Tag Archives: Edwin Sumner

150 Years Ago: “…the consequence of getting astride of a river…”

On this day (November 17) in 1862, elements from the Right Grand Division of the Army of The Potomac arrived at Falmouth, Virginia and looked across the Rappahannock River on Fredericksburg.  General Edwin V. Sumner commanded those Federal troops.  Later, in sworn testimony to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Sumner recalled:

On my arrival here, on the 17th of November, a battery of artillery on the other side of the river opened upon us the moment a portion of my troops appeared on the ridge back of Falmouth. I immediately put a battery into position, and, I think, in not to exceed fifteen minutes, they drove every man on the other side from the guns, and they ran off and left four guns on the field.  My orders were to advance and hold Falmouth, not to cross.  But the temptation was so strong to go over and take those guns the enemy had left at one time I actually gave the order to cross the fort at all events and seize the guns and occupy the city.  But on reflection I concluded I was rather too old a soldier to disobey a direct order; and there was another reason too: I had had little too much experience on the peninsula of the consequence of getting astride of a river to risk it here.  For these two reasons I revoked my order that night.

That night I sent a note to General Burnside, who was some eight or ten miles distant, asking him if I should take Fredericksburg in the morning should I be able to find a practicable ford, which, by the way, I knew when I wrote the note that I could find.  The General replied, through his chief of staff, that he did not think it advisable to occupy Fredericksburg until his communications were established, and, on reflection, I myself thought that he was right; that it was prudent and proper to have bridges ready before we occupied Fredericksburg.  I think I could have taken that city and the heights on the other side of it any time within three days after my arrival here if the pontoons had been here, for I do not think there was much force of the enemy here up to that time.

Sumner continues to detail the delays moving supplies and pontoons from Acquia Landing (he mentions “creek” but is referring to the facilities at the landing) up to the positions at Falmouth, and the need to rebuild railroad lines.  Those words – “temptation”, “practicable”, “prudent”, and “proper” – are the sounds of a campaign reaching an unexpected pause.

Considering the actions of November 17, 1862, a lot of armchair generals will mention the need for momentum.  Some will conjure up the scene from the Patton movie where the general with his shiny helmet and riding crop berates a subordinate from across a river.  Yes, there’s a lot to be said about getting over the river.  But there’s also a lot to be said about STAYING over the river.