U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes with the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers writes about his retreat out of Fredericksburg, as he is part of the last group to cross before the pontoon boats are disassembled, loaded on wagons and sent to storage for the next time they need to be put to use:
This morning at one o’clock our Brigade was formed in line to protect the rear of the Left Grand Division as it recrossed the Rappahannock River. We waited until all the troops had reached the Falmouth side and then our Brigade silently moved over the bridge. As soon as we reached the north side the bridge was broken up and the pontoons taken back from the river banks. We were the first to cross the river and the last ones to recross. The 10th Mass. Vols. was the last Regimental organization to cross the river, but a Bridge Guards detailed from the 2nd R.I. Vols. and under the command of Capt. Samuel B.M. Read was the last troop to recross. The Rebels were on the south bank as soon as we left it. The Army has met with a severe loss, and I fear little has been gained. The 4th, 7th and 12th R.I. Regiments were in the main battle in the rear of the city and their losses we hear are heavy. May God help the poor afflicted friends at home. I am tired, O so tired, and can hardly keep awake. We have had very little sleep since we first crossed the river. My heart is filled with sorrow for our dead, but I am grateful that my life has been spared. Mr. A.N. Barnard owns a place near where we crossed. He calls it Mansfield. His brother owns the place below which is called Smithfield. Barnard’s house was shattered by shot and shell, one shot passing through a plate glass mirror. Barnard left in great haste and left his pistols and a purse paying on a table. His books were all scattered about the yard and fine china was used by the men to hold their pork. He has already dug a cellar and intended to build a new house soon. The bricks were piled up in his yard and served as a cover for Rebel skirmishers who fired upon us as we crossed the bridge. We captured one officer and several Rebel soldiers from behind his bricks.
In Washington it is politics as usual, as Congress quickly tries to place blame on anyone they can for the disastrous loss at Fredericksburg. A caucus of Republican Senators vote 13-11 in support of a resolution calling for the resignation of Secretary of State William Seward. Though Seward initially had a great dislike for the man who bested him for for the Republican candidate for President back in 1860, President Abraham Lincoln and Seward have become close personal friends. Private conferences between the two are almost a daily occurrence, and the way Seward comes & goes from the White House is seen with an easy familiarity of a household intimate. It is not at all uncommon for Lincoln to walk over to the State Department or Seward’s house (just down the street from the White House), day or night, with or without a private secretary carrying papers.
This close relationship has made many Republicans uncomfortable and Seward has increasingly become the target of jealousy and enmity from other members of the Cabinet – especially from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase – and many members of Congress. Seward is often blamed for any bad decision made by the President or any military reverse in the field, even if no evidence supports their claims. They can’t get rid of a sitting President, but they feel they can get rid of a Cabinet member even though historically Congress has stayed out of Cabinet affairs.
After Lincoln learns of the caucus meeting, he meets with his old friend Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning about the situation, asking him what the men wanted. Browning replies “I hardly know Mr. President, but they are exceedingly violent towards the administration, and what we did yesterday was the gentlest thing that could be done. We had to do that or worse.”
Lincoln responds that “They wish to get rid of me, and I am sometimes half disposed to gratify them.”
Senator Browning replies that “Some of them do wish to get rid of you, but the fortunes of the Country are bound up with your fortunes, and you stand firmly at your post and hold the helm with a steady hand – To relinquish it now would bring upon us certain and inevitable ruin.”
“We are now on the brink of destruction. It appears to me the Almighty is against us, and I can hardly see a ray of hope,” states Lincoln.
Browning answers “Be firm and we will yet save the Country. Do not be drive from your post. You ought to have crushed the ultra, impracticable men last summer. You could then have done it, and escaped these troubles. But we will not talk of the past. Let us be hopeful and take care of the future Mr. Seward appears now to be the especial object of their hostility. Still I believe he has managed our foreign affairs as any one could have done. Yet they are very bitter upon him, and some of them very bitter upon you.”
The President, filled with the stress of the last few days, ends the conversation asking “Why will men believe a lie, an absurd lie, that could not impose upon a child, and cling to it and repeat it in defiance of all evidence to the contrary. Since I heard last of the proceedings of the caucus I have been more distressed than by any event of my life.”
Confederate President Jefferson Davis is dealing with his own issues. He took a train west to Tennessee to meet with his Western Commanding General Joseph E. Johnston to discuss strategy and to review troop positions and conditions. Davis and Johnston are in constant disagreement; Johnston believes that getting full control back of Tennessee is key, while Davis believes that the Mississippi River is the only thing that matters.
It’s a confusing situation as there are three Confederate armies in the West: The Army of the Tennessee led by General Braxton Bragg (30,000 troops), the Trans-Mississippi Army led by Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes (under 10,000 troops), and the Army of the Mississippi under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton who is in charge of protecting Vicksburg (12,000 troops) and the state of Mississippi (21,000 troops). While Holmes and Pemberton are relatively close to each other, Bragg is far removed. To make matters more complex, Johnston has no control over anything west of the Mississippi River, which means he has no authority over Holmes and his men, who are currently in western Arkansas, and cannot order them to support Pemberton or Bragg without the orders coming directly from Richmond.
Instead of moving Holmes men to support Pemberton, Davis repeatedly tells Johnston to move men from Bragg’s army to enforce Pemberton. Johnston thinks this is absurd and doesn’t give the order, so Davis does it for him. Bragg agrees with Johnston that this is an incorrect move, but they are helpless against the President’s orders. Bragg sends 9,000 of his men to join Pemberton in an effort to protect Vicksburg from U.S. Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s army of 60,000, not including his 30,000 U.S. troops in nearby Memphis under Major General William T. Sherman and John McClernand. Even with the additional troops, Pemberton’s forces are still half of what Grant has at his disposal.
Davis and Johnston will now make their way towards Vicksburg to meet with Pemberton; the trip will take these two men who can’t stand each other three long days to get there.
U.S. Brigadier General John G. Foster posts his infantry along the riverbank along with several batteries of artillery on the hill overlooking Whitehall, North Carolina. As they begin their attack against the Confederates on the other side of the river, Foster’s troops suffer heavy casualties from their own artillery when projectiles fall short of their intended targets. A large number of sawlogs along the riverbank protect the Confederates as well as a gunboat that is being constructed; the boat receives very little damage.