Watch Out for Virginia Mud!
Burnside's Mud March
Seriously, who wants to talk about mud in Virginia? Bear with us...and you'll see that history was made and influenced by a combination of water, cold, and clay.
We'll give you the historical scoop on changing leadership and get our "boots in the mud" with some accounts from the common soldiers on both sides of this slow, mini-campaign that happened in January 1863.
Spoiler Alert: Burnside's Out, Hooker's In
General Burnside did not want to go into winter quarters, following the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. On January 20, 1863, he started a military movement toward U.S. Ford and Bank's Ford on the Rappahannock River, intending to cross above Fredericksburg and maneuver into position on the Confederate flank. It started well with nice weather, but rain started in the night and bogged down the 120,000 troops, 60,000 animals, 6,000 wagons, 400 artillery pieces, and pontoon bridges.
After two days of effort, Burnside called off the movement and ordered the weary soldiers back to the campsites. Dealing with conspirators against his leadership, Burnside requested court-martials or offered to resign. President Lincoln accepted Burnside's resignation.
On January 26, 1863, the Army of the Potomac got a new commander: General Joseph Hooker. Interestingly, after spending the rest of the winter rebuilding and reorganizing the army, Hooker would launch the Chancellorsville Campaign in May incorporating elements from the Mud March plan...minus the deep mire.
Weather Forecast...Or Not?
"The weather and the roads will not in months be again as favorable as during the weeks which have elapsed since the battle of Fredericksburg...." M.C. Meigs to Burnside, December 30, 1862. Why would anyone intentionally march in the mud? Well, that wasn't Burnside's plan as he prepared and ordered columns of troops up the Rappahannock River. The weather was decent in the early stage of the movement on January 20, 1863, but overnight rain which continued to pound the region quickly changed the situation.
Sergeant J. Franklin Mancha of the 122nd Pennsylvania Infantry kept a journal throughout his military service, including this excerpt from January 21, 1863: "I have walked through mud before but never such as this.... At some places the mud was so thin that one was uncertain was it mud or water. Some places it reminded one of shoemaker's wax, all but the color. It was so tough that it was a matter of considerable difficulty to draw out the foot without leaving the boot stick. This was a work, or rather, a getting along under difficulties with two woolen blankets, one gum blanket & two shelter tents with a gallon of water in from the rain & besides all this load, 60 rounds of cartridges, musket, sword, accoutrements & a store of other trash, such as wearing apparel, "stationary" (Book & paper depot) & hardtack. It rained all day."
It was muddy on the south side of the Rappahannock River, too. But when General Lee realized there was a Union movement underway, he ordered two divisions to move upriver and guard the fords. One soldier in Pickett's division recalled: "The winds howled about us. Many trees were torn up by the roots, endangering the lives of the men." Reaching the fords, though, they settled into cold, wet, temporary camps. Once in position, these Confederates seemed to enjoy the view across the river and mocking taunts were shouted across the river.
"Say! Yanks! We'll be over in the morning and haul your guns and pontoons out the mud for you."
"Say Yank, when are you all coming over here with your eight days rations? We are awfully hungry over here."
The great insult to the Yankees came when ambitious Confederates climbed up on a barn roof and painted "Burnside stuck in the mud."
A Bugler's Summary
Well, Burnside has moved again, and got stuck in the mud. That is the short of it. The long of it was the five days it took us to get six miles and back to camp. It beat all the Peninsula mud I ever saw, and demonstrated the falsity of Burnside's theory that if twelve horses couldn't draw a cannon twenty-four could. The more horses the worse it was. We got back to our old camps yesterday, and I apprehend we shall stay a while. The army cannot move in this climate in the winter, and perhaps the people will believe now that “ Little Mac ” was right in not moving last winter.
Oliver W. Norton, Letter to his sister, January 25, 1863
A muddy creek at Spotsylvania Battlefield on a Winter's Day. (Photo by S.K. Bierle).
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.