Military Intelligence 1861-63 (Part I)

Civil War, fact and myth,
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Intelligence 1861-63


him over the river that he gave Lee time not only to arrive at a correct reading of his intentions but to bring up the entire Army of Northern Virginia from Culpeper and the Valley. When the Federals finally crossed, it was into the teeth of a fortified position on a high, steep ridge.   The result was a slaughter, and Burnside's early removal.
Without knowing what information Burnside's plan was based on, his attack looks like pure madness-which in fact is what some explanations of the affair add up to.   Others, however, note correctly that it originated in a misunderstanding of the Confederate dispositions. Burnside made his main thrust against Lee's left, behind the town, because he believed that that sector was relatively weak; he thought most of the enemy strength was ten to fifteen miles downriver. In fact the Fredericksburg ridge was more densely defended than the less formidable ground on the Confederate right.
Explaining a decision-maker's ignorance is likely to be a bit harder than tracing a correct decision back to some correct information. Where Burnside's misconception came from is not clear. Wary of the numerous hands through which telegrams to Washington passed, he gave the General in Chief only his conclusion about enemy dispositions and did not say what specific reports led to it, or indicate their sources. Certainly there were interrogations; perhaps some of the subjects were persuasive pseudo-deserters. Certainly there was observation by balloonists and signal officers; perhaps cover and deception were used against it with good success. And certain it is that the Federals enjoyed the advantage of reading the cipher used by the enemy flag stations; evidently the messages that the Confederates put "on the air" were deceptive or of little significance.
In any case, Burnside's problem was not so much having incorrect information has having little information of any kind, good or bad; and the fault was his own. His failures of understanding are far less excusable than Pope's; the front was stable, he had plenty of cavalry and plenty of time, and he also had the initiative, which enabled him to concentrate on finding the enemy's weak spot. The "intelligence explanation" of his disaster consists of a list of omissions:
(1) Pinkerton, who understandably could feel that his service was tied to McClellan's, had left the army. So far, so good. But Burnside did not seize the opportunity to replace him with an effective secret service. The new bureau consisted of one man, John C. Babcock, a 26-year-old ex-private, who had no lack of ability but


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Posted: May 08, 2007 08:08 AM
Last Updated: Aug 05, 2011 09:04 AM