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It was a daring reconnaissance – and an immeasurable risk. On December 12, 1862, as the massive Northern Army of the Potomac under General Ambrose E. Burnside prepared to assault the Southern lines at Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee concluded that he needed additional reconnaissance of the enemy – and decided to do it himself. As a young officer in the Mexican War, Lee had distinguished himself with a foray behind enemy lines, and he apparently had no qualms about reconnoitering close to the Union position this time. Accompanied by his “right arm” – General Stonewall Jackson – and Major Johann Heros von Borcke, Lee moved cautiously through the snow toward Northern lines.
Closer and closer, the high-ranking observers moved – until they were within approximately four-hundred yards of the Federal advance line. Despite the danger, Lee studied the enemy in front of him until he could tarry no more. The next day, the giant Northern army he had observed so carefully would come forward in an attempt to destroy Lee’s army. They held numerical superiority – Lee was assured of that; but he was also confident of his superior defensive position and of the ability of his troops: the Army of Northern Virginia. The battle that followed was one of the bloodiest of the war – and one of the greatest disasters to befall the Union army. So one-sided were the Northern losses, that Lee – watching wave after wave of courageous Federal troops crushed and repelled – remarked to those around him: “It is good that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.”
The unknown irony of the battle was that the Confederate commander, camouflaged in the snow-covered landscape, conducted a personal reconnaissance within easy range of the Union artillery. Lee, Jackson and von Borcke, were “so close to the enemy,” as von Borcke noted – that the outcome of the battle could have been changed by a single vigilant Northern observer. Undiscovered in his bold foray, Lee directed one of his most significant victories of the war.