Major-General Joseph Hooker’s Federal Army of the Potomac was poised to begin its grand offensive on the morning of April 27. The plan called for three infantry corps to move out of their camps around Falmouth, cross the Rappahannock River and move around the left flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia posted around Fredericksburg. Another three corps would feint against Lee, with a seventh corps prepared to reinforce either the flanking or feinting columns as needed.
The Falmouth area was made to look like the Federals were following their normal routine. An observation balloon ascended to scout Confederate positions, and a group of dignitaries that included northern governors, foreign diplomats, and Secretary of State William H. Seward came to attend a review of Major-General Daniel Sickles’s Third Corps.
The men of the flanking column began moving out at 5:30 a.m. on the 27th under a slow rain. They were led by the Eleventh Corps of Major-General Oliver O. Howard, followed by Major-General Henry W. Slocum’s Twelfth Corps, with Major-General George G. Meade’s Fifth Corps bringing up the rear. Hooker remained at his Falmouth headquarters for the time being, leaving Slocum as the ranking commander of this flanking (or flying) column.
Bands in the camp played “The Girl I Left Behind Me” as the troops left what had been their home for over four months. Once outside the camp, the bands and the troops were silenced to avoid alerting the Confederates across the river. Cavalry patrols forced local residents to stay in their homes so they could not warn the enemy of the movement.
Hooker sent a confidential message to President Abraham Lincoln: “I write in great haste as I leave for Kelly’s Ford tomorrow morning and am busy in making the necessary preparations… The object in crossing high up the river is to come down in rear of the enemy holding strong positions… The only element which gives me apprehension with regard to the success of this plan is the weather.”
As Hooker wrote, he received an anxious wire from Lincoln: “How does it look now?” Hooker replied, “I am not sufficiently advanced to give an opinion. We are busy. Will tell you all soon as I can, and have it satisfactory.” The first part of Hooker’s plan to get around Lee’s army was executed with great precision, skill, and stealth.
Lee was still unaware of Hooker’s objective, and he began fearing that his force may not be up to the challenge. He wrote President Jefferson Davis from his headquarters south of Fredericksburg, “I feel by no means strong, and from the condition of our horses and the amount of our supplies, I am unable even to act on the defensive as vigorously as circumstances may require.”
Lee told Davis that the intention of the Federal cavalry on the upper Rappahannock was still unknown, but reports that Hooker had been reinforced “would indicate a forward movement of the Federal Army.” A portion of the Confederate army under Lieutenant-General James Longstreet was still foraging around Suffolk in southeastern Virginia, but Lee warned that “I may be obliged to call him back at any moment.”
Longstreet, unaware of the impending threat at Fredericksburg, requested that the rest of his corps be sent to him at Suffolk. Lee refused, explaining that he needed the men to fend off Hooker. Lee advised, “As regards your aggressive movement upon Suffolk, you must act according to your good judgment. If a damaging blow could be struck there or elsewhere of course it would be advantageous.” Longstreet’s main mission had been to gather supplies for Lee’s army, but it was now turning into a quest to capture Suffolk.
On the 28th, the flanking column resumed its march, with Howard’s corps again in the lead, followed by Slocum’s and then Meade’s. Major-General George Stoneman’s Cavalry Corps screened the movement and, after crossing the Rappahannock, began riding south to disrupt Confederate lines of communication and supply. Yesterday’s slow rain intensified, threatening to slow the infantry march.
Back at Falmouth, the feinting column began moving into positions in front of Fredericksburg while staying hidden behind the heights. The column consisted of the Sixth and First Corps under Major-Generals John Sedgwick and John J. Reynolds respectively, with Daniel E. Sickles’s Third Corps ready in support. Meanwhile, Major-General Darius N. Couch’s Second Corps stood ready at Banks’s and United States fords in hopes of getting the Confederates to think that the main thrust would come from there. One of Couch’s divisions stayed in its lines across from Fredericksburg to further deceive the enemy.
Major-General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, informed Lee that “a large body of infantry and artillery was passing up the river.” A prisoner claimed that 14,000 troops were crossing the river, but nobody, not even the Federals, knew what Hooker’s ultimate plan was. So Lee still did not know if this was an attack or a feint.
That night, the Federal march was back on schedule. Hooker directed Professor Thaddeus Lowe, army chief of aeronautics, to use an observation balloon “to see where the enemy’s campfires are. Someone acquainted with the position and location of the ground and of the enemy’s forces should go up.” Meanwhile, Lincoln continued asking for details on the advance. He wired Hooker’s chief of staff, Major-General Daniel Butterfield, “Where is Gen. Hooker? Where is Sedgwick? where is Stoneman?”
Back at Fredericksburg, Hooker’s second infantry section, led by Sedgwick, prepared to begin demonstrating in Lee’s front. Engineers laid pontoon bridges, and the Confederates on the heights south and west of town prepared their defenses. Bells rang in the Fredericksburg Episcopal Church to alarm the Confederates. But it was becoming increasingly clear that the main Federal attack would take place somewhere else.
For Hooker, the first phase of his grand offensive could not have gone better. All components of his army were exactly where he wanted them to be, and the Confederates still had no idea what his true objective would be. The troops had great confidence because, as one soldier wrote, they finally had “a leader who knew what to do and was going to do it.”
Hooker arrived at Morrisville as his flanking column moved south of the Rappahannock, where he revealed the second phase to Slocum: “The general desires that not a moment be lost until our troops are established at or near Chancellorsville. From that moment all will be ours.”
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