The Mud March (January 23, 1863)

Alfred Waud sketched the Army of the Potomac on the disastrous "Mud March" in January 1863.

Alfred Waud sketched the Army of the Potomac during the disastrous “Mud March” in January 1863. Notice the pontoon boat in the foreground. (Library of Congress)

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg, I thought it would be interesting to post excerpts from the letters George Meade wrote exactly 150 years earlier. He wrote the following letter to his wife on January 23, 1863, from his army camp near Falmouth, Virginia, on the opposite shore of the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. The Army of the Potomac had suffered a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg the previous month. Major General Ambrose Burnside remained in command, despite his officers’—and his own—growing doubt as to his abilities. After his defeat at Fredericksburg poor Burnside still had one more indignity to suffer, an event that would go down in history as the “Mud March.”

I have not written to you for several days, for the reasons that I have had no opportunity, and that I was aware all letters from the camp were stopped in Washington, so that there was no use in writing. On the 19th, in the night, we received orders to move the next day. On the 20th, the whole army moved from their camp to a position four miles up the river, where crossing places had previously been selected. Everything went off very well up to about 8 P. M. of the 20th. The army reached its position. The pontoons, artillery and all other accessories were up in time, and we all thought the next morning the bridges would be thrown over and we should be at it. But man proposes and God disposes. About 9 P. M. a terrific storm of wind and rain set in and continued all night. At once I saw the game was up. The next day the roads were almost impassable; the pontoons, in attempting to get them to the water’s edge, stuck on the bank, and a hundred men could not budge them. Instead of six bridges being thrown over by 8 A. M., it was found late in the day that the materials for one only could be got to the water’s edge. Burnside visited us, and soon saw the state of the case. Still in hopes something might happen, he directed we should remain in position. All that night, the 21st, and the next day, the 22d, it continued to rain, and the roads to get into such a condition, that early yesterday, the 22d, I had to turn out the whole of my corps, fifteen thousand men, and go to work and bridge with logs, or corduroy, as it is called, nearly the whole road from our camp to the crossing place, eight miles. The men worked cheerfully at this, which was accomplished by early this morning, and Burnside having recalled the army to its old camp, we have been all day getting our artillery back, and to-morrow the infantry will return, thus consuming two days to get back, when it took only a few hours to get there. I never felt so disappointed and sorry for any one in my life as I did for Burnside. He really seems to have even the elements against him. I told him warmly, when I saw him, how sorry I felt, and that I had almost rather have lost a limb than that the storm should have occurred. He seemed quite philosophical, said he could not resist the elements and perhaps it was as well, for that his movement had been most strongly opposed and some of his generals had told him he was leading the men to a slaughter pen; and I am sorry to say there were many men, and among them generals high in command, who openly rejoiced at the storm and the obstacle it presented. We were very much amused to see in the papers to-day, flaming accounts of our crossing, of the battle, and of Hooker being mortally wounded. I hope you did not attach any importance to these absurd reports, which, when I saw, I feared you might have been anxious. I presumed the truth had been telegraphed and that you would know the storm had frustrated our plans. The plan was based on the presumption that we would take the enemy unawares, at least so far as the place of crossing was concerned, and I believe, but for the storm, we should have succeeded in this. What will be done now I cannot imagine, the mud is at present several feet thick wherever any wagons pass over a road, and if the weather from this time, should at all resemble that of last year, it will effectually stop all operations for two months to come.

I did not see George [Meade’s son, who was serving with the cavalry] during our fiasco, though I was at one time bivouacked near a part of his regiment, but his company was not with that part.

[Abner] Doubleday has been assigned to the Reserves, which is a good thing for me, for now they will think a great deal more of me than before.

Taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 348-349. Available via Google Books.