The Mud March: The Soldiers' Perspective
The Mud March (New York Public Library)
From a strategic and tactical military standpoint Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s infamous “Mud March” was an unmitigated disaster for the Army of the Potomac. However, coming so soon after the defeat at Fredericksburg, it is important to consider how the officers, as well as the non-commissioned officers and enlisted men perceived it. After all, they were the ones who mattered when it came time for the army to do battle. It was their efforts under fire and their morale that truly counted, and if their confidence in their leader—and by extension, their belief in their cause—was shaken, what did that mean for their effectiveness as a fighting force and chances for success?
In this history email we will take a look at how some of the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac experienced this trying time.
"The Mud March: Map Showing Movement on Bank's Ford, January 19, 1863" by Henry Knox Sneden (Library of Congress)
Since receiving command of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862, Burnside continued to struggle adjusting to the demands of the position. To his credit, he expressed that the job was beyond his capabilities when President Lincoln first offered it. He felt his feet too small to fill Gen. George B. McClellan’s now vacant shoes. But with few other desirable alternative candidates available, he accepted the role.
With political pressure coming down on him from Washington City for a successful rebound after the failure at Fredericksburg, and to buoy the new war measure of emancipation, a heavy burden rested on Burnside’s shoulders at the end of December 1862 and into January 1863. Additionally, he must have felt at least some professional pressure to mirror the victory achieved by the Army of the Cumberland at Stones River in Tennessee, fought on New Year’s Eve 1862, and January 2, 1863.
Following Fredericksburg, Burnside spent a considerable amount of time and effort planning and scouting a suitable Rappahannock River crossing location for the Army of the Potomac. He had conceived a plan to do so south of Fredericksburg, but soon received a demand from Lincoln to obtain the commander-in-chief’s approval before making any offensive movement. Burnside made a trip to Washington to discuss the situation with Lincoln and learned that two of his subordinates had informed the president of the planned move, which they considered ill-advised. Burnside left Washington still handcuffed by the president. But upon return to the army, communication renewed between Lincoln, Gen. Henry Halleck, and Burnside. Eventually, Lincoln, ever eager to show progress to the public, approved Burnside’s revised plan to cross upriver from Fredericksburg and flank Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia out of their fortified positions. After a false start on January 17, when Confederates began shifting to meet the move, the army began in earnest on January 20, 1863, toward Banks' Ford.
What the Soldiers Wrote
"Stuck in the Mud" and "Flank March Across Country during a Thunder Shower"
by Edwin Forbes (Image in the public domain)
Seemingly any Federal soldier who wrote a letter or made a diary entry during the week around the Mud March commented about it, even if their corps did not participate. It was that momentous of an event for the army. The following are a few observations about the Mud March from soldiers who wrote about it at the time:
On January 20, 1863, Curtis Clay Pollock, 48th Pennsylvania (Ninth Corps), wrote to his mother that “Gen. Burnside has sent an order, which will be read to night, saying the army is to move to-morrow. No one appears to know where we are going to, but I suppose we will cross the river above Falmouth.” As part of the Ninth Corps, Pollock and his regiment remained in camp while others headed out that day on the march upriver. Pvt. Alonzo Bump, 77th New York (Sixth Corps), wrote his wife Mary on January 25 after returning from the failed operation that the march was his reason for not writing sooner. “We have bin a marching threw the mud for 2 days,” he explained. After marching nine miles and making camp “it comments to rain so they could not git thair Pontoons to the river for the mud was so deap they could not move them. . . .” Bump wrote that, “We had to travel threw mud nee deep 9 miles and you had Better Beleave I [was] tried when we got Back to our Camp.” During the march, Bump fell out and received a pass from the regimental surgeon. He intimated he would do so again if the army tried another movement but he believed “we shant march again this winter.” Writing the same day as Pvt. Bump, Capt. Henry Young, 7th Wisconsin (First Corps), scribbled to his wife Delia calling the operation “one of the most damnable marches we ever had.” Young detailed the march: “It commenced to raining just at dark the day we left camp here we had only got eight miles. It rained all night. A cold rain. We build fires and stood around them all night. Next morning we started in the mud and rain to go six miles above Falmouth. By noon all the roads became impassible for Artillery.” Part of the problem was the thaw. “The frost had got out of the ground and the mud was half leg deep by the time we got there,” Capt. Young penned. While he placed the blame on the weather and not directly on Burnside, still he said, “We were out four days and four nights and we never suffered so much in the same length of time since coming into the service.” It is difficult to tell Young’s true take on the march as far as morale, but he noted that, physically “The boys of the Co[mpany] are pretty well used up with the march but a day or two rest will mak them all right. They behaved well and stuck the thing right through.”
The Mud March (Image in the Public Domain).
Sgt. George T. Bowen, 12th U.S. Regulars (Fifth Corps), made daily diary entries. On Jan 20: “Marched at 1 P.M. Roads blocked by wagons so that were forced to halt for the night only a mile from the old camp. It is raining & we have prospects of a rough night & muddy march tomorrow.” The following day: “Rained hard all night & we were forced to sit around camp fires & shiver until day light when we marched on 7 miles . . . . Rain still continued. Roads awful to travel on for man and [wagon] teams. On January 22, with little to no progress, Bowen wrote, “we are ‘stuck’ in the mud & can go no farther. The horses and mules are not able to pull even empty wagons.” “The whole move is likely to prove a grand fizzle,” and still more rain could come any minute he added. January 23: “Cavelry men have to bring up boxes of hard bread on their horses though to feed the infantry. Wagons cannot move loaded.” Adding insult to injury, Confederate pickets on the opposite shore claimed crossing would have been easy a week previous, but “they are ready for us now.”
Lt. Peter Hunt, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery (Second Corps), remained in his camp during the march, but he wrote to his brother on January 25, that it appeared Providence disapproved the move: “it really seems as if the Almighty was against this ‘Army of the Potomac’, for the very elements are against us. Just as we were to make another advance, and most of the army were on the march, this long cold rain set in causing everything to be abandoned.” With everything stuck in the mud, Hunt explained, “you may expect nothing new for some time to come from this once ‘glorious army of the Potomac’. I feel mean enough, I tell you. I never wrote like this before. I hate to tonight, but I cannot help it.”
Vermonter, Sgt. Frederick Godfrey, 4th Vermont (Sixth Corps), wrote to a female friend from near White Oak Church that as they marched they came upon the pontoon boats “stuck fast in the mud we stacked arms, and waded in with ropes, and helped pull them out which we accomplished by about 11 oclock at night . . . were marched back to camp wett and cold, and covered with mud from head to foot.” Several soldiers were hurt doing the work, and Godfrey believed that “I dont know that I ever saw the troops so worn out, and discouraged before in my life. 20 deserted out of one battery that went with us in one night.” Sgt. Godfrey was clearly disheartened as he wrote, “if this is the way the war is to be carried on I think the sooner we are divided the better It is to bad if we are to be made tools of for men to practice with that are no more fit to take command than an eight[h] corporal.”
"The Mud March" (Image in the Public Domain)
Penning his sister a letter on January 26, Pvt. Alonzo Searing, 11th New Jersey (Third Corps), reviewed the Mud March for her. After receiving marching orders on January 20, they “took down our shelter tents, packed our knapsacks, and with a good supply of ammunition and haversacks well stored with rations . . . marched away from camp.” After stopping for orders, it started raining. They returned to their camps and re-pitched their tents. The following morning, they struck tents and set out again. “The cold rain continued to fall steadily, and with each mile we traveled the roads kept getting worse, until the blue greasy Virginia clay was almost impassible.” They camped in a pine woods that night and on January 22 awoke to find “the army of the Potomac almost hopelessly engulfed in the mud.” Searing claimed, “nature had defeated [Burnside’s] plans.” Adding insult to injury, Searing wrote, “The rebels had discovered us and thoroughly enjoyed our situation.” To rub it in, the Confederates “placed a large sign with this inscription on it ‘Burnside’s army stuck in the mud,’ and then they would shout across [the river] inviting us to come over, and also made many insulting gestures.”
Sgt. J. A. H. Foster, 155th Pennsylvania (Fifth Corps), started writing a letter to his wife on January 17, but kept adding on to it until finishing it on January 25. In the last part, Foster explained to her, "I can tell you I was tired, very tired when we got in , but I feel a little rested now." He had heard they would go into winter quarters, but noted "I don't know what to believe." Sgt. Foster penned that "This expedition was a perfect failure, & the men are all dispirited, & make great sport of Burnsides. But he could not make the weather good."
One of the harshest criticisms of the movement came from Capt. Henry Livermore Abbott, 20th Massachusetts Infantry (Second Corps). In a letter to his father on January 19, that Henry wished him to burn, he expressed pessimism about the upcoming movement: “I hope God will give us victory, but I don’t believe he will.” Then, writing three days later, he stated, “The state of the army is terrible.” According to Abbott, newspaper articles only told part of the story but “since the intense suffering caused by this advance, things are much worse & almost ready for mutiny. One regiment yesterday threw down its arms & came back. I am terribly afraid the rest are nearly as bad, both officers and men.”
Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside (left) & Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (Library of Congress)
One cannot help but feel a little sorry for the unfortunate Burnside. Mother Nature did not cooperate, and pressure called for action despite warnings not to make a major move during winter. Regardless, on January 25, with Gen. Burnside’s resignation accepted by Lincoln, the War Department issued General Orders Number 20, which placed Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, the man Burnside wanted to avoid gaining the position when he originally accepted it, in command of the Army of the Potomac. However, once in command, Hooker instituted a number of organizational changes that went to great lengths toward reenergizing the morale and reestablishing the Army of the Potomac as the potent fighting force it would develop into in the summer and fall of 1863 and beyond.
Banks' Ford was Burnside's crossing point objective.
(Photo by Tim Talbott, 2023)
“It is almost impossible for those at a distance to conceive the fury of the late storm, which has swelled the Rappahannock from a lazy creek into a mighty torrent, and transformed hard roads into ditches filled with soft, oozy mud, into which cavalry floundered, artillery mired, and infantry almost disappeared from sight.” Alexandria Gazette, January 24, 1863.
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