Lee Begins Moving North

Rumors were circulating that General Robert E. Lee was planning to move his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia out of Fredericksburg. Major-General Erasmus D. Keyes, commanding a Federal division operating on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers, reported on June 2, “It seems apparent from the rumors that reach me that a movement of rebel troops is going on from south to north, and that the idea prevails over the lines that an invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania is soon to be made. I have heard nothing definite, but all the rumors concur to produce the impression stated.”

Keyes’s Federals, being just 30 miles from Richmond, could obtain important information from the Confederate capital quickly. The Federals also observed Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s Confederates heading north from Suffolk to rejoin Lee’s army. Keyes soon received orders to abandon the Peninsula and move northwest.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lee had indeed been planning to move north, but he was reluctant to start while Keyes’s Federals hovered within striking distance of Richmond, which was lightly guarded. When Lee learned that Keyes was leaving, he began preparing his movement in earnest. He rejected Longstreet’s suggestion to take the offensive in Virginia, arguing that at best the Confederates would only push the Federals back to their impregnable defenses at Washington. Invading the North was the only option.

Lee’s army now numbered nearly 80,000 men, the largest since the Seven Days Battles nearly a year ago. However, there were many new officers, including two new corps commanders, and many among them had never been battle-tested in their new roles. But as he had done so often before, Lee hoped to take advantage of his opponents’ unwillingness to seize the initiative.

Lee issued marching orders on the 3rd, and the campaign began with Longstreet’s First Corps moving out of Fredericksburg. Of Longstreet’s three divisions:

  • Major-General Lafayette McLaws’s division headed toward Culpeper Court House, about 30 miles northwest on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, beyond the right flank of the Federal Army of the Potomac.
  • Major-General John Bell Hood’s division began marching from Orange Court House to link with McLaws.
  • Major-General George Pickett’s division stayed at Hanover Junction, where it could either join Lee’s army on the march or move south and defend Richmond in case of attack.

Lee planned to march into the fertile Shenandoah Valley and then cross the Potomac River into Maryland. Colonel E. Porter Alexander, commanding Longstreet’s artillery, later wrote, “I recall the morning vividly. A beautiful bright June day, and about 11 a.m., a courier from Longstreet’s headquarters brought the order. Although it was only a march to Culpeper Court House, we knew that it meant another great battle with the enemy’s army, which still confronted ours at Fredericksburg.”

Alexander noted “the pride and confidence I felt in my splendid battalion, as it filed out on the fields in the road, with every chest and ammunition wagon filled, and every horse in fair order, and every detail fit for a campaign.” The Army of Northern Virginia was much more polished than it had been when it invaded Maryland last September. There were far fewer stragglers, as army morale was never higher. Most men had been recently fitted with new uniforms, shoes, and equipment.

The Army of the Potomac, camped across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg between Aquia Creek and Falmouth, showed no signs of aggression. Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the army, received word from his Bureau of Military Information that the Confederates were on the move, but he still did not know Lee’s plan.

Hooker received further intelligence from a Mr. G.S. Smith, a spy who provided information to Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the Federal Cavalry Corps: “There is one thing that looks very apparent to me, and that is that this movement of General Lee’s is not intended to menace Washington, but to try his hand again toward Maryland, or to call off your attention while General (Jeb) Stuart goes there.” Pleasonton added to Smith’s message: “It is my impression the rebel army has been weakened by troops sent west and south, and that any performance of Stuart’s will be a flutter to keep us from seeing their weakness.” Pleasonton was wrong.

When Hooker received word on the night of the 3rd that Confederates were poised to cross the Rappahannock, he ordered Major-General George G. Meade’s Fifth Corps, guarding the river crossings on the right flank, to be on alert. He then ordered the rest of the army to prepare to mobilize at any time.

During the night, Federal pickets reported seeing large campfires on the Confederate side of the Rappahannock. This indicated that troops were burning what they could not bring with them before embarking on a general movement. Early on the 4th, Federals noted seeing fewer Confederate pickets than normal, and those previously on duty “were replaced near here by cripples.”

Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps started following Longstreet out on the 4th, one division at a time. Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps remained in the Fredericksburg defenses to keep the Federals across the Rappahannock occupied. The Federals showed little activity at Falmouth or on Stafford Heights.

Professor Thaddeus Lowe, chief of aeronautics for the Federal army, ascended several observation balloons along the Federal line to try to observe Confederate positions across the river. On the right, observers reported seeing infantry and artillery moving out around 6 a.m. Federals in a balloon overlooking Fredericksburg noted similar activity in the defenses west of town.

When Hooker learned that Stuart’s Confederate cavalry was near Culpeper, he dispatched Pleasonton’s 11,000 horsemen to confront him near Brandy Station. Hooker also directed Major-General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine whether Lee’s movement was a feint or a legitimate northern thrust.


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