On January 20, 1863, Union General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac begins an offensive against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia that quickly bogs down as several days of heavy rain turn the roads of Virginia into a muddy quagmire. The campaign was abandoned a few days later.
The Union army was still reeling from the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862. Burnside’s force 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.
Now, Burnside sought to raise morale and seize the initiative from Lee. His plan was to swing around Lee’s left flank and draw the Confederates away from their defenses and into the open. Speed was essential to the operation. January had been a dry month to that point, but as soon as the Federals began to move, a drizzle turned into a downpour that lasted for four days. Logistical 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 moved only a mile and a half. The roads became unnavigable, and conflicting orders caused two corps to march across each other’s paths. Horses, wagons, and cannons were stuck in mud, and the element of surprise was lost. Jeering Confederates taunted the Yankees with shouts and signs that read “Burnside’s Army Stuck in the Mud.”
Burnside tried to lift spirits by issuing liquor to the soldiers on January 22, but this only compounded the problems. Drunken troops began brawling, and 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.” The campaign was considered so disastrous that Burnside was removed as commander of the army on January 25.