Chapter XIX. Lee against Burnside and Hooker

Lincoln had good reason for hesitating to change commanders, for, unsatisfactory as McClellan had proved, the President was by no means sure that any of his other generals would do better. In fact, with all his defects, there was much to be said in McClellan's favor. As an organizer of troops or chief of staff he had displayed talents of the highest possible order, transforming the armed mob which had flocked to the defense of the Union at the opening of the war into a well-drilled and disciplined army. That he had not accomplished much with this great engine of war after it had been constructed, had not been wholly his fault, for he had never been entirely free from interference at the hands of incompetent superiors, and he had had the misfortune to be pitted against a past master of the art of war. Moreover, he had been called to the chief command at a moment of panic and peril and, if he had not succeeded in defeating Lee, he had, at Antietam, given the North the only semblance of victory which it could claim in all its campaigning in the South. But that one taste of triumph had whetted the public appetite for more. Despite McClellan's continuous talk about the overpowering numbers of his foes, the supporters of the Union knew that they outmatched the Confederacy in men, arms, ships, money, and resources of every kind. They accordingly insisted that the immense army which had lain idle in its camps for almost two months after the drawn battle at Antietam should be set to work.

In response to this popular demand, General Ambrose Burnside was appointed to take McClellan's place, and a more utterly unfitted man for prosecuting a successful campaign against Lee could scarcely have been selected. He himself fully realized this. Indeed, he had already twice refused the chief command on the ground that he did not feel competent to conduct a great campaign. But the public, which had become disgusted with boasters, admired his modesty, and his preparations for carrying the war again into Virginia were followed with high hopes for his success. The officers of the army, however, did not share the popular confidence in their new chief and some of those highest in authority gave him only a half-hearted support.

But nothing could have saved Burnside's extraordinary campaign. Had he been assigned to lead a forlorn hope, regardless of consequences, his plan, if it can be called a plan, might have been justified, but under the existing circumstances it was reckless to the point of madness. His first moves, however, were characterized by an excess of caution and so slowly did he advance that before he was fairly started for the South, Lee blocked the road, concentrating his whole army on the hills behind the City of Fredericksburg in a position practically defying attack.

To attempt a direct assault against this fortress-like post was suicidal, but apparently no thought of maneuvering crossed Burnside's mind. His one idea was to brush aside the foe. But before he could even reach him his army had to cross the Rappahannock, a formidable river, and march over an open plain, absolutely at the mercy of its intrenched opponents, who could, as one of their artillery officers expressed it, "comb the ground" with their cannon. Nevertheless, into this death trap the Union troops were plunged on the 13th of December, 1862, and they advanced to destruction with a dash and courage that won the admiration of friends and foes alike. The result was, of course, inevitable. No human beings could withstand the storm of shot and shell which burst upon them, and though some of the devoted columns actually reached the foot of the Confederate breastworks, they could do no more, and over 12,000 men fell victims to the disastrous attack.

For once, Lee was at an utter loss to comprehend his adversary's plan. He could not believe that this wanton butchery of men was all there was to the contest. To his mind such an awful sacrifice of human life would never have been made unless for the purpose of paving the way for another enterprise absolutely certain of success. But nothing more was attempted and the battle of Fredericksburg, reflecting the conception of a disordered brain rather than the trained intelligence of a graduate of West Point, was added to the already long list of blunders which prolonged the war.

Burnside brought severe charges against several of his generals for their failure to support his sorry tactics, and even went so far as to demand their dismissal from the army. There was undoubtedly some ground for his complaints, but such obviously incompetent leadership was enough to demoralize any army, and not long after his crippled battalions retreated behind the Rappahannock he was relieved of his command, which was given to General Joseph Hooker, one of the officers he most seriously accused.

Hooker was familiarly known to the country as "Fighting Joe," a name he had well earned on many a hard-fought field. He, like his predecessors, was a graduate of West Point and his record, in many respects worthy of the best traditions of that famous school, inspired the army with the belief that it had, at last, found a leader who would pilot it to victory.

Certainly, the new commander was not troubled with Burnside's self-distrust. His confidence in himself and in his plans was unbounded, and there was no little justification for his hopes, for his campaign was well thought out and he had a force of over 130,000 men under his orders - fully 70,000 more than his adversary could bring into the field.