January 20 —
On this day in 1863, Union General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac begins an offensive against General
Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia that comes to a sudden halt after several days of heavy rain turn the roads of Virginia into a muddy quagmire. The campaign was abandoned three days later.
The Union army was still reeling from the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862, when Burnside’s forces suffered more than 13,000 casualties as it assaulted Lee’s troops along hills above Fredericksburg. Lee suffered around 5,000 casualties, making Fredericksburg one of the most one-sided engagements in the Eastern theater of operations. Morale was low among the Yankees that winter as a result of that mauling. Now, Burnside sought to raise morale and seize the initiative from Lee by moving around Lee’s left flank and drawing the Confederates away from their defenses and out into the open. Speed was essential to the operation but everything went wrong that could. January had been dry up to then, but no sooner did the Union Army begin to move than the clouds opened up and created a four day deluge. He weather wasn’t Burnside’s only problem, as supply problems delayed the laying of a pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock River, and a huge traffic jam snarled the army’s progress. In one day, the 5th New York managed to move only a mile and a half. The roads became unnavigable, and conflicting orders caused two corps to march across each other’s paths, causing even more confusion and problems. Horses, wagons, and cannons were stuck in mud, and the element of surprise was clearly lost. The jeering Confederates taunted the Yankees with shouts and signs that read “Burnside’s Army Stuck in the Mud”, among other jibes.
Burnside tried to lift the spirits of the troops by issuing liquor to the soldiers on January 22, but this turned out to just make things even worse. Since they couldn’t get into a fight with the Confederates, the completely drunken troops began brawling with each other within their own company and in the spirit of self-defeating behavior, entire regiments fought one another. The operation was a complete fiasco, and on January 23 Burnside gave up his attempt to, in his words, “strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion.” This was the last straw for the leaders of the Union Army, and the campaign was considered so disastrous that Burnside was removed as commander of the army on January 25.
But he earned a place in history and fashion, as his memorable side whiskers became forever known as “sideburns”.
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Photo courtesy of wikipedia.com