McClellan’s Own Story

Author: Ambrose Everett Burnside  | Date: 1888

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Fredericksburg (1862)


IN my interview with General Halleck I represented to him that soon after commencing the movement in the direction of Fredericksburg my telegraphic communication with Washington would be broken, and that I relied upon him to see that such parts of my plan as required action in Washington would be carried out. He told me that everything required by me would receive his attention, and that he would at once order, by telegraph, the pontoon trains spoken of in my plan, and would, upon his return to Washington, see that they were promptly forwarded. . . .

On my arrival at Falmouth, on the 19th [November], I dispatched to General Halleck’s chief of staff the report . . . which . . . states the fact of the non-arrival of the pontoon train. These pontoon trains and supplies, which were expected to meet us on our arrival at Falmouth, could have been readily moved overland in time for our purposes in perfect safety. . . .

. . . Colonel Spaulding . . . arrived at Belle Plain with his pontoons on the 24th, and by the night of the 25th he was encamped near general headquarters.

By this time the enemy had concentrated a large force on the opposite side of the river, so that it became necessary to make arrangements to cross in the face of a vigilant and formidable foe. These arrangements were not completed until about December 10. . . .

. . . Before issuing final orders, I concluded that the enemy would be more surprised by a crossing at or near Fredericksburg, where we were making no preparations. . . . It was decided to throw four or five pontoon bridges across the river—two . . . opposite the upper part of the town, one . . . at the lower part of the town, one about a mile below, and, if there were pontoons sufficient, two at the latter point.

Final orders were now given to the commanders of the three grand divisions to concentrate their troops near the places for the proposed bridges. . . .

The right grand division (General Sumner’s) was directed to concentrate near the upper and middle bridges; the left grand division (General Franklin’s) near the bridges, below the town; the center grand division (General Hooker) near to and in rear of General Sumner. . . . The enemy held possession of the city of Fredericksburg and the crest or ridge running from a point on the river, just above Falmouth, to the Massaponax, some 4 miles below. This ridge was in rear of the city, forming an angle with the Rappahannock. Between the ridge and the river there is a plain, narrow at the point, where Fredericksburg stands, but widening out as it approaches the Massaponax. . . .

During the night of the 10th the bridge material was taken to the proper points on the river, and soon after 3 o’clock on the morning of the 11th the working parties commenced throwing the bridges, protected by infantry, placed under cover of the banks, and by artillery, on the bluffs above. One of the lower bridges, for General Franklin’s command, was completed by 10.30 a. m. without serious trouble, and afterward a second bridge was constructed at the same point. The upper bridge . . . and the middle bridge . . . were about two-thirds built at 6 a. m., when the enemy opened upon the working parties with musketry with such severity as to cause them to leave the work. Our artillery was unable to silence this fire, the fog being so dense as to make accurate firing impossible. Frequent attempts were made to continue the work, but to no purpose.

About noon the fog cleared away, and we were able, with our artillery, to check the fire of the enemy. . . . I decided to resume the work on the bridges, and gave directions . . . to send men over in pontoons to the other shore as rapidly as possible, to drive the enemy from his position on the opposite bank. This work was most gallantly performed by Colonel Hall’s brigade—the Seventh Michigan and Nineteenth and Twentieth Massachusetts—at the upper bridges, and by the Eighty-ninth New York at the middle bridge, and the enemy were soon driven from their position. The throwing of the bridges was resumed, and they were soon afterward finished.

No more difficult feat has been performed during the war than the throwing of these bridges in the face of the enemy by these brave men. . . .

It was now near night-fall. One brigade of Franklin’s division crossed over to the south side; drove the enemy’s pickets from the houses near the bridge head, and Howard’s division, together with a brigade from the Ninth Corps, both of General Sumner’s command, crossed over on the upper and middle bridges, and, after some sharp skirmishing, occupied the town before daylight on the morning of the 12th.

During this day, the 12th, Sumner’s and Franklin’s commands crossed over and took position on the south bank, and General Hooker’s grand division was held in readiness to support either the right or left, or to press the enemy in case the other command succeeded in moving him. . . .

The old Richmond road . . . runs from the town in a line nearly parallel with the river, to a point near the Massaponax, where it turns to the south, and passes near the right of the crest, or ridge, which runs in rear of the town, and was then occupied by the enemy in force. In order to pass down this road it was necessary to occupy the extreme right of this crest, which was designated on the map then in use by the army as "Hamilton’s." . . .

It was my intention, in case this point had been gained, to push Generals Sumner and Hooker against the left of the crest, and prevent at least the removal of the artillery of the enemy, in case they attempted a retreat. . . .

. . . General Franklin was directed to seize, if possible, the heights near Captain Hamilton’s, and to send at once a column of attack for that purpose, composed of a division at least, in the lead, well supported, and to keep his whole command in readiness to move down the old Richmond road. The object of this order is clear. It was necessary to seize this height in order to enable the remainder of his forces to move down the old Richmond road, with a view of getting in rear of the enemy’s line on the crest. He was ordered to seize these heights, if possible, and to do it at once. I sent him a copy of the order to General Sumner, in which . . . I directed General Sumner’s column not to move until he received orders from me, while he (General Franklin) was ordered to move at once. The movements were not intended to be simultaneous; in fact, I did not intend to move General Sumner until I learned that Franklin was about to gain the heights near Hamilton’s, which I then supposed he was entirely able to do. . . .

. . . one of the smallest divisions of the command (General Meade’s) led the attack. . . .

From General Meade’s report it seems that he had great difficulty in getting his command into position to assault the hill. The time occupied for that purpose was from 9 a. m. till 1.15 p. m. . . . but, once in position, his division moved forward with the utmost gallantry. He broke the enemy’s line; captured many prisoners and colors; crossed the road that ran in the rear of the crest, and established himself at the desired point on the crest; and, had he been able to hold it, our forces would have had free passage to the rear of the enemy’s line along the crest. The supports which the order contemplated were not with him, and he found himself across the enemy’s line, with both flanks unprotected. He dispatched staff officers to Generals Gibbon and Birney, urging them to advance to his right and left, in support of his flanks; but before the arrival of these divisions he was forced to withdraw from his advanced position, with his lines broken. These two divisions met his division as it was retreating, and by their gallant fighting aided materially in its safe withdrawal. An unsuccessful effort was made to reform the division, after which it was marched to the rear and held in reserve. . . .

No further attempt was made to carry this point on the crest. . . .

General Sumner’s corps was held in position until after 11 o’clock, in the hope that Franklin would make such an impression upon the enemy as would enable him (Sumner) to carry the enemy’s line near the Telegraph and Plank roads. Feeling the importance of haste, I now directed General Sumner to commence his attack. . . .

The enemy was strongly posted along the crest in his front, covered by rifle-pits and batteries, which gave him a commanding sweep of the ground over which our troops had to pass. I supposed when I ordered General Sumner to attack that General Franklin’s attack on the left would have been made before General Sumner’s men would be engaged, and would have caused the enemy to weaken his forces in front of Sumner, and I therefore hoped to break through their lines at this point. It subsequently appeared that this attack had not been made at the time General Sumner moved, and, when it was finally made, proved to be in such small force as to have had no permanent effect upon the enemy’s line.

. . . Never did men fight more persistently than this brave grand division of General Sumner. The officers and men seemed to be inspired with the lofty courage and determined spirit of their noble commander, but the position was too strong for them. . . .

At 1.30 p. m. I ordered General Hooker to support General Sumner with his command. Soon after receiving this order, he (General Hooker) sent an aide-de-camp to me with the statement that he did not think the attack would be successful. I directed him to make the assault. Some time afterward General Hooker came to me in person with the same statement. I reiterated my order, which he then proceeded to obey. The afternoon was now well advanced. General Franklin before this had been positively ordered to attack with his whole force, and I hoped before sundown to have broken through the enemy’s line. This order was not carried out.

At 4 p. m. General Humphreys was directed to attack, General Sykes’ division moving in support of Humphreys’ right. All these men fought with determined courage, but without success. . . .

Our forces had been repulsed at all points, and it was necessary to look upon the day’s work as a failure. . . .

From the night of the 13th until the night of the 15th, our men held their positions. Something was done in the way of intrenching, and some angry skirmishing and annoying artillery firing was indulged in in the mean time. . . .

On the night of the 15th, I decided to remove the army to the north side of the river, and the work was accomplished without loss of men or matériel. . . .

The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, First Series (Washington, 1888), XXI, 84–95 passim.


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Chicago: Ambrose Everett Burnside, "Fredericksburg (1862)," McClellan’s Own Story in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed October 2, 2023,

MLA: Burnside, Ambrose Everett. "Fredericksburg (1862)." McClellan’s Own Story, Vol. XXI, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 2 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: Burnside, AE, 'Fredericksburg (1862)' in McClellan’s Own Story. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 October 2023, from