General George McClellan spent a lot of time fretting about how to get at the Confederate heart in Richmond in the spring and summer of 1862, but his campaign failed. Antietam, though not a setback, was certainly not the great victory for which President Abraham Lincoln had hoped. Lincoln, dissatisfied with the general’s performance, bid goodbye to him in October of 1862 and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside; Burnside had no intention of his mission being misinterpreted. Burnside wanted to take Richmond.
Cooked into his notions of taking the Confederate capital was also some hope of recovering his reputation from a slippery performance at Antietam. Burnside planned to plow the distance between Washington and Richmond with his McClellan-trained Army of the Potomac. Halfway between these two cities Richmond lay embedded his one big obstacle—the Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee. With well over 100,000 men, Burnside had a head of steam and was prepared to confront Lee until he came to his first great challenge—the Rappahannock River, which ran west-to-east on the north side of Fredericksburg.
Although the Rappahannock was by no means a large river, it was sufficiently cold and sufficiently deep to heel the momentum of such a large force. The river cost Burnside time, and this would figure greatly into the outcome of the battle. While Burnside was compelled to fritter away valuable hours and days attempting to conduct his troops across the water, Lee had a surfeit of time to entrench his own men into what would be the best strategic defensive position he would ever enjoy.
Burnside, handpicked by Lincoln to conduct, and if possible, to close out the war, found himself stopped in the cold early December of 1862, waiting for his engineers to provide him with pontoons for crossing the Rappahannock. As Burnside waited, imagining a decisive victory at Richmond in the weeks to come, Lee’s army, some 70,000 rebels, dug in behind stone walls, mounted artillery on hillsides, and prepared to sacrifice the growing trade town of Fredericksburg in order to prevent the loss of the Confederate capital.
As an aside to all this, a young officer in the Union army, George Washington Whitman, the brother of a poet from New York City, would play a tangential role in bringing that brother into the forefront of the war’s service, the war’s journals, and ultimately, into the way the United States would memorialize the war through poetry. This battle would also lead the young poet into the building that would later come to contain the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.
—E. Warren Perry Jr., Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Ambrose Everett Burnside / Manchester & Brother Studio / Ninth-plate ambrotype, c. 1861 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution