On Nov. 15, 1862, the same day Lecky Harper was criticizing the firing of George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. Ambrose Burnside began moving the army to Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. He hoped to cross the river before Robert E. Lee could move his army from the Shenandoah Valley, where it had been resting and refitting.
While McClellan lingered, Gen. Jeb Stuart went on a raid into Pennsylvania, gathering horses for the army, and in the process rode around the Army of the Potomac for the second time, the first being on the Peninsula.
McClellan had been slow about pursuing Lee across the Potomac, but he had started working on a plan to move toward Richmond rather than attack Lee directly in the valley. Burnside built on this and within a couple of days of taking command, informed Washington of his plans.
Burnside’s lead elements arrived in Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg, on Nov. 17. When Gen. Edwin “Bull” Sumner, commander of II Corps, arrived, he urged an immediate crossing to drive the meager 500-man Confederate outpost from Fredericksburg, but Burnside refused, fearing that fall rains would trap Sumner across the river, where he would be cut off and destroyed.
Instead, Burnside waited for the arrival of pontoons to bridge the river. They didn’t start arriving until Nov. 25.
Meanwhile, Lee took advantage of the delay, rushing his forces to Fredericksburg, instead of the North Anna River, where he had intended to take up a defensive position. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps arrived on Nov. 23 and took up positions on Marye’s Heights behind the town.
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