On December 13, 1862 the Union Army, after crossing the Rappahannock and taking Fredericksburg in a drive south toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, suffered more than 12,000 casualties (to the Confederates' 5600) in a series of futile frontal assaults against rebel troops entrenched on Marye's Heights behind the city. The next day Union commander Gen. Ambrose Burnside (above left) obtained a truce from Gen. Lee to attend to the thousands of freezing Yankee wounded still littering the ground below Marye's Heights, and on December 15 the Federal forces retreated back to their camps on the north side the river. The Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the worst defeats inflicted on Union troops during the War.
By mid-January 1863 Burnside felt growing pressure to resume the Federal advance on Richmond. He devised a plan to march his army several miles to the northwest of Fredericksburg, cross the Rappahannock, and circle around to hit the left flank of Lee’s army still encamped south of the city. December had been cold, but January's weather was relatively dry and mild up to this point, and the roads were in good shape. Prospects for a winter campaign seemed favorable.
What happened next is aptly described in the book Washington Weather, by Kevin Ambrose, Dan Henry, and Andy Weiss (2002, Historical Enterprises):
On the morning of January 20, 1863, the Army of the Potomac formed columns and began the march up the Rappahannock 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. 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. . . .The soldiers who were there always tell it best. Private John J. Ingraham of the 121st N.Y. Volunteer Infantry wrote home:
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.
We had marched two or three miles and the rain turned to hail & from that to snow and then it commenced blowing and we came near freezing. Everything was frozen stiff. We finally got to the Landing by wading through creeks and mud. We got there about dark and we had to pitch our tents in the mud and water 6 inches deep. . . . [T]here was no wood to be got. . . . Went without supper. Everything was frozen and the next morning it was hard work for some of us to talk. That was what made me sick and it brought many of our soldiers in the grave.Surgeon Daniel M Holt of the 121st N.Y. (as related in A Surgeon’s Civil War, the Letters & Diary of Daniel M. Holt, M.D., ed. James M. Greiner, et al, 1994 Kent State University Press) wrote:
Such mud, you nor I never saw before. Pontoon boats, batteries, ammunition trains and horses formed an unbroken mass—all stuck in the mud… During the three days of which I write, I had no tent to shield me from the rain incessantly falling so that I was perfectly wet through without the means of drying myself, everything was so soakingly wet that we could not make fires, and here against the roots of a tree I stood for three days and nights, with a soaking wet blanket and an India rubber cap to contend against the watery element.More interesting details, and the climax of the sorry story, are described in the book Civil War Blunders, by Clint Johnson (1997, John F. Blair):
The frustration sometimes caused men to boil over. On one occasion, two of Burnside's corps found themselves at a crossroads. Instead of halting one corps to let the other pass, both commanders ordered their men to continue marching. It looked like a giant demolition derby, with men crashing into each other as they slogged through the mud.Two days after the campaign's collapse, on January 25, President Lincoln relieved Gen. Burnside and named Gen. Joseph Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac. Never again would a major military campaign be conducted during the winter months in Virginia.
Burnside sought to raise the spirits of his men with the aid of alcohol, as was commonly done. . . The whiskey flowed, at least until a fight started between a Massachusetts regiment and a Pennsylvania regiment. When a Maine regiment tried to make peace, the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania men turned on the third regiment. Soon, more than twenty-five hundred Yankees were having a fistfight in the Virginia mud as watching Confederates and other Yankee regiments roared with laughter.
. . . To add insult to injury, the whole fiasco took place in view of the Confederate army. . . . As the Union soldiers struggled to extricate one muddy leg after another just to keep from drowning, Confederates called across the Rappahannock. They shouted encouragement, telling the soldiers how many more miles they had to walk. They offered to take the pontoons and have them in place when the Union army arrived . . . They even offered to let the Yankees to borrow boards from the plank road on their side of the river if it would help them get to Banks' Ford any faster. Signs proclaiming "This Way to Richmond!" showed up along the march. The Federals were too tired to shoot at their tormentors.
Officers began to tell Burnside to call off the march before all the horses and mules fell over dead, leaving no way to remove their cannons should the Confederates attack. Finally, he gave the order to return to camp. By January 24, the Mud March was over. A march that should have taken no more than four hours at two miles an hour had become a four-day, out-and-back disaster. Hundreds of men--perhaps more--died of exhaustion by the side of the road. Hundreds more deserted and started the long walk north.
As a Civil War reenactor I have marched and slept out in the rain and mud, without any tent or covering but my wool uniform. But I've never done it in the winter months or for days or weeks on end. What the original soldiers endured is beyond my comprehension. As awful as their burdens were, I sometimes think that our safe, affluent lifestyles deprive us of the chance to be tested and become more resilient and resourceful. On the other hand, I'm sure that the men of January 1863 would have instantly surrendered all their resilience and resourcefulness to be warm and dry again! So the next time you find yourself cursing the dampness and cold, just remember how good you've got it!