Federals Are Poised to Cross the Potomac

By June 23, Major-General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, had solid intelligence that the vanguard of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was north of Hagerstown, Maryland. Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell, commanding the Second Corps in Lee’s army, advanced into Pennsylvania, with one of his divisions under Major-General Jubal Early approaching Chambersburg.

Early ordered the destruction of the nearby Caledonia Iron Works, which were owned by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a leading Radical Republican who despised slavery and supported the subjugation of the South. The manager of the works argued that the company only operated to provide housing and jobs for the locals, and had not turned a profit in years. Early scoffed, “That’s not the way Yankees do business. They carry on their operations to make money.”

As Early later stated, the Confederates burned all the buildings because the Federals “invariably burned such works in the South wherever they had penetrated.” Early also admitted that he destroyed the works because “in some speeches in Congress Mr. Stevens had exhibited a vindictive spirit toward the people in the South.”

Maj-Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: Sonofthesouth.net

Meanwhile, Hooker left the Potomac army to meet with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. No notes were taken on what was discussed, but Navy Secretary Gideon Welles observed at a cabinet meeting after Hooker left that Lincoln’s “countenance was sad and careworn, and impressed me painfully.” According to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Lincoln said that he had fired George B. McClellan last November for letting Lee “get the better of him in the race to Richmond,” and if Hooker lost this race, Lincoln “would make short work of him.”

Rumors circulated that Hooker would soon be removed as army commander, with many speculating that he would be succeeded by Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Fifth Corps. Meade wrote his wife about the prospect of replacing Hooker:

“It is notorious no general officer, not even Fighting Joe himself, has been in more battles, or more exposed than my record evidences. The only thing that can be said, and I am willing to admit the justice of the argument, is that it remains to be seen whether I have the capacity to handle successfully a large army. I do not stand however any chance, because I have no friends, political or others, who press or advance my claims or pretensions, and there are so many others who are pressed by influential politicians that it is folly to think I stand any chance upon mere merit alone. Besides, I have not the vanity to think my capacity so pre-eminent… Do you know, I think your ambition is being roused and that you are beginning to be bitten with the dazzling prospect of having for a husband a commanding general of the army. How is this?”

On the 24th, Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps in the Confederate army completed its crossing of the Potomac River via the Williamsport Ford. The Third Corps, led by Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill, crossed the Potomac at Shepherdstown. The main part of Ewell’s corps was at Hagerstown, Maryland, with his lead elements at Chambersburg and poised to continue to the Susquehanna River.

Confederates in Pennsylvania confiscated whatever goods they could from civilians in their path, prompting a bitter editorial in the Lancaster Daily Express: “If highway robberies, profanity, vulgarity, filthiness and general meanness are the requisite qualifications for constituting a high-toned gentleman then indeed may the southern soldiers claim the appellation.”

Hooker still could not confirm whether Lee’s movement indicated a northern invasion. He notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that he would, “with all the force I can muster, strike for his line of retreat in the direction of Richmond.”

Soon after, an officer in Hooker’s Bureau of Military Intelligence reported that the “main body” of the Confederate army was crossing at Shepherdstown, and “large bodies of troops can be seen” in Maryland, “All of which may be considered as reliable.” A second wire asserted that “Longstreet and A.P. Hill are crossing rapidly.” It was further determined that Lee was moving north toward Pennsylvania, rather than east toward Washington as originally supposed.

Hooker responded by directing Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Eleventh Corps to start crossing the Potomac at Edwards Ferry on the morning of the 25th. This marked Hooker’s first major move toward the Potomac. Confused by all the conflicting reports, Hooker then asked Halleck to send him orders because “outside of the Army of the Potomac I don’t know whether I am standing on my head or feet.”


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