Engineers on the Rappahannock (Part 4) – Mapping Engineer Movement

Movement of the engineers prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 has been mired in a cloud of confusion and controversy. The question of which route(s) they took to get to the Rappahannock River on the morning of 11 December has also obscured with the passage of time.  In this blog I will explore both of these questions.

At 11:00 pm on 7 November 1862, General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac (AoP), was relieved of command for the final time by President Lincoln. His replacement was General Ambrose E. Burnside. While most armies do not attack in Continue reading

Posted in In the neighborhood, Pontoon Bridging | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thanksgiving 1863

By the late summer of 1863, the Civil War was finally going well for the north and those who favored reestablishing the Union. Gone were the nightmares of the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The double victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg were a huge relief to Union leaders from the President on down.  These victories were somewhat tarnished by the outcome of the battle of Chickamauga in September. The Emancipation Proclamation made clear the double purposes of the war:  reunion and emancipation.

President Lincoln, with the assistance of William H. Seward his Secretary of State, formally declared a celebration of national Thanksgiving for all citizens. While the governors of various states had previously made similar declarations, Lincoln and Seward made it a reality for the country.

Thanksgiving-Day 1863-web

Thomas Nast, 1840-1902. German born American caricaturist and editorial cartoonist worked for several publications. He is often considered to be the “Father of the American Cartoon”. Nast became known for compositions that appealed to the sentiment of the viewer. In this illustration “Thanksgiving Day 1863”, printed in Harper’s Weekly on December 5, 1863, Nast focuses on elements of concern to his northern audience; founding fathers, political and military leaders of the army and navy, emancipated slaves and scenes from cities and rural America in prayer supplication surrounding Lady Liberty kneeling in prayer.

Below is the text of that document. You can read the wartime stress interwoven in the phrases chosen by the pair. I commend it to you to be read to others this holiday. I hope that you and those close to you all have a special time together this Thanksgiving holiday.

“Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863”

“By the President of the United States of America.”

“A Proclamation.”

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

“In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.”

“Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.”

“By the President: Abraham Lincoln”

“William H. Seward,
Secretary of State”

Since 1863, Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States.


Newspaper: Harper’s Weekly, December 5, 1863

Posted in Civil War art | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Engineers on the Rappahannock (Part 6) – Army of the Potomac Withdraws from Fredericksburg


[Copy to General Halleck.]

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, December 16, 1862-4 a.m. [Received 4.15 a.m.]

“I have thought it necessary to withdraw the army to this side of the river, and the movement has progressed satisfactorily thus far. “


Major-General. “

With these words, Major General (MG) Ambrose E. Burnside informed his superiors in Washington that the Army of the Potomac (AoP) was on the east side of the Rappahannock River, no longer in contact with the Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee. This effectively ended the Battle of Fredericksburg.

In my past five posts (click here), I have looked at the AoP engineers and their pontoon bridges and how they crossed the river under fire. Now let’s look at how the engineers support the withdrawal operation.

Withdrawing from combat, especially when in contact with one’s enemy, is an extremely Continue reading

Posted in Pontoon Bridging | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Engineers on the Rappahannock (Part 5) – Burnside’s River Crossing Concept and 50th NY Engineer Casualties


We don’t know when General Ambrose E Burnside finally selected his plan of action for confronting General Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg. We do know that by December 8, his Army of the Potomac Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Cyrus. B. Comstock, finalized the Memorandum for the Engineers.


Two pontoon bridges to be thrown at site of old pontoon bridge, one of them to have approaches for artillery.

One pontoon bridge at site of old canal-boat bridge; approaches for artillery.

Two pontoon bridges just below mouth of Deep Run, a mile below Fredericksburg; one to have artillery approach. Major Spaulding to throw three upper ones; Major Magruder to throw the next, and Lieutenant Cross the lowest one. Continue reading

Posted in In the neighborhood, Pontoon Bridging | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Engineers on the Rappahannock (Part 3) – How to Build a Pontoon Bridge

So, how do you construct a pontoon bridge? It should be easy, right? After all you just get some pontoons, lay some boards across them, and then let your army march across. Anyone can do that? Or can they?

In this writing, I draw heavily upon the work of Captain James C. Duane, US Army. He wrote the instruction manual, following the testing of pontoon bridge systems conducted by the army in the late 1850’s. This manual was updated several times during the Civil War as the engineer units, regular and volunteer, gained practical experience during various campaigns.  The first was the Peninsula Campaign, followed by bridging the Continue reading

Posted in Pontoon Bridging | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment