Hooker Tries Learning Lee’s Intentions

June 5, 1863 – Major General Joseph Hooker struggled to learn General Robert E. Lee’s true intentions as the Confederates moved around the Federal right in northern Virginia.

Federal Major General Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: Sonofthesouth.net

During the night, Confederate deserters came into the Federal lines claiming to have belonged to Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This was Hooker’s first indication that Longstreet had rejoined Lee after besieging Suffolk last month. Hooker notified President Abraham Lincoln that the Confederate army had been unified “for no other purpose but to enable the enemy to move up the river, with a view to the execution of a movement similar to that of Lee’s (Maryland campaign) last year.”

Hooker supposed Lee might “cross the Upper Potomac,” but he believed Lee truly intended to “throw his army between mine and Washington.” Hooker then asked, “As I am liable to be called on to make a movement with the utmost promptitude, I desire that I may be informed as early as practicable of the views of the Government concerning this army.”

Hooker wanted to preëmpt Lee’s supposed offensive by crossing the Rappahannock River and attacking the remaining Confederate defenders west of Fredericksburg. He proposed “to pitch into the enemy’s rear,” and asked, “Will it be within the sphere of my instructions to do so?”

As Hooker awaited a reply, Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps conducted the probing mission that Hooker had ordered. The Federals crossed the Rappahannock and approached the Confederate defenses that scouts and balloonists had claimed were abandoned. If the defenses proved weak, it could indicate that Lee was moving north in earnest. Only Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps remained in the defensive works.

Confederate sharpshooters quickly repelled Federal troops wading across the river near Deep Run. Sedgwick then directed engineers to lay pontoon bridges so more men could cross. Once the bridges were set, the Federals charged across the river and, under fire, seized the enemy rifle pits. They then advanced toward the nearby woods, but hidden Confederates drove them back. Sedgwick, unaware that he had faced just Hill’s men, reported that Lee’s army remained at Fredericksburg in force.

Despite Sedgwick’s claim, Hooker still believed that Lee’s main movement was to the north. He directed several reconnaissances to determine Lee’s true intentions. By this time, Lincoln had responded to Hooker’s request to attack Fredericksburg; the president warned Hooker against such an action, arguing that if Lee left a small force behind, it could be because he wanted Hooker to attack it.

Lincoln had “but one idea which I think worth suggesting to you, and that is, in case you find Lee coming north of the Rappahannock, I would by no means cross to the south of it… I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs, front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other.”

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck also responded, asking, “Would it not be more advantageous to fight his movable column first, instead of first attacking his intrenchments, with your own forces separated by the Rappahannock?” Halleck reminded Hooker that while the army’s main goal was to destroy Lee’s army, it was also required to guard Washington and Harpers Ferry. With that in mind, Halleck warned, “Lee will seek to hold you in check with his main force, while a strong force will be detached for a raid into Maryland and Pennsylvania.”

Meanwhile, Major General Jeb Stuart conducted a grand review of his Confederate cavalry at Brandy Station. Five brigades totaling 8,000 troopers with flying colors rode past dignitaries, ladies, and other spectators assembled in grandstands, carriages, and railroad cars. At Stuart’s request, Secretary of War James A. Seddon also attended. A staff officer later wrote:

“Eight thousand cavalry passed under the eye of their commander, in column of squadrons, first at a walk, and then at the charge, while the guns of the artillery battalion, on the hill opposite the stand, gave forth fire and smoke, and seemed almost to convert the pageant into real warfare. It was a brilliant day, and the thirst for the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of war was fully satisfied.”

Several ladies fainted at the impressive sight. But not all Confederates appreciated the show. Brigadier General William “Grumble” Jones, recently attached to Lee’s army from the Shenandoah Valley, had “a disdainful air, for he hated the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of war.” His men, like their commander, “grumbled at the useless waste of energy, especially that of the horses.”

That night, Stuart held a grand ball attended by the ladies and his officers. By that time, Longstreet’s lead division under Major General John Bell Hood was at Culpeper Court House, and all Confederates except for Hill’s corps had left Fredericksburg.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18977; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 292; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 436-37, 447; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 304-05; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5696; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 362; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 286, 307-08

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One thought on “Hooker Tries Learning Lee’s Intentions

  1. […] Hooker Tries Learning Lee’s Intentions […]

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