The Finest Army on the Planet

President Abraham Lincoln had been in regular communication with Major-General Joseph Hooker, the new commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac. As things stood, the Federals were encamped in and around Falmouth in northern Virginia. Opposing them was General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, just across the Rappahannock River in and around Fredericksburg.

Hooker planned to use his new Cavalry Corps, led by Major-General George Stoneman, to draw the Confederates out of their trenches so that his numerically superior Federals could face them in an open fight. After defeating them, Hooker expected Lee to retreat into the Confederate capital of Richmond. To that end, Hooker submitted requisitions for siege equipment to be ready when his army arrived outside Richmond. This included 10,000 shovels, 5,000 picks, 5,000 axes, sandbags, and a naval flotilla to bring 1.5 million rations up the Pamunkey River for the troops. Hooker also directed all corps commanders to move surplus baggage to the rear.

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: American Battlefield Trust

But Hooker still had some organizational issues to deal with. Major-General Franz Sigel, a former German revolutionary, had been given command of the Eleventh Corps, which consisted of a large number of German immigrants. This dissatisfied Sigel because, as the ranking general in the Potomac army, he felt he deserved to command the army’s largest corps.

Sigel asked Lincoln to intervene on his behalf, but Lincoln told him that he had been given “as good a command as he can, and desired him to do the best with it.” Sigel resigned in protest, stating, “The reduction of my command… makes it exceedingly unpleasant and dispiriting for me.” He was replaced by Major-General Oliver O. Howard, a competent professional soldier who was not necessarily suited to head a contingent of troops unaccustomed to American military protocols.

In late March, Hooker had invited President Lincoln to review the Potomac army at Falmouth. Lincoln wired his acceptance, informing Hooker that he would be arriving at Aquia Landing on Easter Sunday, April 5. Lincoln added, “Our party will probably not exceed six persons of all sorts.” Lincoln, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, his son Tad (celebrating his 10th birthday), Attorney General Edward Bates, old Springfield friend Dr. Anson G. Henry, and Sacramento Union correspondent Noah Brooks boarded the steamer Carrie Martin and set out in an unseasonably heavy snowstorm.

When the presidential party landed at the wharf, a special train decorated with patriotic flags and bunting awaited them. The train brought the visitors to Hooker’s headquarters, three miles from the Rappahannock River at Falmouth. Hooker explained that he had planned to stage a review, but the snowstorm had caused it to be delayed. Hooker’s chief of staff, Major-General Daniel Butterfield, showed the guests to their quarters, which consisted of three large hospital tents.

By the 6th, the snow had melted enough for Hooker and Stoneman to stage a cavalry review of the “finest army on the planet” for their visitors. The presidential party watched over 15,000 horsemen pass them in the largest concentration of cavalry ever assembled on the continent. According to an officer, the troopers “stretched out right and left as far as they could carry.”

Young Tad especially enjoyed the pageantry. Hooker made sure to stage the review in plain sight of the Confederates across the Rappahannock as an impressive show of force. This worried Provost Marshal Marsena Patrick, who wrote that enemy artillerists “have had us in plain sight all day, & if they had desired, could have dropped a shell amongst us.” But Hooker hoped that such reviews would boost army morale. He told Lincoln, “I only regret that your party is not as large as our hospitality.”

Attorney General Bates called the cavalry parade “the grandest sight I ever saw.” He later wrote, “The only cheering thing I have seen this half year is Hooker’s army. He has renewed it, in courage, strength, spirit, confidence. He told me with emphasis that he had as many men as he wanted, & as good men.” Bates worried that he may be too optimistic, “But seeing what Hooker has done in the rehabilitation of that army, I do not doubt that he will use it as effectively as he has reformed & inspired it.”

The infantry took center stage over the next few days, as nearly 85,000 troops in four army corps marched past President and Mrs. Lincoln and their son in lines stretching for miles on Falmouth Heights. A Pennsylvania officer called this “the most magnificent military pageant ever witnessed on this continent.” A correspondent on the scene reported that “the President merely touched his hat in return salute to the officers, but uncovered to the men in the ranks.”

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:

Lincoln and Hooker sat upon their horses beside each other, with Lincoln in his usual tailcoat and stovepipe hat, and Hooker in full dress uniform. Many soldiers considered Lincoln “an ungainly looking man,” but they cheered him out of respect “for his integrity, and good management of the war.” A soldier described the first lady as “a pleasant, but not an intelligent looking woman.”

When not attending reviews, Lincoln met with Hooker to discuss strategy. Lincoln began a statement with, “If you get to Richmond, General,” which prompted Hooker to cut him off. “Excuse me, Mr. President,” he said, “but there is no ‘if’ in this case. I am going straight to Richmond if I live.” Lincoln later told Noah Brooks, “That is the most depressing thing about Hooker. It seems to me that he is over-confident.” The president later added, “The hen is the wisest of all the animal creation, because she never cackles until the egg is laid.”

Lincoln also had reservations about Hooker’s idea of getting around the Confederate army and his recent request for siege equipment. This seemed to indicate that Hooker’s grand objective was the enemy capital and not the enemy army. Lincoln tried to settle this matter with a memorandum, in which he wrote that “there is no eligible route for us into Richmond… Hence our prime object is the enemies’ army in front of us, and is not with, or about, Richmond…”

Confident that Washington was adequately protected, Lincoln asserted that Lee’s Confederates “could not derange the Army of the Potomac” with “raids towards Washington.” Conversely, Hooker’s Federals “have such operations which may call him away, at least in part.” Lincoln wanted to avoid the potential disaster of a frontal attack such as that at Fredericksburg, “but we should continually harass and menace him, so that he shall have no leisure, nor safety in sending away detachments. If he weakens himself, then pitch into him.”

Before leaving on the 10th, Lincoln met with Hooker one last time. The Army of the Potomac now numbered 133,450 effectives and 70 batteries totaling 412 guns. The Confederates had less than half this strength. Lincoln summoned Major-General Darius N. Couch, the senior corps commander, to join them. When Couch arrived, Lincoln made sure that both he and Hooker heard what he had to say: “I want to impress upon you two gentlemen, in your next fight, put in all your men.”


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