Major-General Joseph Hooker had over 133,000 polished troops in his new and improved Federal Army of the Potomac. They were camped on the heights around Falmouth, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg in northeastern Virginia. Conversely, General Robert E. Lee had only about 60,000 men in his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederates held a fortified line that ran from Fredericksburg south along the Rappahannock to Port Royal.
Hooker received intelligence that the Confederates were short on food and supplies, so he wanted to coax them out of their earthworks into an open fight, where his superior numbers could overwhelm them. To do this, Hooker intended to cut Lee’s supply lines by sending Major-General George Stoneman’s new Cavalry Corps around Lee’s flank to get between the Confederates and Richmond.
Major-General Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff, was sent to Washington on April 12 to present this plan to President Abraham Lincoln. Insisting on strict secrecy, Hooker ordered Butterfield to share it with nobody but Lincoln himself. Butterfield arrived at the White House just as a cabinet meeting was ending; he was forced to fend off curious questions from the cabinet ministers before he could get a private meeting with the president. Butterfield noted that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was “black as a thundercloud,” and “anger and displeasure and disappointment were plainly expressed as if by words.”
Butterfield finally delivered Hooker’s message to Lincoln. “After giving the subject my best reflection,” Hooker wrote, “I have concluded that I will have more chance of inflicting a serious blow upon the Enemy by turning his position on my right.” He would do this by sending Major-General George Stoneman’s new Cavalry Corps across the Rappahannock at a crossing beyond the Confederate left flank.
Once across the river, the troopers would then ride west, spreading rumors that they were heading for the Shenandoah Valley. The Federals would move through Culpeper Court House and Gordonsville, following the Virginia Central Railroad to Hanover Junction. They were to destroy “the railroad bridges, trains, cars, depots of provisions, lines of telegraphic communication, etc.” along the way. As Stoneman moved, Hooker would mobilize the army and cross the Rappahannock at either United States Ford or Kelly’s Ford, depending on Stoneman’s progress. Hooker’s plan relied almost exclusively on the amount of Stoneman’s success.
Hooker somehow believed that Lee might retreat before the Federals even gave battle: “I am apprehensive that he will retire from before me the moment I should succeed in crossing the river, and thus escape being seriously crippled.” If this happened, Stoneman would “hold him and check his retreat until I can fall on his rear.” Hooker concluded, “I hope, Mr. President, that this plan will receive your approval.” Lincoln sent his approval, and Hooker planned to send Stoneman’s “Dragoon force” the next day.
Hooker directed Stoneman to “select the strongest positions, such as the banks of streams, commanding heights, etc., in order to check or prevent” Lee’s escape. If that was not possible, Stoneman was to “fall upon his flanks, attack his artillery and trains, and harass and delay him until he is exhausted and out of supplies.” If Lee moved toward Culpeper, Stoneman was to “harass him day and night on the march and in camp unceasingly.”
Hooker stressed that “the initiative in the forward movement of the grand army,” upon him “must depend on a great measure the extent and brilliancy of our success. Bear in mind that celerity, audacity, and resolution are everything in war.” The orders concluded, “Let your watchword be fight, and let your orders be fight, fight, fight, bearing in mind that time is as valuable to the general as the rebel carcasses.”
Stoneman rode out of Falmouth on the 13th. His force consisted of 10,000 cavalrymen in three divisions and an artillery brigade, or nearly the entire Cavalry Corps. The men carried 10 days’ rations. Hooker directed Stoneman to communicate with him only when “necessary and practicable,” while Hooker would contact him “before your supplies are exhausted.”
Meanwhile, Hooker issued orders to his seven infantry corps commanders: rations and ammunition were to be distributed among the men, and they must be ready to move out by the 15th. But Hooker maintained his secrecy about the objective. One of his engineers, Washington A. Roebling (who would later become engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge), wrote, “Although the chances are that the move will take place tomorrow or next day, everybody is still in utter ignorance as to the direction of our march; that fact alone speaks volumes in favor of Hooker’s management and discretion, and is without parallel in the previous history of the war.”
As Stoneman’s troopers rode past Lee’s left flank, the lead brigade crossed the Rappahannock over 30 miles northwest of Fredericksburg, driving Confederate guards away from the fords. Stoneman waited at the main crossing for the rest of his force to come up. As he waited, rain began falling, forcing the lead brigade to re-cross the river before it flooded. The rain turned heavy, and the artillerists were having a hard time bringing their guns up.
Stoneman spent most of the 14th developing a plan to cross the Rappahannock at four different points where Confederate resistance would be minimal. This differed from Hooker’s directive to cross at two main fords, regardless of Confederate presence, and “fight, fight, fight.” Hooker’s first offensive as army commander was off to an inauspicious start.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Power, J. Tracy (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1996.