April 13, 1863 – Major General George Stoneman’s new Federal Cavalry Corps left Falmouth to cut the Confederate supply lines preparatory to a main attack on General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
By this time, Major General Joseph Hooker had over 133,000 polished troops in his new and improved Army of the Potomac on the heights across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. Lee had about 60,000 Confederates defending a line from Fredericksburg south along the Rappahannock to Port Royal.
Hooker received word that the Confederates were short of food and supplies, so he wanted to coax them out of their earthworks into an open fight, where his superior numbers could overwhelm them. To do this, Hooker developed a plan to cut Lee’s supply lines by sending Stoneman’s cavalry around Lee’s flank to get between the Confederates and Richmond.
Stoneman was to ride west, spreading rumors that his troopers were heading for the Shenandoah Valley. The Federals would move through Culpeper Court House and Gordonsville, following the Virginia Central Railroad to Hanover Junction. They were to destroy “the railroad bridges, trains, cars, depots of provisions, lines of telegraphic communication, etc.” along the way.
Hooker believed this would force Lee out of Fredericksburg to restore his supply lines. When Lee moved, Stoneman was to “select the strongest positions, such as the banks of streams, commanding heights, etc., in order to check or prevent” Lee’s escape. If that was not possible, Stoneman was to “fall upon his flanks, attack his artillery and trains, and harass and delay him until he is exhausted and out of supplies.” If Lee moved toward Culpeper, Stoneman was to “harass him day and night on the march and in camp unceasingly.”
Hooker’s orders concluded, “Let your watchword be fight, and let your orders be fight, fight, fight, bearing in mind that time is as valuable to the general as the rebel carcasses.” As Stoneman moved, Hooker would mobilize the army and cross the Rappahannock at either United States Ford or Kelly’s Ford, depending on Stoneman’s progress. Hooker’s plan relied almost exclusively on the level of Stoneman’s success.
Hooker notified President Abraham Lincoln of his plan, somehow thinking that Lee might retreat before the Federals even gave battle: “I am apprehensive that he will retire from before me the moment I should succeed in crossing the river, and thus escape being seriously crippled.” If this happened, Stoneman would “hold him and check his retreat until I can fall on his rear.”
Stoneman headed out of Falmouth on the 13th, leading 10,000 cavalrymen in three divisions and an artillery brigade; this was nearly the entire Cavalry Corps. The men carried 10 days’ rations. Hooker directed Stoneman to communicate with him only when “necessary and practicable,” while Hooker would contact him “before your supplies are exhausted.”
As the Federals rode past Lee’s left flank, a detachment crossed the Rappahannock over 30 miles northwest of Fredericksburg, driving Confederate guards away from the fords. However, the rest of Stoneman’s force did not arrive as planned and rain began falling, compelling the detachment to re-cross the river before it flooded. The troopers spent the next day trying to find suitable river crossings in the heavy rain.
Stoneman informed Hooker that his force would be across the river by daylight on the 15th. That day, Hooker wired Lincoln predicting that Stoneman should reach Hanover Junction by the 17th “if he should meet with no unusual delay… I am rejoiced that Stoneman had two good days to go up the river, and was able to cross it before it had become too much swollen. If he can reach his position (deep in the enemy rear) the storm and mud will not damage our prospects.”
Stoneman then notified Hooker that he only had one division across the Rappahannock, and he would have to leave his artillery behind due to the deep mud. Hooker replied, “As you stated in your communication of yesterday that you would be over the river with your command at daylight this morning, it was so communicated to Washington, and it was hoped that the crossing had been made in advance of the rise in the river.”
Regarding the artillery, Hooker wrote that if the Federals could not “make use of that arm of the service, the enemy cannot.” On the threat of Confederate infantry once Stoneman crossed the river, Hooker wrote, “it is not probable, in the event of your being able to advance, that you will be troubled by the infantry of the enemy.”
Hooker then wired Lincoln, “His artillery has been brought to a halt by the mud, one division only having crossed the river. If practicable, he will proceed without it. All the streams are swimming.” Lincoln, troubled by the delay, quickly responded:
“The rain and mud, of course, were to be calculated upon. General S. is not moving rapidly enough to make the expedition come to anything. He has now been out three days, two of which were unusually fair weather, and all three without hindrance from the enemy, and yet he is not 25 miles from where he started. To reach his point he still has 60 to go, another river (the Rapidan) to cross, and will be hindered by the enemy. By arithmetic, how many days will it take him to do it?… I greatly fear it is another failure already. Write me often. I am very anxious.”
Stoneman provided an update to Hooker the next day:
“I cannot say what has been the state of affairs away from this vicinity, but here, at the hour of my last dispatch, the condition of things may be judged of when I tell you that almost every rivulet was swimming, and the roads next to impassable for horses or pack-mules… The river is out of its banks, and was still on the rise a few hours ago… The elements seem to have conspired to prevent the accomplishment of a brilliant cavalry operation.”
Hooker’s grand plan to cut the Confederates’ supply line and force them out into an open fight fizzled under the pouring rain.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 274; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 263-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 280; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 519; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 118-19; Power, J. Tracy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 721