Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac camped at Falmouth, Virginia, began looking to renew the offensive against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Hooker and his chief of staff, Major-General Daniel Butterfield, met with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at the White House on May 25 in “a kind of Council of War.”
No details of the meeting were recorded, but by this time, Hooker’s Bureau of Military Information had gathered evidence to suggest that Lee’s army may be preparing to move north. To stop this, Hooker would need more men, especially since the enlistments of thousands of volunteers were soon expiring. In fact, over 30,000 men in 53 regiments were scheduled to be mustered out over the next two months.
The fact that Lee’s Confederates might soon be moving, coupled with the fact that Hooker’s subordinates still lacked confidence in his leadership, led Lincoln to think about removing Hooker as commander. Lincoln considered Major-General John Reynolds, commanding the First Corps, to replace Hooker, but Reynolds had no interest in the job. Neither did Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Fifth Corps. So Hooker would keep his command for now.
Two days later, Colonel George H. Sharpe, heading the Bureau of Military Information, informed Hooker that the Confederates would soon be on the move: “An order from General Lee was very lately read to the troops, announcing a campaign of long marches and hard fighting, in a part of the country where they would have no railroad transportation.” Hooker stated, “It seems that the enemy will soon be in motion.”
During this time, Hooker made no secret that he blamed much of the Chancellorsville defeat on his cavalry commander, Major-General George Stoneman, for failing to cut the Confederate supply line before the battle. Hooker wrote, “I had worded my instructions so strongly I thought they would wake up a dead man… his conduct was criminally insubordinate.” Stoneman sensed Hooker’s resentment and requested a sick leave. Hooker quickly granted the request and made clear that he never wanted Stoneman to return to the Potomac army.
Hooker replaced Stoneman with Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton, a self-promoter who claimed that his cavalry division had saved the Federal army from destruction during the Confederate flank attack on May 2. Pleasonton took command of three divisions and a reserve brigade. He ordered each trooper to carry on horseback only “his arms, the rations of forage and subsistence ordered, one blanket besides the saddle blanket, and that under the saddle, and an overcoat.” Pleasonton was eager enough to fight, but he lacked adequate ability to gather intelligence, something sorely needed from a cavalry commander.
Pleasonton reported to Hooker that while the Cavalry Corps had numbered “upward of 12,000 men and horses” two months ago, it was now down to less than 5,000 and “not fitted to take the field.” He added, “In taking this command, I cannot do myself such an injustice as to remain silent as to the unsatisfactory condition in which I find this corps.” Even so, Pleasonton would “use every exertion to bring it to a state of efficiency at the earliest possible moment.”
Pleasonton’s gloomy report prompted Hooker to use his cavalry sparingly, thus limiting his ability to reconnoiter the Confederate army. However, when scouts reported Confederate activity between Culpeper and Warrenton, possibly led by prominent partisan John S. Mosby, Hooker made it clear to Pleasonton that “no labor be spared to ascertain the true object of the movement. At all events, they have no business on this side of the (Rappahannock) river.”
Pleasonton sent Brigadier-General John Buford’s division and the reserve brigade to investigate the activity. Pleasonton directed, “On arriving at Bealton, should you find yourself with sufficient force, you will drive the enemy out of his camp near Culpeper and across the Rapidan (river), destroying the bridge at that point. The advance of the enemy’s cavalry in the vicinity of Warrenton may have for its object to conceal a movement in force up the (Shenandoah) Valley.” Meade’s Fifth Corps joined the troopers in patrolling the upper Rappahannock.
Rumors soon spread that Major-General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry was at Culpeper, and Mosby’s partisan rangers were at Warrenton. This raised Federal concerns about a possible cavalry raid on Washington. However, it was learned that Mosby had just a small force between Falmouth and Washington, while Stuart remained south of the Rappahannock.
Nevertheless, Major-General Julius Stahel, commanding Federals at Fairfax Court House, warned Major-General Samuel P. Heintzelman, commanding the Washington defenses, “It is the current conversation and belief that Stuart is to be this (east) side of the Blue Ridge within a week. All the events and circumstances indicate such to be the fact.”
On the night of the 29th, with Federal commanders addressing rumors of Stuart’s impending advance, Mosby met with his partisans and planned a raid on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. They planned to ride to Greenwich, northeast of Warrenton, and then attack the Federal supply depot at Catlett’s Station.
The next morning, the Confederates cut telegraph lines, took out a section of railroad track, and waited for the next supply train to approach. The train quickly halted, and Mosby’s men used a howitzer to scatter the Federal guards detraining to assess the threat. The Confederates looted the 11 cars, taking “morning papers, several bags with the United States mail, boxes of oranges and candy, leather for boots, and nearly every one got a fresh shad.”
Mosby used the howitzer to destroy the train’s engine, and his partisans rode off before Pleasonton’s cavalry could arrive. The Confederates turned and fired their cannon into the vanguard of the Federal pursuit and then charged, sending the Federals fleeing. However, more Federals soon came up and threatened Mosby’s right. Mosby later reported to Stuart, “Though overpowered by numbers, many of the enemy were made to bite the dust.” His partisans scattered and fled, leaving the howitzer behind. Both sides suffered about a dozen casualties each.
By month’s end, Hooker received information that “the Confederate army is under marching orders” and would probably “move forward upon or above our right flank.” Meanwhile, Lee heard rumors that Hooker may advance against him again. The prospect of another costly battle south of the Rappahannock River made Lee even more anxious to start moving north.
But Lee still lacked the supplies needed for such a move. President Jefferson Davis was fully aware of this, and on the 31st he wrote Lee, “I readily perceive the disadvantage of standing still, and sorely regret that I can not give you the means which would make it quite safe to attempt all that we desire.” Adequate supplies or not, Lee would soon be on the move.
- Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1996.
- Sears, Stephen W., Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company (Kindle Edition), 2003.
- 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.
- Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.