As each day went by, pressure increased on Major-General Joseph Hooker to mobilize his Federal Army of the Potomac. Hooker’s army had been encamped around Falmouth since its defeat at Fredericksburg in December, while General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia remained posted in defenses just across the Rappahannock River.
Hooker’s first attempt to launch an offensive had been thwarted by rain, and time was not on his side. Northern dissatisfaction with the war effort was mounting, and 27,000 Federal troops were set to leave the army when their enlistments expired in May. Hooker needed to strike quickly, especially now that part of Lee’s army under Lieutenant-General James Longstreet had been sent to Suffolk.
While Hooker continued finalizing his revised plan, small Federal units operated at Kelly’s Ford and the Rappahannock Bridge north of Fredericksburg, and Federals raided Port Royal south of Fredericksburg two days later. Confederate spies informed Lee that all of Hooker’s rear units had been brought up to join the main army. Lee put his army on alert that the Federals would soon be on the move once more.
Nearly two weeks of rain finally ended on April 25, and warm weather soon dried the roads. Hooker’s plan began falling into place. He would avoid the Fredericksburg strategy of attacking the Confederates head-on by instead moving around them, thereby forcing them into an open fight where the Federals could defeat them with superior numbers. Federal cavalry would continue its mission to cut Lee’s communication and supply lines, while the infantry would split into three columns:
- One column would march north along the Rappahannock, cross both that river and the Rapidan, and attack Lee’s left flank and rear
- One column would cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg and launch a diversionary attack on that town
- One column would stay in reserve, poised to reinforce either of the other two as needed
On Sunday the 26th, Hooker assigned the first infantry column to start marching north the next day. This “flying column” consisted of three corps:
- Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps
- Major-General Henry W. Slocum’s Twelfth Corps
- Major-General George G. Meade’s Fifth Corps
These corps were chosen because they were farthest from Lee’s army and thus could best avoid detection. They were to arrive at Kelly’s Ford no later than 4 p.m. on the 28th. They would then cross the Rappahannock, turn south, and then cross the Rapidan at Ely’s and Germanna fords. From there they would take the Orange Turnpike to Chancellorsville, a small village eight miles west of Lee near a patch of dense undergrowth called the Wilderness.
The cavalry, led by Major-General George Stoneman, would cross even further up the Rappahannock, “without discovering itself to the enemy.” Then, after the flying column was upon Lee’s left and rear, the second column would begin demonstrating in front of Fredericksburg. This contingent also consisted of three corps:
- Major-General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps
- Major-General John J. Reynolds’s First Corps
- Major-General Daniel E. Sickles’s Third Corps
Major-General Darius N. Couch’s Second Corps would form the third column. Most of Couch’s men would follow the flying column, while a division would stay behind to join the Fredericksburg demonstration.
Hooker had 138,387 effectives while Lee had no more than 62,500. This was the largest numerical disparity between the two armies since the day before the Battle of Antietam. Nevertheless, Lee still looked to take the offensive because he knew that staying on defense would neither drive the Federals out of Virginia nor win Confederate independence.
Hooker employed strict secrecy with his plans. He explained his reasoning to Major-General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal garrison under siege at Suffolk, who had asked Hooker for help: “I have communicated to no one what my intentions are. If you were here, I could properly and willingly impart them to you. So much is found out by the enemy in my front with regard to movements, that I have concealed my designs from my own staff, and I dare not intrust them to the wires, know as I do that they are so often tapped.”
On the Confederate side, Lee joined his Second Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and about 2,000 officers and men for religious services on the 26th. The reverend delivered a sermon on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man from the Book of Luke. According to Jedediah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s cartographer, the day was “pleasant, with a fresh breeze.” None present had any idea of what the Federals had in store for them.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 265-66
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5302-14
- Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 118-20
- Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1996, Kindle Edition), p. 168
- Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 127-29