We Cannot Control the Elements

Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, planned to confront General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg in northeastern Virginia. To do this, Hooker sent Major-General George Stoneman’s Cavalry Corps up the Rappahannock River to cross far beyond Lee’s left flank and harass the Confederate supply line to the point that it would force Lee out into the open, where his army could be destroyed by superior numbers.

Stoneman had set out on April 13 and sent his lead brigade across the river, but then had to pull it back due to rain swelling the waterway. He informed Hooker that his force would be across the river by daylight on the 15th. But according to Provost Marshal Marsena Patrick, “in truth & reality, a terrible rain” began pouring at 2 o’clock that morning and continued for the next 24 hours. Stoneman asserted that this was “one of the most violent rainstorms I have ever been caught in.”

Confident that Stoneman would be across the river before it swelled too high, Hooker wired President Abraham Lincoln that Stoneman should be behind Lee’s lines by the 17th “if he should meet with no unusual delay… I am rejoiced that Stoneman had two good days to go up the river, and was able to cross it before it had become too much swollen. If he can reach his position (deep in the enemy rear) the storm and mud will not damage our prospects.”

But then Stoneman notified Hooker that he had been able to cross only one of his three divisions, and he would have to leave his artillery behind due to the deep mud. Hooker replied, “As you stated in your communication of yesterday that you would be over the river with your command at daylight this morning, it was so communicated to Washington, and it was hoped that the crossing had been made in advance of the rise in the river.”

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Regarding the artillery, Hooker wrote that if the Federals could not “make use of that arm of the service, the enemy cannot.” On the threat of Confederate infantry once Stoneman crossed the river, Hooker wrote, “it is not probable, in the event of your being able to advance, that you will be troubled by the infantry of the enemy.”

Hooker then wired Lincoln, “His artillery has been brought to a halt by the mud, one division only having crossed the river. If practicable, he will proceed without it. All the streams are swimming.” Lincoln, troubled by the delay, quickly responded:

“The rain and mud, of course, were to be calculated upon. General S. is not moving rapidly enough to make the expedition come to anything. He has now been out three days, two of which were unusually fair weather, and all three without hindrance from the enemy, and yet he is not 25 miles from where he started. To reach his point he still has 60 to go, another river (the Rapidan) to cross, and will be hindered by the enemy. By arithmetic, how many days will it take him to do it?… I greatly fear it is another failure already. Write me often. I am very anxious.”

Stoneman provided an update to Hooker on the 16th:

“I cannot say what has been the state of affairs away from this vicinity, but here, at the hour of my last dispatch, the condition of things may be judged of when I tell you that almost every rivulet was swimming, and the roads next to impassable for horses or pack-mules… The river is out of its banks, and was still on the rise a few hours ago… The elements seem to have conspired to prevent the accomplishment of a brilliant cavalry operation.”

Like the “mud march” in January, another Federal offensive was thwarted by the rain. Hooker reported to Lincoln on Stoneman’s unsuccessful excursion:

“His failure to accomplish speedily the objects of his expedition is a source of deep regret to me, but I can find nothing in his conduct of it requiring my animadversion or censure. We cannot control the elements. I do not regard him out of position. We have no reason to suppose that the enemy have any knowledge of the design of General Stoneman’s movement.”

All Hooker could do was to keep Stoneman “in readiness to march as soon after the roads and rivers will permit… I still hope to turn his movement to some good account. We have no reason to suppose that the enemy have any knowledge of the design of General Stoneman’s movement.”

But for now, Hooker’s grand plan to cut the Confederates’ supply line and force them out into an open fight fizzled in the pouring rain.


  • Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1996.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.

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