June 16, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia continued crossing the Potomac River, as Federal cavalry tried uncovering Lee’s plan.
After clearing the Federals out of the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederates began crossing the Potomac. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps led the way, with Major General Robert Rodes’s division leading the corps. Rodes crossed at Williamsport, Maryland, and waited for the rest of Ewell’s men to follow. By this time, the Army of Northern Virginia stretched 130 miles from Maryland to Chancellorsville.
Ewell’s cavalry under Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins rode ahead to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where the troopers foraged for supplies. They paid for common goods with Confederate money, but they freely took horses, weapons, and black people. Most blacks taken were sent south into slavery, even those who had never been slaves. A Chambersburg newspaper reported that Jenkins’s troopers “went to the part of the town occupied by the colored population, and kidnapped all they could find, from the child in the cradle up to men and women of 50 years of age.”
Terror swept through the region. A correspondent noted that the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, northeast of Chambersburg, was gripped by a “perfect panic… Every woman in the place seemed anxious to leave.” Wagons filled with evacuated possessions clogged the streets; state officials grabbed government archives and other valuables to keep from the falling into Confederate hands.
Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, was still trying to pinpoint the Confederates’ exact location. As he moved the bulk of his force from Manassas Junction to Fairfax Court House, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck warned him against “wanton and wasteful destruction of public property.” This admonition seemed to resurrect the bad blood that had existed between Hooker and Halleck since before the war.
Hooker had taken command of the army with the understanding that he would answer directly to the president, not the general-in-chief. As such, he wrote Lincoln, “You have long been aware, Mr. President, that I have not enjoyed the confidence of the major general commanding the army (Halleck), and I can assure you so long as this continues we may look in vain for success.” Lincoln, unimpressed by Hooker’s performance since Lee began moving north, replied:
“You do not lack his confidence in any degree to do you any harm… To remove all misunderstanding, I now place you in the strict military relation to Gen. Halleck, of a commander of one of the armies, to the General-in-Chief of all the armies. I have not intended differently; but as it seems to be differently understood, I shall direct him to give you orders, and you to obey them.”
Regarding Lee’s army, Hooker wired Lincoln that “we can never discover the whereabouts of the enemy, or divine his intentions, so long as he fills the country with a cloud of cavalry. We must break through to find him.” Hooker then directed his cavalry commander, Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, “Drive in pickets, if necessary, and get us better information. It is better that we should lose men than to be without knowledge of the enemy, as we now seem to be.”
On the morning of the 17th, Hooker specifically instructed Pleasonton to “put the main body of your command in the vicinity of Aldie, and push out reconnaissance towards Winchester, Berryville, and Harpers Ferry” to “obtain information of where the enemy is, his force, and his movements.”
Pleasonton dispatched Colonel Alfred Duffie and the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry to Middleburg and sent a brigade under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick to Aldie, hoping to catch Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen. Kilpatrick ran into Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade, resulting in a vicious four-hour fight. Kilpatrick gained the advantage, but because he committed his men piecemeal, he could not drive the Confederates from the gaps in the Bull Run Mountains. The Federals withdrew around 7 p.m.
Meanwhile, Duffie was isolated at Middleburg and forced to disperse his regiment. Many of his Federal troopers were captured, with Duffie riding into Centreville the next day with just 84 of his 300 men. Based on these engagements, Pleasonton reported to Hooker that the main Confederate army was now west of the Blue Ridge. However, Major General John Bell Hood’s division of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps remained about 10 miles west of Middleburg.
The next day, Pleasonton sought to atone for the losses by sending the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry under Colonel J. Irwin Gregg to seize Middleburg. Gregg succeeded but then received orders to support the fight at Aldie. The engagement at Aldie resumed when Federal cavalry, strongly supported by infantry, forced Stuart to withdraw. However, Stuart had taken some 400 prisoners along with a large amount of horses and equipment. Confederates also reoccupied Middleburg.
Pleasonton dispatched three brigades under Brigadier General David Gregg to Middleburg and Union. Their goal was to break through the Confederate cavalry and find out once and for all what Lee was doing. Stuart’s horsemen took positions on a ridge west of Middleburg. The Federals attacked, eventually driving the Confederates to another ridge farther west. However, Pleasonton still did not achieve the breakthrough needed to learn Lee’s intentions. He wrote Hooker, “We cannot force the gaps of the Blue Ridge in the presence of a superior force.”
Meanwhile, Hooker continued receiving conflicting reports of Lee’s activity, both from his army and the press. He wired Halleck, “So long as the newspapers continue to give publicity to our movements, we must not expect to gain any advantage over our adversaries. Is there no way of stopping it?” Halleck replied with a touch of sarcasm: “I see no way of preventing it as long as reporters are permitted in our camps. Every general must decide for himself what persons he will permit in his camps.”
During this time, Ewell’s corps completed its Potomac crossing. Lee expressed dissatisfaction that Ewell had not crossed sooner due to rain swelling the river. He wrote Ewell, “Should we be able to detain General Hooker’s army from following you, you would be able to accomplish as much, unmolested, as the whole army could perform with General Hooker in its front.”
Ewell sent his lead elements up the Cumberland Valley toward Chambersburg on the 19th. Longstreet’s corps followed Ewell, moving through Ashby’s and Snicker’s gaps in the Blue Ridge. However, Lee ordered Longstreet to return to the gaps and wait for Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps upon learning that Stuart was having trouble keeping up the screening movement.
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