Above the Law
The Fredericksburg Findings of Major General William Franklin

     Although the 37th Congress had expired on the 4th day of March 1863, those members making up the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War had published, on the 6th day of April, in many of the leading newspapers of the United States their fact finding analysis regarding the loss of the battle of Fredericksburg. Major General William B. Franklin was being spotlighted as the link that caused the Army of the Potomac's failure.

     It could not and would not be ignored by an officer who saw himself faithful to the stars he was wearing on his shoulders. Congress was not even in session and a select group of the people's representatives had taken upon themselves the duties reserved for the Chief Executive alone. In the very center of a rebellion that was testing the strength of the federal government, select members of Congress had the audacity to condemn a faithful public servant by holding a tribunal in secret session.

     The major general, who had commanded the Left Grand Division that day on the fields at Fredericksburg, called to their attention that they had even neglected to make him aware of the charges. Having no knowledge that the committee had him on trial, Franklin appeared to give testimony only to have it used against him to suit the congressional purpose.

     The evening before the assault, the Pennsylvanian suggested making an early morning attack against the rebel right flank using a column of nearly thirty thousand infantry. To do this, it was asked that General Hooker's divisions formed on the north side of the Rappahannock River be moved to the south side during the night in support. Promising orders to that effect during the evening, it was early morning before General Franklin was ordered by Army Headquarters to make a rapid movement on his own down the Richmond Road while Hooker's troops, who never moved during the night, remained in support at the bridge.

     In hindsight, Franklin had produced a map drawn up by one of Lieutenant General Jackson's staff, which had fallen into his hands proving his original military analysis to be sound. He maintained that his commander had already known the resolve of the rebel army and if his intent was to make a determined attack on the 13th, he would have given Franklin the entire night of the 12th to prepare instead of allowing him to pass the night at his headquarters in anticipation.

     On the morning of the grand attack against Lee's position beyond the town, General Burnside assigned Brigadier General James Allen Hardie of his personal staff to observe the movements of Franklin's grand division. However, after Franklin's personal testimony before the committee, General Hardie was never even called to give account of that day before Congress. The accused had fourteen separate dispatches that were carried back to the commanding general by Hardie's personal hand, which had been admitted as evidence only omitted when the findings against Franklin were published; all of them announcing the grand division commander as following the Army's morning orders.

     At no time during the hours spent at headquarters on the night of the 13th did the army commander mention any dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Left Grand Division. Again in another conference about the 17th or 18th, it was recalled the Rhode Islander had mentioned his wish to resign and name Major General Franklin to be his successor.

     Published on the 23rd of January 1863, Army of the Potomac, General Orders Number 8 announced Major General William B. Franklin along with a host of other general officers including that of Major General Joseph Hooker and Brigadier General John Newton to be dismissed from further service with the army.

     Franklin again presented the facts as he knew them to be between December 12th and 18th 1862, however, may not have realized the gravity of events in Washington City before General Order Number 8 was issued.

     On December 30th, select leadership of the Left Grand Division had arrived in Washington City to present their case of disgust with the commanding general over the Fredericksburg fiasco, to any who would listen. One general officer of division, Brigadier General John Newton, and another from brigade, Brigadier General John Cochrane were given passes to Washington when the army was under marching orders once again. Although both Generals Franklin and William Smith could not recall their knowledge of this event taking place, under the present condition of the army, it's difficult to believe their ignorance.

     Cochrane managed to get an appointment with the President and hurried back informing Newton, who was in shock over the suggestion of going to the White House. None the less, Cochrane's superior now found himself in a no win situation and had to represent them both before the President. Any expected gain by this unscrupulous visit to the Executive Mansion is even more unbelievable. Divisional and brigade officers paying the President a visit asking that executive muscle be used on their direct superior was astonishing. The President heard them out but wondered if this unscheduled meeting was to bring harm to General Burnside. The two general officers were caught between a rock and a hard place, and all the talk and rhetoric wouldn't convince the President otherwise.

     In weighing the facts of the debacle at Fredericksburg on December 13th 1862, the radical republicans making up the Committee on the Conduct of War must have later been privy to the Newton/Cochrane Meeting, unbeknownst to General Franklin. Perhaps Lincoln himself leaked the information in or out of session. In the end, Major General Franklin would later find himself among the politically lost officers in an army serving the Texas Gulf Coast. A fate perhaps worse than having been cashiered, he was swept away by the tide of President Lincoln's black listed general officers.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2003

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwar.net