassed Sumner appealed to the brigade to cheer - for his own sake.

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Desertion rose dramatically and the quartermasters had difficulty in meeting the daily ration requirements. The troop's uniforms had not been replaced and roll calls were answered "in tatty rags." Officers and men alike grew surly and discipline slackened. Pay was also in arrears. Burnside himself admitted "There is gloom and despondency throughout the entire command."

Despite all these privations, there was no shortage of Christmas spirit. Whiskey was easy to get and many took advantage of the break. In Sickles command "Whiskey punches flowed like rain" and one visitor noted the on the 25th "the Army of the Potomac was as drunk as an owl." The festive spirit continued to be imbibed through to the New Year. Few officers made the News Year day roll call. The besotted drum major of a Pennsylvania regiment ended up in the guardhouse when he blared the wrong bugle call in camp.

But the war did not cease. It was the search for food that led to the first post Christmas skirmish. Rumours received the Confederates that Burnside had issued three days cooked rations and a further ten days worth of supplies. JEB Stuart took three brigades - Hampton's, Fitz Lee's and Rooney Lee's - and crossed Kelly's Ford on December 26th. He next day saw Stuart probing the routes for the supplies. There was some skirmishing and Stuart withdrew. On the 28th Stuart returned to Occoquan in force. The surprised Union cavalry were routed and Stuart's men were free to ransack their camp. Stuart captured the Union post at Burkes station and had a leisurely few moments to read through General Heintzelman's dispatches. He also took the opportunity to send a telegram to the Union Quartermaster General in Washington complaining about the poor quality of Union mules that had to pull his captured wagons. In a weekend long trip behind Union lines, Stuart bagged 25 wagons and 200 prisoners.

Burnside was informed of Stuart's raid but he had bigger fish to fry - another move on Richmond. Without sharing his plans, he ordered Brigadier General John Newton to scout the river with a critical eye. He also ordered General James Wadsworth to construct corduroy roads to improve the flow of traffic to the river. So involved was Wadsworth that he even waded in the mud to lend a hand to his troops. The labourers of the 76th New York immediately dubbed him "Old Corduroy."

Even though it was apparent to the casual observer that his army was in trouble, Bumside decided that they were in a "fighting condition" He considered that enough time had elapsed for the army to resupply, re-equip and recover. His plan was to cross the Rappahannock above and below Fredericksburg. Cavalry would screen the attack and be ready to exploit whichever movement looked more successful. Rations were ordered and the army was to be ready to move within twelve hours.

Averell took 2,500 of his best cavalry and stated ahead of the main column. Hooker despatched Barnes brigade to support Averell. However the wheels on the wagon promptly fell off, firstly due to Stuart's impromptu raid and the unexpected arrival in Washington of two Union generals.

Brigadier Generals John Newton and John Cochrane went to Washington on December 30th to inform "someone in Washington" about the poor state of morale in the army. Officially Cochrane had just taken "sick leave" but in reality he was seeking out his political allies in the Capital. Newton was clearer in his conviction. In league with Generals Franklin and Baldy Smith, Newton decided to tell the powers in Washington about the danger of taking dispirited troops into battle again. Although not openly conspiratorial, Franklin and Smith were complicit in allowing both generals to leave camp just before a campaign. They arrived in Washington at 3:00 on December 30th and immediately sought out their contacts. Their timing was bad as Congress was not in session and most of the representatives were not there. Running out of options, Cochrane decided to see the President. At the White House he met with Secretary of State Seward and begged him for his help. Seward wanted the generals to report to the war department but they declined and they then were allowed to see Lincoln. Lincoln listened to the generals and misunderstood that they represented a cabal of officer who wanted Burnside replaced. Both Cochrane and Newton denied this, citing their intention to inform Lincoln of the army's fragile condition. Lincoln calmed down and promised the generals that "good would come of the interview."

On the evening of December 30th, Burnside received a surprise telegram. "I have a good reason for saying that you must not make a general movement without letting me know of it" It was from Lincoln. Burnside was completely surprised by it and did not at first know what to make of it. In essence, he had lost control of his army. He could not move without Lincoln's agreement. He cancelled his offensive but he was more concerned with the fact that his plans had been leaked. He had only spoken to two staff officers and Henry Halleck. He knew that Newton and Cochrane were in Washington, but they did not know of the exact start time and date. Suddenly Burnside saw conspiracy everywhere.

Bumside had no choice but to see Lincoln. He arrived on New Years day. Lincoln had other matters on his mind - he had just signed the Emancipation Proclamation and so he could be excused his attitude towards Burnside on that particular day. Lincoln said that some officers had expressed concerns over the proposed offensive and that the army was "dispirited and demoralised". Burnside demanded to know the names of the officers: Lincoln refused to name them. He asked permission to continue the offensive: Lincoln refused.

The meeting was adjourned and they agreed to meet later in the day. Halleck and Stanton were to attend the meeting. Given time to think, and faced with this impasse, Burnside decided to offer his resignation.

He wrote Lincoln:-

"Since leaving you this morning, I have determined that it is my duty to place on paper the remarks which I made to you, in order that you may use them or not, as you see proper.

"I am in command ... of nearly 200,000 men, 120,000 of whom are in the immediate presence of the enemy, and I cannot conscientiously retain the command without making an unreserved statement of my views.

"The Secretary of War has not the confidence of the officers and soldiers, and I feel sure that he has not the confidence of the country. In regard to the latter statement, you are probably better informed than I am. The same opinion applies with equal force in regard to General Halleck. It seems to be the universal opinion that the movements of the army have not been planned with a view to co-operation and mutual assistance.

"I have attempted a movement upon the enemy, in which I have been repulsed, and I am convinced, after mature deliberation, that the army ought to make another movement in the same direction, not necessarily at the same points on the river; but I am not sustained in this by a single grand division commander in my command. My reasons for having issued the order for making this second movement I have already given you in full, and I can see no reasons for changing my views. Doubtless this difference of opinion between my general officers and myself results from a lack of confidence in me. In this case it is highly necessary that this army should be commanded by some other officer, to whom I will most cheerfully give way.

"Will you allow me, Mr. President, to say that it is of the utmost importance that you be surrounded and supported by men who have the confidence of the people and of the army, and who will at all times give you definite and honest opinions in relation to their separate departments, and at the same time give you positive and unswerving support in your public policy, taking at all times their full share of the responsibility for that policy? In no positions held by gentlemen near you are these conditions more requisite than those of the Secretary of War and General-in-Chief and the commanders of your armies. In the struggle now going on, in which the very existence of our Government is at stake, the interests of no one man are worth the value of a grain of sand, and no one should be allowed to stand in the way of accomplishing the greatest amount of public good.

"lt is my belief that I ought to retire to private life. I hope you will not understand this to savor of anything like dictation. My only desire is to promote the public good. No man is an accurate judge of the confidence in which he is held by the public and the people around him, and the confidence in my management may be entirely destroyed, in which case it would be a great wrong for me to retain this command for a single day; and, as I before said, I will most cheerfully give place to any other officer."

The second meeting also had major repercussions for Henry Halleck. Halleck was somewhat confused at the second meeting. He backed both Burnside and Lincoln. He knew of the plans for the offensive but admitted that he knew nothing of Lincoln's cancellation. During the meeting Burnside realised that Newton and Cochrane might have been part of the conspiracy and demanded to be told the truth. Lincoln refused his resignation and a rebuffed Burnside was sent back to Falmouth. After the meeting, Lincoln wrote to Halleck telling him to go with Burnside to work with Burnside to see if the offensive could be undertaken. Confusion reigned.

To Halleck, this seemed that Lincoln was deferring a major decision to him. He had to see whether Burnside was up to the job and report back. Unfortunately Lincoln failed to ask for Halleck's advice which would have been - Relieve Burnside and replace him with a commander who would clean up McClellan's mess once and for all. However Halleck could not see that the advice should have been proffered to Lincoln without being asked. Ever the honourable soldier, General Halleck wrote Stanton the following letter of resignation:

"...Sir: From my recent interview with the President and yourself, and from the President's letter of this morning, which you delivered to me at your reception, I am led to believe that there is a very important difference of opinion in regard to my relations toward generals commanding armies in the field, and that I cannot perform the duties of my present office satisfactorily at the same time to the President and to myself. I therefore respectfully request that I may be relieved from further duties as General-in-Chief."

Stanton delivered the letter to Lincoln who scribbled on it "Withdrawn, because considered too harsh by General Halleck." It had been a tough day for Lincoln and he had little chance to reflect on his decision. On the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed he did not need to be embroiled with the resignation of his top commanders. The decisions would be deferred until a later date.

Back in his headquarters, Burnside found himself embroiled in failed plans and rebelling generals. On January 5, Burnside tendered his resignation "as Major General of Volunteers" and wrote Lincoln:-

"Since my return to the Army I have become more than ever convinced that the General Officers of this command are almost unanimously opposed to another crossing of the river; but I am still of the opinion that the crossing should be attempted, & I have accordingly issued orders to the Engineers and Artilery to prepare for it. There is much hazzard in it as there always is in the majority of Military Movements, and I cannot begin the movement without giving you notice of it, particularly as I know so little of the effect that it may have upon other movements of distant armies. The influence of your telegraph the other day is still upon me, and has impressed me with the idea that there are many parts of the problem which influence you that are not known to me. In order to relieve you from all embarrassment in my case, I enclose with this my resignation of my commission of Major General of Volunteers which you can have accepted, if my movement is not in accordance with the views of yourself, and your military advisers. I have taken the liberty to write to you personally upon this subject because it was necessary as I learn from Genl Halleck for you to approve of my general plan written at Warrenton, before I could commence the movement, and I think it quite as necessary that you should know of the important movement I am about to make—particularly as it will have to be made in opposition to the views of nearly all my General Officers, & after the receipt of a dispatch from you informing me of the opinion of some of them who had visited you.

"I beg leave to say that my resignation is not sent in, in any spirit of insubordination, but as I before said simply to relieve you of any embarrassment in changing commanders where lack of confidence may have rendered it necessary."

Lincoln saw the letter and deferred to Halleck. Halleck has been accused of many failings in his career. Welles wrote in his diary that "Halleck originates nothing, anticipates nothing, is good for nothing" His reply to Burnside on January 7th shows his ability to impart military advice with a lawyers logic and precision.

"In all my communications and interviews with you since you took command of the Army of the Potomac, I have advised a forward movement across the Rappahannock. At our interview at Warrenton, I urged that you should cross by the fords above Fredericksburg rather than to fall down to that place, and, when I left you at Warrenton, it was understood that at least a considerable part of your army would cross by the fords, and I so represented to the President. It was this modification of the plan proposed by you, that I telegraphed you had received his approval. When the attempt at Fredericksburg was abandoned, I advised you to renew the attempt at some other point, either in whole or in part to turn the enemy's works, or to threaten their wings or communications; in other words, to keep the enemy occupied till a favorable opportunity offered to strike a decisive blow. I particularly advised you to use your cavalry and light artillery upon his communications, and attempt to cut off his supplies and engage him at an advantage.

"In all our interviews I have urged that our first object was, not Richmond, but the defeat or scattering of Lee's army, which threatened Washington and the line of the Upper Potomac. I now recur to these things simply to remind you of the general views which I have expressed, and which I still hold.

"The circumstances of the case, however, have somewhat changed since the early part of November. The chances of an extended line of operations are now, on account of the advanced season, much less than then. But the chances are still in our favor to meet and defeat the enemy on the Rappahannock, if we can effect a crossing in a position where we can meet the enemy on favorable or even equal terms. I therefore still advise a movement against him. The character of that movement, however, must depend upon circumstances which may change any day and almost any hour. If the enemy should concentrate his forces at the place you have selected for a crossing, make it a feint and try another place. Again, the circumstances at the time may be such as to render an attempt to cross the entire army not advisable. In that case theory suggests that, while the enemy concentrates at that point, advantages can be gained by crossing smaller forces at other points, to cut off his lines, destroy his communication, and capture his rear guards, outposts, &c. The great object is to occupy the enemy, to prevent his making large detachments or distant raids, and to injure him all you can with the least injury to yourself. If this can be best accomplished by feints of a general crossing and detached real crossings, take that course; if by an actual general crossing, with feints on other points, adopt that course. There seems to me to be many reasons why a crossing at some point should be attempted. It will not do to keep your large army inactive. As you yourself admit, it devolves on you to decide upon the time, place, and character of the crossing which you may attempt. I can only advise that an attempt be made, and as early as possible."

On January 8th Lincoln sent a note to Burnside, "I understand Gen. Halleck has sent you a letter of which this is a copy. I approve the letter. I deplore the want of concurrence with you, in opinion by your general officers, but I do not see the remedy. Be cautious, and do not understand that the government, or country, is driving you. I do not yet see how I could profit by changing the command of the A. P. & if I did, I should not wish to do it by accepting the resignation of your commission." Both Lincoln and Halleck had given Burnside their support so to all intents and purposes, Burnside believed had instructions to proceed with his offensive.


"The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country." so announced Gen. Ambrose Burnside to his Union Army of the Potomac on the morning of January 20,1863. The Union soldiers and their great wagon trains of pontoon boats, artillery, and supplies made a good start clearing their camp and moving up the river. Unknown to the soldiers, a massive storm was developing near the southeast coast and had started to move northward. Rain began falling during the evening of January 20 and continued to fall heavily on January 21. Burnside's army quickly got bogged down in the mud. Temperatures hovered in the upper 30's, adding a chill to the drenched soldiers. The great mule-drawn wagons carrying the pontoons churned the road into a quagmire. The wagons sank to their hubs; the artillery sank until only the muzzles were out of the mud. The exhausted horses floundered, as did the men, as each slippery step through the ooze sucked at their shoes and weighed them down. "The whole country was a river of mud," wrote one soldier. "The roads were rivers of deep mire, and the heavy rain had made the ground a vast mortar bed." Whole regiments and triple teams of mules hitched to the wagons and guns failed to move them. Still the rain came down in torrents. In one day, the 5th New York moved only a mile and a half. The roads became unnavigable, and conflicting orders caused two corps to march across each others' paths.

Wagons sank to their wheel hubs in mud and artillery became hopelessly stuck. A team of 12 horses and 150 men could not pull one cannon out of the mud. Also, the soldiers slipped and fell repeatedly, while others lost their shoes in the thick mud.

General George Sykes of the Fifth Army Corps wrote a succinct summary of the storm:

"On the night of the 20th, a violent storm of rain set in, making the roads impassable on account of the mud, rendering military movements impracticable. The entire command was turned out to repair and corduroy the roads.

By January 22, the rain had ended but the entire Army of the Potomac was still mired in the mud. The weather remained cloudy and damp, with temperatures hovering in the upper 30's to near 40°F. The damp conditions and above-freezing temperatures kept the roads soft and muddy. Ammunition and supply wagons remained stuck fast, and horses and mules died of exhaustion in the mud. The challenge was no longer to cross the river and attack Lee, but instead to get unstuck from the mud and return to camp. Burnside tried to lift spirits by issuing liquor to the soldiers on January 22, but this only compounded the problems. Drunken troops began brawling, and entire regiments fought one another. Log roads were built over the mud with great effort, and the Union Army arrived back in camp on January 23. The campaign had been a dismal failure and General Bumside was even heckled by his own men as they marched back to camp in the mud.

A soldier's account gives vivid detail of the misery involved during the march:

"For 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 and chilled the poor shelter less men and horses, and that poached the ground into mud deeper than the New England mind can conceive of, and stickier than - well, I am at a loss for a similitude. Pitch, for cohesion attraction, is but as sand compared with it."

Another account describes the muddy roads:

"The rain lasted thirty hours without cessation. To understand the effect, one must have lived in Virginia through a winter. The roads are nothing but dirt roads. The mud is not simply on the surface, but penetrates the ground to a great depth. It appears as though the water, after passing through a first bed of clay, soaked into some kind of earth without any consistency. As soon as the hardened crust on the surface is softened, everything is buried in a sticky paste mixed with liquid mud, in which, with my own eyes, I have seen teams of mules buried."

Across the river, the Confederate pickets watched the struggling Union army with amusement. Some put up a large sign on the riverbank that said "Burnside's Army Stuck in the Mud" and another that said "This way to Richmond."

The Press reaction was at first sympathetic to Burnside. After all the weather was good when they Army started out. The Special correspondent of the New York Times wrote, "It was a wild Walpurgus night, such a Goethe paints in the Faust" while the demons held revel in the forest of the Brocken.

All hopes that it would be 'mere shower' were presently blasted. It was evident we were in for a regular northeaster, and among the roughest of that type."

The storm that stopped the Union army was a strong, winter coastal storm. The storm generated heavy rain along the coast and piedmont while heavy snow fell far inland. The total rainfall in Washington was 3.20 inches and the lowest barometric pressure was 29.75 inches. Gale-force winds from the northeast accompanied the storm on January 22 and 23.

In Tennessee and Ohio, heavy snow fell and slowed military movements in those states. East of the Blue Ridge Mountains, temperatures remained fairly constant in the upper 30's and the precipitation fell as rain. Light rain and fog continued for three days following the storm. The rain turned to wet snow on January 28 and continued through January 29. The total snowfall accumulation was insignificant, but the liquid total for the two days was an additional 0.88 inches, concluding a very soggy period in American military history.


The army had barely any time to lick its wounds before the recriminations and accusations filled the air. Burnside's officers condemned the "Mud March" and their commander, but Hooker went further than anyone. He told a newspaper reporter that Burnside was incompetent and the administration in Washington should be replaced by a dictatorship (in the classical sense, of a military man in charge of the country until the crisis was over).

Burnside was livid. On January 23 he issued General Order No. 8, which called for Hooker's removal from service. He also called for the removal of Franklin, Maj. Gen. William Smith, and various other officers including Newton and Cochrane, whom he had identified by this time. Burnside didn't have the authority to dismiss these officers without a court martial, so he gave the order to Lincoln with his resignation. Lincoln had to accept either the order or his resignation.

Lincoln accepted Burnside's resignation, but only from his command and not from the army. Unhappy with the actions of his junior officers, he embarked on a cull of his own. He removed Franklin from command, but later gave him a small command in Louisiana. Sumner was relieved of command by his own request, and given a post in Missouri. He went north to rest for a while, but took sick and died in Syracuse, New York.

Hooker was given command of the Army of the Potomac. This may seem strange, given his condemnation of the government and Burnside, but Hooker still had friends in Washington. He also had a reputation as a competent and aggressive general. Lincoln needed someone and Hooker seemed the best of the lot. Lincoln by his own words was prepared to risk a dictatorship if only Hooker would end the war.

With some humility, Burnside issued his final order as Commander of the Army of the Potomac.

"No. 9.

Camp near Falmouth, Va., January 26, 1863.

By direction of the President of the United States, the commanding general this day transfers the command of this army to Major General Joseph Hooker.

The short time that he has directed your movements has not been fruitful of victory, or any considerable advancement of our lines, but it has again demonstrated an amount of courage, patience, and endurance that under more favorable circumstances would have accomplished great results. Continue to exercise these virtues; be true in your devotion to your country and the principles you have sworn to maintain; give to the brave and skillful general who has so long been identified with your organization, and who is now to command you, your full and cordial support and co-operation, and you will deserve success.

In taking an affectionate leave of the entire army, from which he separates with so much regret, he may be pardoned it he bids and especial farewell to his long-tried associates of the Ninth Corps.

His prayers are that God may be with you, and grant you continual success until the rebellion is crushed.

By command of Major-General Burnside: LEWIS RICHMOND, Assistant Adjutant-General.


Success in 19th century warfare was down to a number of factors: the commander and the relationship with his generals, the morale of the troops, and a fair slice of luck.

Burnside entered 1863 looking to turn defeat into victory. His generals and troops saw it otherwise. His bosses sent him mixed signals and Burnside seemed to go through a number of "bad days at the office" where his confidence was rock bottom. However his plans were sound and when the army set out on January 20th the skies were blue. But that last factor came into play. Lady Luck intervened to open the heavens to thwart him.


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