Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/21
With Burnside before Fredericksburg.—1862
HAVING, after a good deal of effort, received permission to proceed to the front, I secured an order for transportation on one of the Government boats from Quartermaster-General Meigs. I managed to get myself and belongings, including my horse, on one of the many craft loading with army supplies, on the morning of November 29. We steamed off in the afternoon, but, Acquia Creek being sixty-five miles from Washington, and the boat making only six and seven miles an hour, we did not reach our destination before midnight. The captain let me share his supper, but there were sleeping accommodations only for the officers and crew, so that I was obliged to seek rest on the floor of the small mess-room. I was up at daybreak. In the estuary were several score of vessels at anchor — gunboats, steamboats of all kinds, schooners, scows, barges, and canal-boats — all awaiting their turn to discharge at the one available wharf. It looked as if I might have to wait for days before I could get my horse ashore. The captain was rowed to the landing early, and I accompanied him to ascertain the prospect before me. Fortunately, we had some railroad material aboard that was urgently needed in repairing the section between Acquia and Falmouth of the road from Alexandria to Fredericksburg, which had been utterly destroyed at an earlier stage of the war, and we were made fast to the wharf by noon and my luggage and animal safely transferred to it shortly afterward.
The railroad was near the wharf, and a locomotive and an old passenger coach and a dozen freight cars stood upon the track, but I was told that the section to the front would not be opened for traffic for several days. Accordingly, I saddled my horse, and, with my valise in front and my roll of bedding strapped behind me, started for Falmouth. There had been a severe frost followed by a thaw, and the thousands of army wagons that had passed over the road for several days had reduced it to a very bad condition, so that I could only walk my horse. It took me over four hours to reach the first camps, about a mile from the Rappahannock. The ravages of war were visible all the way. The country seemed to have been burned over. The scrub timber was coal-black, and, in the frequent clearings where farming had been carried on, there was nothing to be seen but half-destroyed fences and the ruins of dwellings and outhouses without any inhabitants.
I had letters of introduction to General John G. Parke, the chief-of-staff, from a regular-army friend in Washington, and to General Hooker from Mr. Smalley, who had been with the General in the Antietam campaign. I also knew General E. V. Sumner, and General Daniel Butterfield, who had set out from New York as colonel of the 12th New York Militia, a three months' regiment. As night was approaching, and it was evident that I should not be likely to find any of these officers except with difficulty in the dark, it occurred to me to ask a division sutler, whose tent showed a large display of goods, whether he could not accommodate me for the night. I told him who I was, and he readily consented to do the best he could for me and my beast. I had a really luxurious supper and a good night's sleep on a camp-bed, for which my generous host, whose name I have forgotten, would not accept any compensation.
The next day was brisk and clear — just right for my first sight of the Army of the Potomac. A short ride brought me to an elevated point commanding a wide view of the surroundings. There was a large plateau, forming several plantations with commodious brick mansions — one of which had been burned — standing amidst groups of the usual outbuildings and stately groves of shade trees. Patches of timber broke the cultivated surface. In every direction vast encampments were visible. The plateau was from 100 to 125 feet above the Rappahannock, whose flow was for several miles almost due east. It seemed like a regular plain, but was really divided by two deep wooded ravines, down which “runs,” as small water-courses were called in the local vernacular, made for the river. Through one of these the railroad approached it. The small village of Falmouth appeared some distance above, on the left bank of the Rappahannock. Almost directly before and beneath me, on the right bank, the old town of Fredericksburg was situated. It presented itself as a compact mass of brick buildings extending half a mile along, and a quarter of a mile from, the river. The site of the city rose but slightly near the river, but a mile south of it there were considerable heights, extending like the arc of a circle, with the river as the chord, and forming an amphitheatre, as it were, about a mile wide and two miles long, traversed by several highways, the Richmond rail road, and three streamlets, of which the Massaponax was the farthest to the east, and the most considerable. It was known that the rebels occupied the town, but no signs of them were then discernible. The railroad bridge at the east end was in ruins.
After assuming command, General Burnside reorganized the army into three grand divisions of two army corps each — the right, centre, and left — under the respective commands of Major-Generals Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin. The right Grand Division consisted of the Second and Ninth Army Corps, commanded by Major-General D. N. Couch and Brigadier-General O. B. Willcox; the centre Grand Division, of the Third and Fifth Army Corps, under Brigadier-Generals George Stoneman and Daniel Butterfield; and the left Grand Division, of the First and Sixth Army Corps, under Major-General John F. Reynolds and Brigadier-General William F. Smith. The army and the grand-division and army-corps headquarters were all in prominent positions and were readily recognized by flags and other signs, so that it was easy for me to make my way to them. I first proceeded to General Burnside's headquarters, which consisted of a group of tents next to a large dwelling called, I believe, the Lacy house, the home of a planter of that name. The Commanding-general had shunned it, and was setting the good example of camping. General Parke received me politely and readily countersigned my pass, but put me under strict injunction not to write anything about the position, strength, and condition of the army. I learned that, two days before, a meeting of the President and General Burnside had taken place at Acquia Creek, in the afternoon, on the boat in which the President had come from Washington, and lasted several hours, Mr. Lincoln returning immediately afterwards to Washington. I ascertained the purport of his flying visit after my return to Washington, and may as well mention here that it was to dissuade Burnside from a direct attack on the enemy in his obviously very strong position on the heights of Fredericksburg. But the President found the General stolidly bent on making the attempt to defeat Lee where he was. Nicolay and Hay relate that, on his way back to Washington, Lincoln prepared a memorandum for a flanking movement, which he allowed Halleck and Burnside, however, to overrule.
I next sought General Hooker. I had never met him and was, of course, eager to see and take my own measure of “Fighting Joe,” which sobriquet the press had already affixed to him. His exterior was certainly most attractive and commanding. He was fully six feet high, finely proportioned, with a soldierly, erect carriage, handsome and noble features, a slight fringe of side-whiskers, a rosy complexion, abundant blond hair, a fine and expressive mouth, and — most striking of all — great, speaking gray-blue eyes; he looked, indeed, like the ideal soldier and captain, fit for a model of a war-god. There was only one other man in the army, as far, as my own observations went, that came near him in these external qualities — General Winfield S. Hancock. My letter of introduction from Mr. Smalley commended me very strongly to the General's confidence, yet he received me rather stiffly and coldly. This I found, however, to be his natural manner, for, after a short general conversation — his voice being most agreeable — he burst forth into unsparing criticism of the general conduct of the war in the East, of the Government, of Halleck, McClellan, Pope, and, last but not least, of his present immediate superior. He had even then an unenviable notoriety for a rash tongue, to which he added lamentably in his subsequent career. His language was so severe and, at the same time, so infused with self-assertion as to give rise immediately to a fear on my part that he might be inclined to make use of me for his own glorification and for the detraction of others. This made it prudent for me not to place myself under more personal obligations to him than I could possibly help. Hence, I abstained from requesting, as I had first intended, permission to stop at his headquarters. After an hour's talk I passed on, with the General's assurance that he should always be glad to see me.
General Sumner, on whom I next called, remembered me very well and gave me a hearty welcome. A colonel of cavalry at the outbreak of the war, he, like all regular-army officers, had had no practical experience up to that time in serving with larger bodies of troops than a regiment. He had been an excellent regimental commander, very strict in the enforcement of discipline and thorough drilling, and withal a model cavalry soldier. But he was almost too old for the proper discharge of the duties of higher command, and also lacked the natural parts for it. Yet the force of circumstances, or, rather, his rank in the regular army and the lack of competent commanders, together with his fervid loyalty and enthusiastic devotion to the flag, had carried him rapidly in a year and a half from the command of a regiment to that of a brigade, a division, an army corps, and an army wing numbering sixty thousand men. He was the very picture of a veteran soldier — tall, slender, erect, with a fine head thickly covered with white hair, and a noble face fringed with a white beard. He was polished in speech and manner, and seemed almost too full of kindliness for his stern profession. Encouraged by his hearty way, I ventured to ask whether I could be provided for at his headquarters, whereupon he sent at once for his son, Captain S. S. Sumner, who served as his aide-de-camp, and instructed him to take care of me, which was quickly done. I was to take my meals with the medical director, Surgeon Dougherty, and his assistants, and to sleep with the latter in a large hospital tent. I had every reason to be grateful for the provision made for me, as I was treated with unvarying courtesy by my mess and tent-mates during the two weeks and a half I was to spend with them. To be at the headquarters of a grand division proved a very great advantage to me.
Having thus come well to anchor, I sought to make further acquaintances among the officers. Everybody understood that an early offensive movement was contemplated, and it was the general belief that it would take place within a few days. But the end of the month came, and the first days of December passed, without the expected stirring events, so that I had more time for familiarizing myself with the army than I anticipated. General Butterfield I saw early and often, and he helped me in every possible way. Starting in a practical life as a business man in New York, he always had a strong penchant for military matters, and entered the militia early, and, by his enthusiasm and aptitude, worked his way up to the command of a regiment when he was but thirty. His regiment was among the first to enlist for three months, at the expiration of which term he was appointed a lieutenant-colonel in the regular army and a brigadier-general of volunteers. He had gone through the Peninsular campaign with credit, and risen to the command of a division. The formation of the grand divisions secured his promotion to the command of the Fifth Corps. He was a very handsome man, of middle stature, with regular, delicate features, jet-black hair and mustache, and very soldierly bearing. He seemed to have a better knowledge of men and matters in the army than any other officer I became acquainted with, and he allowed me to draw liberally on his store.
I met General Burnside twice. He showed to me, as to everybody else, a prepossessing bonhomie that made one feel at home with him at once. Indeed, he wore his genial, frank, honest, sincere nature on his sleeve. But there was nothing in his exterior or in his conversation that indicated intellectual eminence or executive ability of a high order. He inspired confidence in his honesty of purpose and ardent loyalty, but it was not possible that any experienced judge of men should be impressed with him as a great man. He talked without reserve of his intention to take the offensive at the earliest possible moment, but, of course, gave no intimation of his plan of operations. As he complained of the delay in the arrival of the pontoon trains for bridging the river, I was satisfied that the purposed blow at Lee would not be struck until that difficulty was removed, and that the risky attempt of a front attack would be made.
Besides the generals named, I had the opportunity to meet General Couch, commanding the Second Corps, and Generals W. S. Hancock, O. O. Howard, and William H. French, division commanders under him; General Willcox, commanding the Ninth Corps, and General S. D. Sturgis, commanding his Second Division; Generals Stoneman and A. A. Humphreys, division commanders under Hooker; General Reynolds, commanding the First Army Corps under Franklin, and the division commanders John Gibbon, George G. Meade, and John Newton; and General Hunt, chief of artillery. Couch, Hancock, Reynolds, Humphreys, Newton, and Hunt impressed me most as thorough soldiers. Hancock's imposing physique, already spoken of, was sure to attract attention. I also found four more old acquaintances among the general officers — Daniel E. Sickles, division commander under Hooker, well known as a Democratic politician and member of Congress from New York (who afterwards lost a leg at Gettysburg and is still living at this writing); John Cochrane, commanding a brigade, also a New York Congressman of more than local fame; Brigadier-General Sol. Meredith, a popular Indiana politician, remarkable for his great size; and the redoubtable Irish leader and poet, Thomas Francis Meagher, who, mirabile dictu, had likewise reached the rank of brigadier-general. At the end of a fortnight, indeed, I already felt very much at home in the Army of the Potomac.
When the army first appeared opposite Fredericksburg on November 20, the rebels occupying the town kept up a fire from small arms upon any Union parties that ventured to go to the river for water. General Sumner thereupon addressed a communication to the mayor, demanding the surrender of the place, under threat of bombardment, on the expiration of sixteen hours allowed for the removal of the population. A compromise was reached under which, on the one side no more acts of hostility were to be committed from the town, and on the other the Federal forces were not to occupy it until further notice. It was well known, however, that the Confederates occupied the buildings along the river for a determined resistance to any attempt to cross, but the established truce was strictly maintained. According to my recollection, not a shot was fired from small arms or artillery within my hearing up to the formal opening of hostilities. This was, of course, mainly due to the fact that the contending forces were separated by the river.
The delay in the arrival of the pontoons was caused by a succession of mishaps and mistakes. During the Antietam campaign, the pontoon trains attached to the army had been ordered to Harper's Ferry and remained there ever since, as no occasion had arisen meanwhile to call for their use elsewhere. They were supposed by Generals Burnside and Halleck to be at Washington, and, of course, the longer time required for their transportation from the other point was not at first taken into account. An order to send them forward was, for some never-explained reason, six days in reaching its destination. When they reached Washington, they were ordered to be hauled overland to the Rappahannock. This was a grave error of judgment, as it took several days to secure the necessary teams, and the roads were found to be so bad that the pontoon wagons could not progress more than five miles a day. The attempt had finally to be abandoned altogether and the water route taken. A whole fortnight was thus lost in getting the bridge material to the front. It was this delay that prevented the earlier occupation of Fredericksburg and its surroundings by our forces, and may have been the principal cause of our eventual defeat. As it was, the full means for bridging the river simultaneously at several points were not at hand until after the first week in December.
The great natural obstacle of the river made it impracticable to discover the position and strength of the enemy by regular reconnoissances. Nor did we seem to obtain much information regarding him from spies. It was chiefly through the Richmond papers, which were as indiscreet in publishing army news as their Northern contemporaries, and which reached headquarters from various directions, that we received intelligence from the other side. But even through them we had only circumstantial evidence that Lee's whole army was distributed over the opposite heights. While an air line to them from the bluffs on the left bank was not much over a mile in length, even with the strongest field-glasses little could be discovered of the rebels beyond the field-works they had immediately undertaken and steadily continued. They probably saw not much more of us than we of them.