Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, had planned to coax General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia out of its defenses at Fredericksburg into an open fight. To do this, Hooker had relied on Major-General George Stoneman’s Cavalry Corps to move around Lee’s left (north) flank. But Stoneman had been thwarted by heavy rains, and so President Abraham Lincoln felt compelled to visit Hooker in person to discuss future strategy.
On the night of April 18, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wrote Hooker, “The President will leave here for Aquia to see you to-morrow morning at 7 o’clock, expecting to reach there about 10 a. m. Can you meet him there?” Lincoln left as planned, joined by General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck and (because Hooker and Halleck would not speak to one another) Stanton.
Lincoln did not tell anyone where he was going; all his secretary John Hay knew was, as he wrote to fellow secretary John Nicolay (currently in North Carolina), that the “President and the Secretary of War went off on a reconnaissance yesterday, I suppose to Aquia Creek, but returned in the evening. What they did or saw has not transpired.”
At the meeting, Hooker explained that Stoneman was still in a good position to disrupt Confederate communication and supply lines, so all was not lost. Lincoln noted that Lee had detached part of one corps under Lieutenant-General James Longstreet to take Suffolk, leaving his army with 15,000 fewer men. Lincoln wanted Hooker to attack before those men returned.
Stanton offered to give Hooker authority over Major-General John A. Dix, commanding the department over Suffolk, so Hooker and Dix could coordinate their movements. Hooker declined. When he was asked where Dix’s troops should be placed to best help him, Hooker said they should threaten Longstreet’s Confederates at Suffolk to prevent them from returning to Lee.
Hooker then modified his original plan by transferring the task of moving around Lee’s flank from Stoneman’s cavalry to the infantry. Stoneman would move even farther beyond Lee’s flank to disrupt Confederate lines of communication and supply, but this time Hooker would not wait for him to start moving before the infantry began its march. The Federals would begin moving as soon as the rains stopped and the river lowered. Lincoln and his advisors returned to Washington that night.
Confidence was still high within the Army of the Potomac. An observer at Hooker’s headquarters reported that the commanding general had “all that it is necessary to know in regard to the enemy, every regiment and brigade, division, etc., all their latest arrivals and departures, etc., all collated, compared from many sources, and fully confirmed. The secret service of Gen. Hooker is far superior to anything that has ever been here before.”
Meanwhile, Major-General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal garrison at Suffolk (within Dix’s department), urged Hooker to do something to force Longstreet to lift his siege of the city. But Hooker wanted Longstreet to stay put so he could not reinforce Lee. When Peck asked Hooker to hurry along with his plan, Hooker replied, “You must be patient with me. I must play with these devils before I can spring. Remember that my army is at the bottom of a well, and the enemy holds the top.”
Two days passed, and still neither Stoneman nor the infantry could cross the flooded Rappahannock. Hooker wrote to Lincoln, “The weather appears to continue averse to the execution of my plans as first formed. I feel that I must modify them to conform to the condition of things as they are.” Hooker had been “attached to the movement as first projected, as it promised unusual success.” An alternate plan would also “secure us success, but not to so great an extent…”
Hooker wrote, “As I can only cross the river by stratagem, it may be a few days before I make it.” He planned to advance from several different points “and be in readiness to spring when a suitable opportunity presents itself.” His clear initial plan had now become a vague alternate plan.
The confidence that had pervaded Hooker’s headquarters now started turning sour. Captain William L. Candler of Hooker’s staff wrote on the 24th, “It seems as though it were never to stop raining; the longer it rains the harder it seems to come down… every one is moving around in an aimless, nervous way, looking at the clouds and then at the ground, and in knots trying to convince themselves that it is going to clear off and they will be able to move day after to-morrow.”
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
- Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1996.