May 31, 1863 – Major General Joseph Hooker replaced his cavalry commander, Confederates raided his depot, and General Robert E. Lee sought to hurry his planned northern invasion.
With the Federal Army of the Potomac back at Falmouth following the Chancellorsville debacle, Major General George Stoneman, commanding the Cavalry Corps, requested a sick leave. Hooker, who believed that Stoneman’s failed raid in April and early May had contributed to the defeat, quickly granted his request.
Hooker replaced Stoneman with Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, a self-promoter who claimed that his cavalry division had saved the Federal army from destruction during the Confederate flank attack on May 2. Pleasonton took command of three divisions and a reserve brigade. He ordered each trooper to carry on horseback only “his arms, the rations of forage and subsistence ordered, one blanket besides the saddle blanket, and that under the saddle, and an overcoat.”
Pleasonton reported to Hooker that while the Cavalry Corps had numbered “upward of 12,000 men and horses” two months ago, it was now down to less than 5,000 and “not fitted to take the field.” He added, “In taking this command, I cannot do myself such an injustice as to remain silent as to the unsatisfactory condition in which I find this corps.” Even so, Pleasonton would “use every exertion to bring it to a state of efficiency at the earliest possible moment.”
Pleasonton’s gloomy report prompted Hooker to use his cavalry sparingly, thus limiting his ability to reconnoiter the Confederate army. However, when scouts reported Confederate activity between Culpeper and Warrenton, possibly led by prominent partisan John S. Mosby, Hooker made it clear to Pleasonton that “no labor be spared to ascertain the true object of the movement. At all events, they have no business on this side of the (Rappahannock) river.”
Pleasonton sent Brigadier General John Buford with a division and the reserve brigade to investigate the activity. Pleasonton directed,
“On arriving at Bealton, should you find yourself with sufficient force, you will drive the enemy out of his camp near Culpeper and across the Rapidan, destroying the bridge at that point. The advance of the enemy’s cavalry in the vicinity of Warrenton may have for its object to conceal a movement in force up the (Shenandoah) Valley.”
Major General George G. Meade’s V Corps joined the troopers in patrolling the upper Rappahannock.
Rumors soon spread that Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry was at Culpeper, and Mosby’s partisan rangers were at Warrenton. This raised Federal concerns about a possible cavalry raid on Washington. However, it was learned that Mosby had just a small force between Falmouth and Washington, while Stuart remained south of the Rappahannock.
Nevertheless, General Julius Stahel, commanding Federals at Fairfax Court House, warned Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, commanding the Washington defenses, “It is the current conversation and belief that Stuart is to be this (east) side of the Blue Ridge within a week. All the events and circumstances indicate such to be the fact.”
On the night of the 29th, with Federal commanders addressing rumors of Stuart’s impending advance, Mosby met with his partisans and planned a raid on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. They planned to ride to Greenwich, northeast of Warrenton, and then attack the Federal supply depot at Catlett’s Station.
The next morning, the Confederates cut telegraph lines, took out a section of railroad track, and waited for the next supply train to approach. The train quickly halted, and Mosby’s men used a howitzer to scatter the Federal guards detraining to assess the threat. The Confederates looted the 11 cars, taking “morning papers, several bags with the United States mail, boxes of oranges and candy, leather for boots, and nearly every one got a fresh shad.”
Mosby used the howitzer to destroy the train’s engine, and his partisans rode off before Pleasonton’s cavalry could arrive. The Confederates turned and fired their cannon into the lead Federal unit in pursuit and then charged, sending the Federals fleeing. However, more Federals soon came up and threatened Mosby’s right. Mosby later reported to Stuart, “Though overpowered by numbers, many of the enemy were made to bite the dust.” His partisans scattered and fled, leaving the howitzer behind. Both sides suffered about a dozen casualties each.
By month’s end, Hooker received information from his chief of intelligence that “the Confederate army is under marching orders” and would probably “move forward upon or above our right flank.” Meanwhile, Lee heard rumors that Hooker may advance against him again. The prospect of another costly battle south of the Rappahannock River made Lee even more anxious to start moving toward Pennsylvania.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 16; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5684