Hooker’s Pursuit Begins

June 10, 1863 – Major General Joseph Hooker put the Federal Army of the Potomac in motion as General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia approached the Shenandoah Valley.

Lee’s Confederates resumed their march on the 10th, despite the toll the Battle of Brandy Station had taken on Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps took the lead, moving northwest from Culpeper Court House toward the Shenandoah Valley and the fords on the Potomac River.

Gen R.E. Lee and Maj Gen J. Hooker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

During the movement, Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis about a subject he rarely discussed: politics. Lee sought to inform Davis about “the manner in which the demonstration of a desire for peace at the North has been received in our country.” Lee felt that the Confederacy needed to help cultivate the growing peace movement in the North to gain independence.

Lee wrote, “We should not conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing, and the disproportion in this respect between us and our enemies, if they continue united in their efforts to subjugate us, is steadily augmenting.” The time would come when the Federals’ resources would be too great to overcome militarily, thus efforts needed to be made to divide the northern home front by supporting the Copperheads (i.e., anti-war Democrats). Lee asserted:

“Should the belief that peace will bring back the Union become general, the war would no longer be supported, and that, after all, is what we are interested in bringing about. When peace is proposed to us, it will be time enough to discuss its terms, and it is not the part of prudence to spurn the proposition in advance, merely because those who made it believe, or affect to believe, that it will result in bringing us back to the Union.”

Lee concluded that if Davis agreed with these points, then “you will best know how to give effect to them.”

For the Lincoln administration, the Brandy Station engagement confirmed that the Confederates posed a potential threat to the Shenandoah Valley, stretching northward into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Panic began spreading in those states, as the governors of both Maryland and Pennsylvania urged citizens to rise up and defend their homes.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton assigned Major General William T.H. Brooks to command the new Department of the Monongahela, headquartered at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was intended to counter possible Confederate raids into that region, which had formerly been part of the Middle Department and the Department of Ohio.

Stanton also assigned Major General Darius N. Couch to command the new Department of the Susquehanna, headquartered at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Formerly second in command in the Army of the Potomac, Couch was reassigned after expressing disgust over Hooker’s performance at Chancellorsville and refusing to serve under him any longer.

Couch issued orders to raise a volunteer corps to defend Pennsylvania. This resulted in the recruitment of several companies of men serving for 100 days. Brooks also began trying to raise militia to augment his volunteer forces. However, he managed to raise just one partially armed regiment, mainly because the government discouraged militia recruitment in favor of volunteer enlistments.

The Battle of Brandy Station indicated to the Federals that most of the Confederate cavalry was near Culpeper, meaning that Washington was in no danger of being attacked. Also, Hooker believed that most of Lee’s army had left Fredericksburg and headed north, even though he was still not sure what Lee planned to do.

Hooker told President Abraham Lincoln that if this was true, then Lee “can leave nothing behind to interpose any serious obstacle of my rapid advance on Richmond.” He therefore asked, “will it not promote the true interest of the cause for me to march to Richmond at once?… I do not hesitate to say that I should adopt this course as being the most speedy and certain mode of giving the rebellion a mortal blow.” Lincoln quickly responded:

“If left to me, I would not go south of Rappahannock upon Lee’s moving north of it. If you had Richmond invested today, you would not be able to take it in 20 days; meanwhile your communications, and with them your army, would be ruined. I think Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point. If he comes toward the Upper Potomac, follow on his flank and on his inside track, shortening your lines whilst he lengthens his. Fight him, too, when opportunity offers. If he stays where he is, fret him and fret him.”

Part of Hooker’s army began marching north on the morning of the 11th, pursuing Lee but staying on what Lincoln called the “inside track.” Hooker was required to keep his army between Lee in his front and Washington in his rear, even though he still did not know Lee’s exact location. Most of his army remained at Falmouth.

Hooker received various reports from cavalry, scouts, and observation balloons, but some of them conflicted. In fact, Hooker wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on the 12th, “It is reported to me from the balloon that several new rebel camps have made their appearance this morning. There can be no doubt but that the enemy has been greatly re-enforced.” That afternoon, Hooker wrote Major General John A. Dix, commanding at Fort Monroe:

“All of Lee’s army, so far as I know, is extended along the immediate bands of the Rappahannock, from Hamilton’s Crossing (south of Fredericksburg) to Culpeper. A.P. Hill’s corps is on his right, below Fredericksburg. Ewell’s corps joins his left, leading to the Rapidan; and beyond that river is (James) Longstreet’s corps, with not less than 10,000 cavalry, under Stuart… From my balloon it can be seen that he is daily receiving acquisitions. He has a numerical superiority over me.”

Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, heading the Federal Cavalry Corps, reported to Hooker, “I am inclined to believe they will not send off their cavalry or make a move until they are satisfied of ours. The information I receive is that they will play the defensive until we make a false step.”

On the 13th, Pleasonton passed along rumors that Ewell’s corps was now approaching the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge. Unaware that Ewell was already in the Shenandoah Valley, Hooker directed his army to transfer its base of operations from Falmouth to Manassas Junction, keeping between Lee and Washington. The Federals began pulling out of Falmouth that night, leaving the camps they had occupied since November of last year.

Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Confederates began moving out of the Fredericksburg defenses on the 14th, after reporting that Hooker was leaving Falmouth. While Ewell invested the Federals at Winchester, Lieutenant General Longstreet’s corps controlled the gaps in the Blue Ridge so Hill and the rest of the army could march through.

Confusion reigned in Washington. Halleck notified Hooker, “Pleasonton’s telegrams… contain all the information we have of the enemy’s movements. They are very contradictory.” Finally realizing that Lee might invade the North, Hooker warned Brooks at Pittsburgh to be on alert. Brooks frantically tried raising volunteers. Hooker wrote Lincoln, “If the enemy should be making for Maryland, I will make the best dispositions in my power to come up with him.”

Lincoln replied, “If the head of Lee’s army is at Martinsburg and the tail of it on the Plank road between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?” The next day, Hooker conceded that “it is not in my power to prevent” Lee from invading the North. Lincoln issued a call for 100,000 militia volunteers in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Panic spread through Baltimore.



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