April 26, 1863 – Major General Joseph Hooker issued marching orders for the Army of the Potomac to begin a new campaign against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg.
As each day went by, pressure increased on Hooker to launch an offensive. His first plan had been thwarted by rain, northern dissatisfaction with the war effort continued mounting, and 27,000 Federal troops would leave the army when their enlistments expired in May. Hooker needed to strike quickly, especially now that part of Lee’s army under Lieutenant General James Longstreet had been detached to take Suffolk.
While Hooker continued finalizing his revised plan, small Federal units operated at Kelly’s Ford and the Rappahannock Bridge north of Fredericksburg, and Federals raided Port Royal south of Fredericksburg two days later. Confederate spies informed Lee that all of Hooker’s rear units had been brought up to join the main army. Lee put his army on alert that a new Federal offensive was about to begin.
Nearly two weeks of rain finally ended on the 25th, and warm weather soon dried the roads. Hooker’s plan began falling into place. Major General George Stoneman’s cavalry would continue its mission to cut Lee’s communication and supply lines, while the infantry would split into three sections:
- One section would march north along the Rappahannock, cross both that river and the Rapidan, and attack Lee’s left flank and rear
- One section would cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and launch a diversionary attack on that town
- One section would stay in reserve, poised to reinforce either of the other two as needed
On Sunday the 26th, Hooker assigned the first infantry section to start marching north the next day. It consisted of three corps:
- Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps
- Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps
- Major General George G. Meade’s V Corps
These corps were chosen because they were farthest from Lee’s army and thus could best avoid detection. They were to arrive at Kelly’s Ford no later than 4 p.m. on the 28th. They would then cross the Rappahannock, turn south, and then cross the Rapidan at Ely’s and Germanna fords. From there they would take the Orange Turnpike to Chancellorsville, a small village eight miles west of Lee near a patch of dense undergrowth called the Wilderness.
Stoneman’s cavalry would cross even further up the Rappahannock, “without discovering itself to the enemy.” Then, after the first infantry section was upon Lee’s left and rear, the second section would begin demonstrating in front of Fredericksburg. This section also consisted of three corps:
- Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps
- Major General John J. Reynolds’s I Corps
- Major General Daniel E. Sickles’s III Corps
Major General Darius N. Couch’s II Corps would form the third section. Most of Couch’s men would follow the first section, while a division stayed behind to join the demonstration.
Hooker had 138,387 effectives while Lee had no more than 62,500. This was the most numerically inferior that Lee had been since the day before the Battle of Antietam. Nevertheless, he still looked to take the offensive because he knew that staying on defense would not drive the Federals out of Virginia or win Confederate independence.
Hooker employed strict secrecy with his plans. He explained his reasoning to Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal garrison under siege at Suffolk, who had asked Hooker for help:
“I have communicated to no one what my intentions are. If you were here, I could properly and willingly impart them to you. So much is found out by the enemy in my front with regard to movements, that I have concealed my designs from my own staff, and I dare not intrust them to the wires, know as I do that they are so often tapped.”
Hooker’s first infantry section began moving out on the 27th as scheduled. The men left their winter quarters at Falmouth under a slow rain. To avoid alerting the Confederates across the river, the men marched in silence, and bands were not allowed to play. Engineers laid pontoon bridges at Kelly’s Ford, and the Federals crossed without incident.
President Abraham Lincoln, anxious for news, wrote, “How does it look now?” Hooker replied, “I am not sufficiently advanced to give an opinion. We are busy. Will tell you all soon as I can, and have it satisfactory.” The army executed the first part of Hooker’s plan with precision and skill.
Lee, who still could not guess Hooker’s objective, began fearing that his force may not be up to the challenge. He wrote President Jefferson Davis, “I feel by no means strong, and from the condition of our horses and the amount of our supplies, I am unable even to act on the defensive as vigorously as circumstances may require.”
When Longstreet requested that the rest of his corps be sent to him at Suffolk, Lee refused because he needed the men to fend off Hooker. Lee advised, “As regards your aggressive movement upon Suffolk, you must act according to your good judgment. If a damaging blow could be struck there or elsewhere of course it would be advantageous.” Longstreet’s main mission had been to gather supplies for Lee’s army, but it was now turning into a quest to capture Suffolk.
On the 28th, Stoneman’s cavalry crossed the Rappahannock and began riding south to disrupt Lee’s lines. Yesterday’s slow rain intensified, threatening to slow the infantry march. Hooker arrived at Morrisville as the troops moved south of the Rappahannock, where he sent a messenger to Slocum: “The general desires that not a moment be lost until our troops are established at or near Chancellorsville. From that moment all will be ours.”
Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, informed Lee that “a large body of infantry and artillery was passing up the river.” But Lee still did not know if this was an attack or a feint.
That night, the Federal march was back on schedule. Hooker directed Professor Thaddeus Lowe, army chief of aeronautics, to use an observation balloon “to see where the enemy’s campfires are. Someone acquainted with the position and location of the ground and of the enemy’s forces should go up.” Meanwhile, Lincoln continued asking for details on the advance. He wired Hooker’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, “Where is Gen. Hooker? Where is Sedgwick? where is Stoneman?”
Back at Fredericksburg, Hooker’s second infantry section, led by Sedgwick, prepared to begin demonstrating in Lee’s front. Engineers laid pontoon bridges, and the Confederates on the heights south and west of town prepared their defenses. Bells rang in the Fredericksburg Episcopal Church to alarm the Confederates. But it was becoming increasingly clear that the main Federal attack would take place somewhere else.
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