Primary tabs


Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War.






WASHINGTON, Dec. 23. — The report of the committee on the conduct of the war embraces depositions of Gens. Burnside, Sumner, Franklin, Hooker, Woodbury, Houpt, Halleck and Meigs. The committee report the testimony without comment.

Burnside said: When, after the battle of Antietam, McClellan decided to cross the Potomac, I said, in my opinion, he would never be able to take the army on that route beyond the Rappahannock unless he succeeded infighting the enemy at some place on this side; that if he proposed to go to Richmond by land he would have to go to Fredericksburg. In that he partially concurred with me. On the 6th of November, after this conversation, McClellan gave an order to Capt. Drum, Chief of Engineers, to have the pontoon bridges at Berlin and in that neighborhood that could be spared, taken up and sent down to Washington, with a view of getting them down to this town, in case he decided to go by way of Fredericksburg. The letter conveying that order was written on the 6th November, but, as I understand, was not received ntil the 12th. Burnside speaks of the surprise with which he received the President's order to take command of the army of the Potomac, and says that he had repeatedly expressed that he (Burnside) was not competent to command so large an army, and that McClellan was the fittest person. He then says: "Halleck came to see me on the 11th November. On the 9th I made out a plan of operations, in accordance with Halleck's order, and sent it to Washington." He gives a detailed account of this plan, and speaks of the disastrous delay in receiving the pontoons, and says that on the 15th he sent a column towards Fredericksburg, not knowing of the delay. The pontoons did not, however, start until the 19th, and that day it commenced raining, which delayed them so much, that the roads became so bad in consequence of the rain that when they reached Dumfries they lifted the pontoons off the wagons, and sent to Washington for a steamer, and carried them to Aquai creek by water, sending the wagons around by land. — The pontoons did not get there until the 22d or 23d of November. After the first delay in starting the pontoons I think they were sent as quickly as they could have been, and the supplies and quartermaster's stores have always been in as great abundance as we could have expected, for after the 19th of November the weather and roads were particularly bad. It commenced raining and the river began to raise. I did not know how much it might rise. There were no means of crossing except by going up to fords, and it would be impossible to do that because of the inability to supply troops after crossing. Sumner arrived here with his troops in advance. He sent to me asking if he should cross the river. I did not think it advisable that he should at that time. It was at first decided to cross at Skinner's neck, 12 miles below here, but our demonstrations was simply for the purpose of drawing there as large a force of the enemy as possible. I then retired to cross here, because, in the first place, I felt satisfied that they did not expect us to cross here, but below. In the next place, I felt satisfied that this was the place to fight the most decisive battle, because if we could divide their forces by piercing their lines at one or two points, separating their left from their right, then a vigorous attack with the whole army would succeed in breaking their army in pieces.

Two attacks were made and we were repulsed, still holding a portion of the ground we had fought upon, but not our extreme advance. — That night I went over the field on our right, and in fact, I was with the officers and men till nearly daylight. I found the feeling was against an attack. I returned to my headquarters, and after a conversation with Gen. Sumner, told him I wanted him to order the 9th army corps, which I originally commanded, to form the next morning a column of attack by regiments, (it consisted of eighteen old regiments and some new ones,) and desired the column to make a direct attack upon the enemy's works. I thought these regiments rushing quickly up after each other would be able to carry the stonewall and batteries in front forcing the enemy on their next line, and by going in with them they would not be able to fire upon us to any great extent. I left Gen. Sumner with that understanding and directed him to give the orders. — The order was given and the order of attack was formed.

The next morning, just before the column was to have started, Gen. Sumner came to me and said: "I hope you will desist from this attack. I do not know of any general officer who approves of it, and I think it will prove disastrous to the army."

Advice of that kind from Gen. Sumner, who has always been in favor or our advance, when it was possible, caused me to hesitate. I kept the column of attack formed, and sent over for the Division and corps commanders, and consulted with them. They unanimously voted against the attack.

I then went over to see the officers of the command on the other side, and found the same opinion prevailed among them. I then sent for General Franklin, who was on the left, and he was of the same opinion. This caused me to decide that I ought not to make the attack I had contemplated, and besides the President had told me not to be in haste in making the attack; that he would give me all the support he could, but did not want the army of the Potomac destroyed.

I felt that I could not take the responsibility of ordering the attack notwithstanding my own belief at the time that the works of the enemy could be carried. While on his way here Gen. Hooker, on the morning of the 20th of November, wrote me a note which I received on the 21st, in which he suggested that he should cross his force over the Rappahannock, at the ford nearest the town, Richard's Ford, and move rapidly down to Saxton's Station and take a position there. He stated that he had three days' provisions, and that he could meet any force of the enemy in front of him.

I replied that I was always very glad to take the advice of my general officers and should be loth to make a move without consulting them. I could not approve of the move he had suggested, because in the firth place, he would have to march 96 miles to Saxton's Station; it was raining, and he would have to ford two rivers, which might rise and out him off from the main body of the command, and as I had no means of crossing at Fredericksburg, I would be prevented from sending him supplies and assistance, and although he might reach Saxton's Station and not meet any force of the enemy at that time, yet it would be a very hazardous movement to throw a column like that beyond the reach of its proper support.

General Hooker thanked me, and said he only intended it as a suggestion, and the weather, as it was raining, rendered it of course impossible to make the movement suggested.

Question. — What reason do you assign for the failure of your attack?

Answer. It was found impossible to get the men up to the works; the enemy's fire was too hot. The whole command fought most gallantly. The enemy themselves say they never saw our men fight so hard as on that day.

Q.Were the enemy's works very strong?

A. Their works were not strong works, but they held strong positions. It is possible the points of attack were wrongly ordered; if such is the case, I can only say I did to the best of my ability. It is also possible that we would have done better to have crossed at Skinner's Neck, but for what I supposed to be good reasons, I felt we had better cross here; that we would have a more decisive engagement here, break up the whole of the army here, which I think now is the most desirable thing, not even second to the taking of Richmond. For if this army were broken up, though they might defend Richmond for a while, they could not make any protracted defense there.

Q. by Mr. Goodrich — Do I understand you to say that it was your understanding that General Halleck and General Meigs, while at your headquarters in Warrenton, and before you commenced the movement of your army, sent orders to Washington for the pontoons to be immediately forwarded to Falmouth?

A. — That was my understanding, certainly.

Q. — In your judgment, could the pontoons be forwarded in time for you to cross the Rappahannock when you expected, if all possible efforts had been made by those charged with that duty?

A. — Yes, if they had received their orders in time.

Q. — Did the non-arrival of these pontoons at the time you expected, prevent your crossing when you expected to cross and interfere with the success of your plan?

A. — Yes.

Q. — Since you have assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, have all its movements been made by you according to your own judgment, or have some of them been directed by the General in Chief, the Secretary of War, or the President of the United States?

A. — They have all been made in accordance with my own judgment. In some cases I have submitted my views which have been approved.

Q. — Who did you understand was responsible for the forwarding of the pontoons to Falmouth?

A. — I understood that General Halleck was to give the necessary orders, and then the officers who should receive the orders, were only responsible for the pontoons coming here. I could have carried out that part of my plan through officers of my own, but having just taken command of an army, with which I was but little acquainted, it was evident it was as much as I could do to attend to, with the assistance of all my officers, to change its position from Warrenton to Fredericksburg, and, I felt, indeed I expected, that all parts of the plan which were to be executed in Washington, would be under direction of the different Departments, to which those parts of my plan appertained.

Q. — Did you or not understand that you were to be responsible for seeing that these orders were to be carried out?

A. — I did not. I never imagined for a moment that I had to carry out any thing required to be done at Washington. Gen. Meigs told me distinctly several days ago, in Washington, that he never saw my plan of operations until I showed it to him on that day.

Q. — Do I understand you to say in your statement that you expected General Franklin to carry the point on the extreme left of the ridge in the rear of the town and thereby enable our troops to storm and carry their fortifications?

A. — I did expect him to carry that point, which being done, would have placed our forces in the rear of their extreme left, and which I thought at the time would shake their forces on the ridge to such an extent that the position in front could easily be stormed and carried.

General Franklin's bridges were built about noon, and were held by our troops on the opposite bank. This gave the enemy time to accumulate their forces, which were stretched along the river from Port Royal to the battle field, before I was able to order the attack. There had been a great deal of division of opinion amongst the corps commanders as to the place of crossing, but after all the discussion upon the subject, the decision to cross over here was well received and understood by all of them.

Q. — To what do you attribute the failure to accomplish that?

A. — To the great strength of the position and the accummulation of the enemy's forces there. I expected that the bridges would be built in two or three hours after they were unloaded, which was about daylight. Instead of that those on the right were not built until three o'clock in the afternoon, and I had only the means of getting across one division over the bridges on the right.

Q. — What was the conduct of the officers and men during the attack?

A. — With the exception of a single regiment, it was excellent.

Q. — Have you any knowledge as to the force of the enemy.

A. — It is estimated at all the way from 100,000 to 200,000. I think it was less than 100,000.

I would add here that although at the time I ordered the column of attack to be formed in the morning after the battle I thought the enemy's works could be carried, and adhered to that opinion all day. I afterwards became convinced that that could not have been done, owing to the great strength of the enemy, the time given them for reinforcing, and the belief, also, of our officers, that it could not be done. I accordingly telegraphed to the President that I withdrew our army because I felt that the position could not be carried.

Gen. Burnside's testimony here closed.

The following is a portion of Gen. Hooker's testimony:
He said he did not know why they did not take possession of Fredericksburg, but the feeling seemed to be that they could take possession of Fredericksburg at any time.

I think it would have been better to have held the lines where we were, by remaining in sufficient force to threaten the enemy and keep them up to their works at Culpepper and Gordonsville, but instead of that we withdrew every man, and even burned the bridges, thus exposing our plans to the enemy the very moment we did so.

If Gen. Sumner's corps had come down here and left one up there, threatening to advance on that line, it would have led them to believe we were going to advance on both lines. It would have been better; but the enemy saw at once what we were at, and came right on here, and they were nearer here than we were, and this country is such that whenever you give them two or three weeks to fortify, 100,000 men can make any place impregnable to any other 100,000 men.

Q. — Would there have been any difficulty as to supplies in your moving down the other side of the river, as you proposed?

A. — I had three days' rations then. I was preparing to march down through Caroline county, where the people had just gathered their crops, and I would have got plenty of forage and provisions enough for a week or fortnight. At the time of the conversation between Generals Halleck, Meigs, and Burnside, there was some talk of forwarding some supplies up the Rappahannock. I said that at Bowling Green I could draw my supplies form Port Royal as easily as I could get them when I was at Hartwood. I knew that could take a position with 40,000 men that the whole rebel army could not move on me.

Q. — Would that movement have been safe, in view of the fact that the enemy had not means of crossing here?

A. — Yes, sir; because I could take the heights with my command and then put them in a condition of defense. If I had gone there not a man of the enemy would have come to Fredericksburg; but they would have gone to some other river and fortified there, if we had given them time, as effectually as they have here. I regard the rebel position on the Rappahannock as a strong one; I mean the one they retired to from Manassas. They had the advantage of two railroads, one to bring supplies from the west, and the other railroad from Richmond, to bring troops from there. It is the strongest position they have in Virginia. The advantages of this position to hold against a force wishing to cross the river and attack it, are such as I have never seen before.

The following is from General Halleck's testimony:
Q. — Was there or not agreement or understanding between you and Burnside that pontoons and army stores, or either of them, should be furnished to him by the authorities here without his looking after them?

A. — No.

Q. — I will say any stores necessary for him to cross the river and move forward for Fredericksburg.

A. — Yes. I requested Gen. Meigs and Gen. Houpt, in charge of the railroad, to go with me to consult with Burnside, and told him everything was at his disposition; he must make his own requisitions, and give his own orders; that I would not interfere, except to assist in carrying his view out as much as I could whenever anything was reported to me as not being done; that I would render all the assistance in my power.

Q. — Do you recollect whether or no there was any discussion when you were there as to the point that it was necessary that pontoons and army stores should arrive at Falmouth at the same period of time, so that the enemy should not know the point designated for the crossing?

A. — I do think it was mentioned — that the pontoons should be there as soon as they could after we had got possession of the road.

Q. — At any time did Gen. Woodbury go to you and suggest that it would be impossible to get pontoons or other stores at Falmouth as soon as expected, and that was the reason it would be advisable that the movements of the army of Burnside should be delayed.

A. — Not to my recollection. Gen. Woodbury, in consultation, spoke of the difficulty of getting instantly sufficient transportation to go down, and, therefore, that the train should go by land. The transports were required to get down provisions, and it was suggested that as few as possible should be used for moving pontoon trains.

Q. — Since Gen. Burnside has been in command of the army of the Potomac, have all his movements been made according to his judgment and discretion as far as you know?

A. — Yes, entirely.

Q. — I understand you to say that the delay in the bridges you think was caused by the elements and the inefficiency of man, and that there is nobody to blame that you know of?

A. — I will not say inefficiency of men, but I will say that Burnside reported to me that the officer in command of the land train had not been as efficient as he ought to have been, and that he afterward modified that report. I told him to arrest any party who had neglected his duty, and send him to Washington immediately; and he said to me he did not think it was necessary.

Gen. Meigs's testimony is to the effect that, in his opinion there was a mistake in expecting the pontoons, which, he believed, were at Berlin, to be brought to Falmouth while the army made a two and a half days march. General Houpt's testimony was taken up, but was not submitted with the report.