General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia resumed its march on June 10, despite the toll the Battle of Brandy Station had taken on Major-General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry. Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps took the lead, moving northwest from Culpeper Court House toward the Shenandoah Valley and the fords on the Potomac River.
The plan was for Ewell’s corps to clear Federal opposition out of the Valley while the First Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, marched east of the Blue Ridge to deceive the Federals “with the view of creating embarrassment as to our plans.” The Third Corps, led by Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill, would then leave Fredericksburg and join the march to the Valley.
During the movement, Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis about a subject he rarely discussed: politics. Lee noted “the rising peace party of the North” and stressed the importance of “the manner in which the demonstration of a desire for peace at the North has been received in our country.” Lee felt that the Confederacy needed to help cultivate the growing peace movement in the North to gain independence.
Lee urged Davis to look to any “honorable means of dividing and weakening our enemies,” because “our resources in men are constantly diminishing, and the disproportion in this respect between us and our enemies, if they continue united in their efforts to subjugate us, is steadily augmenting.” Lee therefore believed that the Confederacy could not “abstain from measures or expressions that tend to discourage any party whose purpose is peace.”
Lee asserted that there should be no difference between those seeking “peace unconditionally and those who advocate it as a means of restoring the Union…” The time would come when the Federals’ resources would be too great to overcome militarily, so efforts should be made to divide the northern home front by supporting the Copperheads (i.e., anti-war Democrats). Lee asserted:
“Should the belief that peace will bring back the Union become general, the war would no longer be supported, and that, after all, is what we are interested in bringing about. When peace is proposed to us, it will be time enough to discuss its terms, and it is not the part of prudence to spurn the proposition in advance, merely because those who made it believe, or affect to believe, that it will result in bringing us back to the Union.”
Lee concluded that if Davis agreed with these points, then “you will best know how to give effect to them.” There is no record of Davis’s response, but it must have satisfied Lee the president two weeks later that he was “much gratified by your views in relation to the peace party at the North.”
For the Lincoln administration, the Brandy Station engagement confirmed that the Confederates posed a potential threat to the Shenandoah Valley, stretching northward. Panic began spreading in Maryland and Pennsylvania, as the governors of both states urged citizens to mobilize and prepare to defend their homes.
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton assigned Major-General William T.H. Brooks to command the new Department of the Monongahela, headquartered at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was intended to counter possible Confederate raids into that region, which had formerly been part of the Middle Department and the Department of Ohio.
Stanton also assigned Major-General Darius N. Couch to command the new Department of the Susquehanna, headquartered at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Formerly second in command in the Army of the Potomac, Couch was reassigned after expressing disgust over Hooker’s performance at Chancellorsville and refusing to serve under him any longer.
Couch issued orders to raise a volunteer corps to defend Pennsylvania. This resulted in the recruitment of several companies of men serving for 100 days. Brooks also began trying to raise militia to augment his volunteer forces. However, he managed to organize just one partially armed regiment, mainly because the government discouraged militia recruitment in favor of volunteer enlistments.
Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac across from Fredericksburg, saw that a Confederate thrust into the Shenandoah would put the scattered Federal garrisons around Winchester and Harpers Ferry in serious danger. These garrisons belonged to the Middle Department, headed by Major-General Robert C. Schenck at Baltimore. Hooker wired Washington proposing that a top commander be appointed for “all the troops whose operations can have an influence on those of Lee’s army.” General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck replied that such a proposal would be approved, “if deemed practical.”
Major-General Robert H. Milroy commanded the main Federal force in the Valley, which consisted of 6,900 troops at Winchester. Milroy asserted that he could defend the town “against any force the rebels can afford to bring against me.” But Halleck warned Schenck that the Winchester garrison should be withdrawn immediately. Schenck told Milroy to hold firm but be ready to withdraw if ordered.
The Battle of Brandy Station indicated to the Federals that most of the Confederate cavalry was near Culpeper, meaning that Washington was in no danger of being attacked. Also, Hooker believed that most of Lee’s army had left Fredericksburg and headed north, even though he was still not sure what Lee planned to do.
Hooker told President Abraham Lincoln that if this was true, then Lee “can leave nothing behind to interpose any serious obstacle of my rapid advance on Richmond.” He therefore proposed to keep half his army facing Fredericksburg while the other half moved “to check, if not stop his invasion.” The stationary half could then push through the Fredericksburg defenses and march on Richmond.
A report indicated that Richmond was only lightly guarded, so Hooker asked, “If left to operate from my own judgment, will it not promote the true interest of the cause for me to march to Richmond at once?… I do not hesitate to say that I should adopt this course as being the most speedy and certain mode of giving the rebellion a mortal blow.” Lincoln quickly responded:
“If left to me, I would not go south of Rappahannock upon Lee’s moving north of it. If you had Richmond invested today, you would not be able to take it in 20 days; meanwhile your communications, and with them your army, would be ruined. I think Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point. If he comes toward the Upper Potomac, follow on his flank and on his inside track, shortening your lines whilst he lengthens his. Fight him, too, when opportunity offers. If he stays where he is, fret him and fret him.”
Hooker replied that he “fully” agreed with Lincoln’s advice.
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