On the evening of November 7, 1862, the dispatch came which relieved McClellan and put Burnside in command. The moment was not well chosen. McClellan seemed in an unusually energetic temper. He had Lee’s army divided, and was conceivably on the verge of fighting it in detail. On the other hand, Burnside assumed the charge with reluctance and self-distrust. A handsome, popular gentleman, of pleasing manners and with the prestige of some easily won successes, he had the misfortune to be too highly esteemed.
The change of commanders brought a change of scheme, which was now to advance upon Richmond by way of Fredericksburg. When this was submitted to the President he said that it might succeed if the movement was rapid, otherwise not. The half of this opinion which concerned success was never tested; the other half was made painfully good. Instead of rapidity there was great delay, with the result that the early days of December found Lee intrenching strongly upon the heights behind Fredericksburg on the south bank of the Rappahannock, having his army now reunited and reinforced to the formidable strength of 78,288 men “present for duty.” Burnside lay upon the north bank, with 113,000 men, but having exchanged the promising advantages which had existed when he took command for very serious disadvantages. He had the burden of attacking a position which he had allowed his enemy not only to select but to fortify. Happily it is not our task to describe the cruel and sanguinary thirteenth day of December, 1862, when he undertook this desperate task. When that night fell at the close of a fearful combat, which had been rather a series of blunders than an intelligent plan, 10,208 Federal soldiers were known to be lying killed or wounded, while 2145 more were “missing.” Such was the awful price which the brave Northern army had paid, and by which it had bought—nothing! Nothing, save the knowledge that General Burnside’s estimate of his capacity for such high command was correct. Even the mere brutal comparison of “killed and wounded” showed that among the Confederates the number of men who had been hit was not quite half that of the Federal loss. The familiar principle, that in war a general should so contrive as to do the maximum of injury to his adversary with a minimum of injury to himself, had been directly reversed; the unfortunate commander had done the maximum of injury to himself with the minimum of injury to his foe.