November 28, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade tried launching one more offensive before winter, leading his Federal Army of the Potomac against General Robert E. Lee’s formidable Confederate defenses along Mine Run. Continue reading
Tag Archives: John Sedgwick
November 21, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade received intelligence that his Federal Army of the Potomac now held a major numerical advantage over General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Meade therefore looked to launch another offensive.
Following the Bristoe campaign in October, Meade had settled his army into camps between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, presumably until the spring. However, this changed when a detailed report, partly derived from information provided by Confederate deserters, stated that Lee had less than 40,000 effectives in his army, while Meade had 84,274.
Lee actually had 48,586 effectives, but Meade still vastly outnumbered him, and his Federals had been emboldened by their recent, albeit minor, victories at Bristoe and Rappahannock stations. Moreover, the report indicated that Lee’s two corps were spread out across 35 miles and unable to guard the lower fords on the Rapidan. Meade therefore planned to hurry his five infantry corps down the Rapidan, move down the Orange Turnpike, and overwhelm Lee’s right and rear before the remaining Confederates came up in support.
While Meade planned, Lee hosted President Jefferson Davis for a four-day military conference at Lee’s headquarters. Lee once more stressed the importance of having shoes for his barefooted men, as well as adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the upcoming winter. On the night of the 24th, Lee received word that Meade had requisitioned large amounts of rations for his troops, indicating he would soon be in motion again.
Lee alerted his outposts. Guessing that Meade would cross the Rapidan and try advancing through either the Wilderness or Spotsylvania toward the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, Lee prepared to move his army to block the Federals. A cavalry clash near Ely’s Ford on the 25th seemed to confirm Lee’s guess.
Meade had planned to move out on the 23rd, but rains turned the roads to mud. He announced to his corps commanders, “On account of the unfavorable appearances of the morning,” the advance would not begin until the 24th. But rain caused postponements for another two days, during which time Federal cavalry reported that the major thoroughfares were still passable. The troopers also noted that Confederates were not guarding Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan.
On the 25th, Meade issued orders for the movement to begin the next morning, Thanksgiving Day. The Federals were to make a wide swing around the Confederate right to land on the enemy flank and rear. Meade explained that speed and stealth were of the utmost importance, therefore each man would carry 10 days’ rations and leave their supply trains behind.
Major General William French’s III Corps was to cross the Rapidan at Jacob’s Ford, opposite Mine Run, with Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps following. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s II Corps was to cross farther downstream at Germanna Ford. Major General George Sykes’s V Corps would cross even farther down at Culpeper Mine, followed by Major General John Newton’s I Corps. The five corps would then unite, with French in the lead, and move west to hit the Confederate right with overwhelming force.
The Federals mobilized at 6 a.m., a half-hour before sunrise, on the 26th. A heavy fog hid their movement from the Confederates as they moved down their assigned paths to the Rapidan fords. However, French’s corps started late and experienced traffic delays. Upon reaching Jacob’s Ford, engineers did not bring enough pontoons to span the river. Consequently, French did not cross until near sundown. By day’s end, French, Warren, and Sykes had crossed the Rapidan, but the element of speed was lost, as Meade had covered only half the distance he expected to cover that day.
The element of stealth was also lost when Confederate signalmen atop Clark’s Mountain, along with cavalry, spotted the movement. Lee had expected the Federals to attack the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, but their movement against his right worked even more to his advantage. He held strong positions, and the Federal delays gave him time to shift more troops to that sector of his line.
Lee pulled elements of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps east to bolster the Second Corps under Major General Jubal Early (temporarily replacing the ailing Lieutenant General Richard Ewell) on the right. Lee directed Early to cross Mine Run and move east to face Meade’s advance.
Early’s three divisions moved along three parallel roads leading to Robertson’s Tavern, with Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s men the farthest north (the Confederate left), Major General Robert Rodes in the center, and Brigadier General Harry Hays’s men moving along the Orange Turnpike to the south. Hill’s corps moved about a mile south on parallel roads.
Meade directed the Federals to begin moving at 7 a.m., with French holding the right (unknowingly moving directly toward Johnson), Warren holding the center on the Orange Turnpike (unknowingly moving toward Hays), and Sykes holding the left (unknowingly moving toward Hill). Sedgwick and Newton were in reserve.
French and Warren were supposed to converge at Robertson’s Tavern, but French took a wrong fork in the road and had to countermarch for several hours. Warren’s corps reached the tavern unsupported, where they were confronted by Hays’s Confederates around Locust Grove. French informed Meade that he was waiting for Warren, but Meade’s chief of staff, Major General Andrew Humphreys, responded:
“What are you waiting for? No orders have been sent you to wait for General Warren anywhere upon your Route… He is waiting for you. The commanding general directs that you move forward as rapidly as possible to Robertson’s Tavern, where your corps is wanted.”
French finally came up on Warren’s right and met resistance from Johnson’s Confederate division near Payne’s Farm. French deployed his lead division under Brigadier General Joseph B. Carr to face Johnson as both he and Hays began linking with Rodes in the middle.
The Confederates repelled two Federal charges and then counterattacked. As Johnson reported, “The resistance of the enemy was stubborn, but he was steadily driven back for a considerable distance through the woods and pursued across an open field.” The Confederates soon advanced into heavy woods and became disorganized. They were then hit by heavy Federal canister fire. Johnson ultimately withdrew and repelled more Federal attacks before nightfall ended the fighting.
The Confederates lost 545 men, including Brigadier Generals George Steuart and John M. Jones (both wounded). On their right, Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry barely held Sykes at bay. As Stuart’s line appeared to be breaking and the Federals were about to turn the Confederate flank, Hill’s corps arrived to link with Early and drive the Federals back. Lee then pulled his main force back to defenses on a ridge along the west bank of Mine Run.
Federal losses were unrecorded, but this engagement ruined the element of surprise that Meade so desperately needed. Meade blamed French for his delays crossing the Rapidan on the 26th and taking the wrong road on this day. With Lee entrenched behind Mine Run, Meade now could only attack (and most likely fail) or retreat.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19153; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 346; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 873-74; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 378; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6488, 6499-511; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 497; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 28-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 438-39; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 563-64
November 7, 1863 – Elements of the Federal Army of the Potomac tried crossing the Rappahannock River, while General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates were determined to stop them.
The Lincoln administration pressured Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, to launch one more offensive before winter. Since the administration ruled out a move on Fredericksburg to the east, Meade planned to retake the ground between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers to his south and west.
Most of Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was south of the Rappahannock, but some forward units held a mile-long defense line on the north bank, from Kelly’s Ford on the right to Rappahannock Station on the left. Lee received word around noon on the 7th that Federals were advancing toward this line in two columns:
- Major General William French led I, II, and III corps toward Kelly’s Ford, which was defended by a Confederate regiment on the north bank of the Rappahannock and Major General Robert Rodes’s division to the south.
- Major General John Sedgwick led V and VI corps toward Rappahannock Station, where Major General Jubal Early’s division guarded a bridgehead consisting of two redoubts and entrenchments to protect the pontoon bridge spanning the river.
According to Lee, the Rappahannock Station bridgehead could “threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part.” Lee planned to hold the bridgehead while allowing French to cross at Kelly’s Ford, where his Federals would fall under a massed attack.
Expecting a fight, Meade ordered his corps commanders to distribute 40 rounds of ammunition to each man and bring up their ambulances. Meade instructed French that once the Federals crossed the Rappahannock, “the two columns will move forward to Brandy Station.”
If Sedgwick’s smaller column could not break through at Rappahannock Station, he was to follow French across the river at Kelly’s Ford. Meade directed, “You will attack him vigorously, throwing your whole force upon him, should it be necessary, and drive him from his position, and secure your own upon the high ground.”
French’s men approached Kelly’s Ford in early afternoon, with Federal artillery quickly driving the Confederate regiment across the river. French reported, “The terrific fire of my batteries ran down to the river bank (old style), and the 4 1/2-inch paralyzed the enemy.” Rodes fell back, enabling the Federals to lay a pontoon bridge and cross the Rappahannock, just as Lee wanted.
Sedgwick’s men approached the Rappahannock Station bridgehead around 3 p.m. Since Lee needed to prevent a crossing here, Early moved nearly 2,000 Confederates forward to hold the fortifications on the north bank. Federal artillery came up around 5 p.m. and began pounding the enemy lines until dark. The Federal infantry showed no signs of attacking during this time, leading Lee to believe that this was just a diversion for the main crossing at Kelly’s Ford. However, Brigadier General Harry Hays, commanding the “Louisiana Tigers,” wrote, “It was then, under cover of the darkness, that a simultaneous advance was made of the entire force of the enemy.”
Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding VI Corps, reported, “Under most circumstances, I should have hesitated in ordering the assault of so strong a position, and believed its success hopeless.” But the “darkness, which was fast approaching, was favorable to the attack. The remaining daylight enabled the troops to see what they had to do before reaching the works, while the succeeding darkness would prevent the enemy on the opposite bank from firing where they could not distinguish friend from foe.”
The Federals advanced through defilements, breastworks, and other obstructions to get to the enemy. Wright stated that “over every hindrance, in face of a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, the storm party pressed on with bayonets fixed and never pausing to fire a shot. A desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued, the foe was overpowered and the works were ours.”
But the Confederates regrouped. Brigadier General David A. Russell, commanding a division in the assault, recalled, “Furious, but as yet futile, endeavors were made from the rifle pits to retake the larger redoubt.” Even with reinforcements, the Federals “were not strong enough to carry the rifle-pits and stay the fire from them, which still greatly annoyed our men.”
Colonel Emory Upton’s Federal brigade launched a bayonet charge that finally overran the bridgehead. Some Confederates tried escaping by swimming across the river. Upton reported, “The enemy, supposing a vastly superior force was advanced upon him, and also aware that his retreat was intercepted, laid down his arms.” Federals captured four cannon, eight battle flags, and 1,303 prisoners in their first successful night attack of the war. VI Corps netted the army’s largest Confederate prisoner grab in one action.
When Lee returned to headquarters, he learned the Federals had captured parts of two regiments at Kelly’s Ford, laid a pontoon bridge, and moved a large force across the river. Then Early sent news that the Federals had captured the whole Confederate force at the vital bridgehead north of the river. This engagement wrecked Lee’s plan to hold the ground between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, and possibly launch another offensive.
Just as Lieutenant General A.P. Hill had been criticized for his actions at Bristoe Station last month, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell was criticized for retreating in this action since the divisions of Rodes and Early were part of his corps. Lee quickly fell back to a point two miles northeast of Culpeper Court House, which guarded the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and blocked the road from Kelly’s Ford to Stevensburg. Lee reported:
“The loss of this position made it necessary to abandon the design of attacking the force that had crossed at Kelly’s Ford, and the army was withdrawn to the only tenable line between Culpeper Court House and the Rappahannock, where it remained during the succeeding day.”
French continued advancing on the 8th, crossing the Brandy Station battlefield. Sedgwick advanced as well, linking with French around 9 a.m. Skirmishing occurred among the pickets at various points throughout the day, as Lee braced for an attack on the 9th.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 648-49; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19145-53; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 339; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 799-801; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 369; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6476-88; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 411, 615; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 431-32
July 8, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia prepared for a battle while still stranded on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.
The Confederates remained delayed at Williamsport as engineers and troops scrambled to build makeshift bridges to cross the Potomac. From Hagerstown that night, Lee assured President Jefferson Davis that army morale was still high, and a battle may need to be fought if the Federals attacked before the Confederates crossed the river. Lee also urged Davis to send General P.G.T. Beauregard’s “army in effigy” from Charleston to feign an attack on Washington, which would draw Federal attention away from Lee’s retreat. Lee wrote:
“I hope Your Excellency will understand that I am not in the least discouraged, or that my faith in the protection of an all-merciful Providence, or in the fortitude of this army, is at all shaken. But, though conscious that the enemy has been much shattered in the recent battle, I am aware that he can be easily reinforced, while no addition can be made to our numbers. The measure, therefore, that I have recommended is altogether one of a prudential nature.”
Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wrote his wife from his headquarters at Frederick: “From the time I took command till today, now over 10 days, I have not changed my clothes, have not had a regular night’s rest and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a great state of mental anxiety.” Meade then informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:
“My army is assembling slowly. The rains of yesterday and last night have made all roads but pikes almost impassable. Artillery and wagons are stalled; it will take time to collect them together… I wish in advance to moderate the expectations of those who, in ignorance of the difficulties to be encountered, may expect too much. All that I can do under the circumstances I pledge this army to do.”
Halleck, prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, expressed impatience with Meade’s seeming reluctance to pursue Lee more vigorously. He wrote, “There is reliable information that the enemy is crossing at Williamsport. The opportunity to attack his divided forces should not be lost. Push forward and fight Lee before he can cross the Potomac. The President is urgent and anxious that your army should move against him by forced marches.”
Meade responded, “My army is and has been making forced marches,” with troops reporting that they were “short of rations and barefooted.” This did not satisfy the administration because the army had such an overabundance of supplies that some were being returned to Washington.
Halleck assured Meade that Lincoln appreciated his great victory at Gettysburg, but, “If Lee’s army is so divided by the river, the importance of attacking the part on this side is incalculable. Such an opportunity may never occur again… You will have forces sufficient to render your victory certain. My only fear now is that the enemy may escape.”
By the 9th, a large part of the Federal army had crossed South Mountain to Boonsboro, eight miles southeast of Williamsport. Meade arrived at Middletown and wrote Halleck:
“This army is moving in three columns, the right column having in it three corps… I think the decisive battle of the war will be fought in a few days. In view of the momentous consequences, I desire to adopt such measures as in my judgment will tend to insure success, even though these may be deemed tardy.”
Halleck responded, “Do not be influenced by any dispatch from here against your own judgment. Regard them as suggestions only. Our information here is not always correct.” He then wrote Meade the next day, “I think it will be-best for you to postpone a general battle till you can concentrate all your forces and get up your reserves and reinforcements… Beware of partial combats. Bring up and hurl upon the enemy all your forces, good and bad.”
Meanwhile, Confederate troops and wagons conveying their wounded still remained on the banks of the Potomac, unable to cross due to the high water. That night, a Confederate officer who had escaped Federal captivity at Gettysburg reached Lee’s army and reported that Meade was advancing toward Hagerstown. Lee began preparing for what he expected to be a Federal attack.
The Federals inched closer to the Confederate positions, carefully probing to assess their strength. Meade reported on the 10th, “These positions, they are said to be intrenching.” Moving down the Hagerstown Pike, Meade informed his superiors that he would “advance cautiously” to “develop more fully the enemy’s force and position.”
Lee concentrated his army at Williamsport that day and wrote Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, “We must prepare for a vigorous battle and trust in the mercy of God and the valor of our troops.” He then wrote Davis, “With the blessing of Heaven, I trust that the courage and fortitude of the army will be found sufficient to relieve us from the embarrassment caused by the unlooked-for natural difficulties of our situation, if not to secure more valuable and substantial results.”
Skirmishing erupted between Federals and the Confederate rear guard, with Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal horsemen nearly running out of ammunition before Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps arrived to drive the Confederates off. This delaying action gave Lee more time to prepare for what could have been his last stand.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 152-53, 156; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 305-07; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 585-86, 589-90, 641; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 326; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6292; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 381-83; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363
July 4, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began retreating from Gettysburg, but the swelling Potomac River threatened to trap Lee in hostile territory.
The Battle of Gettysburg decimated the Confederate army. Lee lost a third of his men, including 19 of his 52 generals (five killed, 12 wounded, and two captured). Eight of his 37 brigades were virtually destroyed. As such, the army could no longer sustain itself in enemy territory, so late on the 3rd, Lee began arranging for the long withdrawal back to Virginia.
Lee assigned Brigadier General John D. Imboden’s cavalry brigade to guard the ambulances filled with wounded men as they moved out. After a three-hour delay due to a thunderstorm, Imboden and the 17-mile wagon train mobilized around 4 p.m. and continued through the night. The wagons had no springs, making the long journey especially agonizing for the wounded. Those who died along the way were buried on the side of the road. The rest of the army remained on Seminary Ridge, defending against a possible Federal counterattack.
Lee wrote a report for President Jefferson Davis and sent a messenger to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, under a flag of truce to request a prisoner exchange. This could have revealed the Confederate withdrawal to Meade, but Lee took that chance because he did not want to be slowed by taking nearly 4,000 Federal prisoners back to Virginia. Meade prudently declined, stating that he had no authority from his government to negotiate such a deal.
During the 4th, Federal scouts reported that the Confederate left wing had fallen back, but the main army remained behind defenses on Seminary Ridge. Meade reported having just 51,414 officers and men present for duty, unaware that some 15,000 men were not counted because they had been separated from their commands during the battle. Four of the army’s seven corps sustained almost 90 percent of the casualties: I, II, III, and XI. V and XII corps suffered minimal losses, and Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps hardly saw any action in the three-day battle.
Nevertheless, Meade had just three strong corps left in his army to do what the Army of the Potomac had never done before: drive the Confederates out of their defenses. He briefly considered advancing near Devil’s Den and the Wheat Field, but the afternoon thunderstorm convinced him to stay put.
Meade issued an order congratulating the army on its victory and adding, “Our task is not yet accomplished, and the commanding general looks to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.” That night, the Federal corps commanders voted five-to-two to stay where they were until they could confirm the Confederate withdrawal.
Confederate troops began pulling out that night, with Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps withdrawing in blinding rain, followed by Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s. They slowly moved toward Williamsport, Maryland, where they would cross the Potomac and reenter Virginia. Wounded Federal prisoners were left behind. Lee sat upon his horse and looked back at Seminary Ridge as he rode off. He once again said that the defeat was “all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.”
As details of the battle reached Washington, President Abraham Lincoln recognized that the Federals had won a great victory. He happily issued a proclamation celebrating “a great success to the cause of the Union… on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude.” One D.C. resident noted, “I never knew such excitement in Washington.” Lincoln quickly looked to Meade to pursue and destroy Lee’s army.
News of the victory at Gettysburg soon combined with news of victory at Vicksburg to spark mass celebrations in the North. Church bells tolled in most major cities, with six authorizing 100-gun salutes in honor of the success. Prominent New York diarist George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary:
“The results of this victory are priceless… The charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures… Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least… Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad.”
Meanwhile, gloom pervaded the South, as people began realizing that their only hope for independence was either foreign intervention or a miraculous military turnaround. Captain Raphael Semmes of the commerce raider C.S.S. Alabama wrote about the defeats:
“… Vicksburg and Gettysburg mark an era in the war… We need no better evidence of the shock which had been given to public confidence in the South, by those two disasters, than the simple fact, that our currency depreciated almost immediately a thousand per cent!”
The thunderstorm continued into the 5th, with Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate corps pulling out around 2 a.m. Ewell’s men did not arrive at Fairfield, less than nine miles away, until 4 p.m. The army continued moving through the heavy rain toward Hagerstown, Maryland.
The Confederate wagon train and Imboden’s cavalry guard passed through Cashtown, west of Gettysburg, and then turned south to Greencastle. Federal cavalry attacked the train, capturing 176 wagons, but Confederate artillery soon drove the Federals off. Residents of Greencastle used axes, saws, and other tools to destroy the spokes and wheels of 12 Confederate wagons before being dispersed. By the night of the 5th, the head of the train reached Williamsport, but the tail was still 31 miles behind.
Meade dispatched Sedgwick’s VI Corps around midday to determine whether Lee had withdrawn. The Federals cautiously probed forward, skirmishing with Confederates at Cunningham’s Crossroads. The Confederates disengaged and continued their withdrawal, camping west of Fairfield for the night. Sedgwick could not determine if Lee was retreating or just finding better ground to give battle once more.
On the morning of the 6th, heavy fog prevented Meade from learning anything about Confederate positions except that the enemy had reached Monterey Pass, southwest of Fairfield. At 8:30 a.m., Sedgwick wrongly reported that the path to the Confederates was strongly defended, and he did not wish “to dash my corps against it.”
Meade sent the Federals along three routes into Maryland, then west across the Catoctin Mountains to meet at Middletown. From there, they still needed to cross South Mountain to reach the Confederates. Meade telegraphed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “As soon as possible, I will cross South Mountain and proceed in search of the enemy.”
Imboden repelled an attack by Brigadier General John Buford’s 3,000-man Federal cavalry division that morning, and the arrival of Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry drove the Federals off. Longstreet’s advance units reached Hagerstown around 5 p.m. Riding with them, Lee learned that the ambulance train had reached Williamsport. However, Federals had destroyed a pontoon bridge below the town, and the rains had swelled the Potomac too high to be forded. The Confederates were in danger of being trapped on the wrong side of the river.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 427; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 145-50, 152; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19070; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 301-02; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9453; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 576-77, 582-83, 588; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 323-25; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6257-80; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 535-36; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 156-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 378-80; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 663-64, 666; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 253, 307-08
June 5, 1863 – Major General Joseph Hooker struggled to learn General Robert E. Lee’s true intentions as the Confederates moved around the Federal right in northern Virginia.
During the night, Confederate deserters came into the Federal lines claiming to have belonged to Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This was Hooker’s first indication that Longstreet had rejoined Lee after besieging Suffolk last month. Hooker notified President Abraham Lincoln that the Confederate army had been unified “for no other purpose but to enable the enemy to move up the river, with a view to the execution of a movement similar to that of Lee’s (Maryland campaign) last year.”
Hooker supposed Lee might “cross the Upper Potomac,” but he believed Lee truly intended to “throw his army between mine and Washington.” Hooker then asked, “As I am liable to be called on to make a movement with the utmost promptitude, I desire that I may be informed as early as practicable of the views of the Government concerning this army.”
Hooker wanted to preëmpt Lee’s supposed offensive by crossing the Rappahannock River and attacking the remaining Confederate defenders west of Fredericksburg. He proposed “to pitch into the enemy’s rear,” and asked, “Will it be within the sphere of my instructions to do so?”
As Hooker awaited a reply, Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps conducted the probing mission that Hooker had ordered. The Federals crossed the Rappahannock and approached the Confederate defenses that scouts and balloonists had claimed were abandoned. If the defenses proved weak, it could indicate that Lee was moving north in earnest. Only Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps remained in the defensive works.
Confederate sharpshooters quickly repelled Federal troops wading across the river near Deep Run. Sedgwick then directed engineers to lay pontoon bridges so more men could cross. Once the bridges were set, the Federals charged across the river and, under fire, seized the enemy rifle pits. They then advanced toward the nearby woods, but hidden Confederates drove them back. Sedgwick, unaware that he had faced just Hill’s men, reported that Lee’s army remained at Fredericksburg in force.
Despite Sedgwick’s claim, Hooker still believed that Lee’s main movement was to the north. He directed several reconnaissances to determine Lee’s true intentions. By this time, Lincoln had responded to Hooker’s request to attack Fredericksburg; the president warned Hooker against such an action, arguing that if Lee left a small force behind, it could be because he wanted Hooker to attack it.
Lincoln had “but one idea which I think worth suggesting to you, and that is, in case you find Lee coming north of the Rappahannock, I would by no means cross to the south of it… I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs, front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other.”
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck also responded, asking, “Would it not be more advantageous to fight his movable column first, instead of first attacking his intrenchments, with your own forces separated by the Rappahannock?” Halleck reminded Hooker that while the army’s main goal was to destroy Lee’s army, it was also required to guard Washington and Harpers Ferry. With that in mind, Halleck warned, “Lee will seek to hold you in check with his main force, while a strong force will be detached for a raid into Maryland and Pennsylvania.”
Meanwhile, Major General Jeb Stuart conducted a grand review of his Confederate cavalry at Brandy Station. Five brigades totaling 8,000 troopers with flying colors rode past dignitaries, ladies, and other spectators assembled in grandstands, carriages, and railroad cars. At Stuart’s request, Secretary of War James A. Seddon also attended. A staff officer later wrote:
“Eight thousand cavalry passed under the eye of their commander, in column of squadrons, first at a walk, and then at the charge, while the guns of the artillery battalion, on the hill opposite the stand, gave forth fire and smoke, and seemed almost to convert the pageant into real warfare. It was a brilliant day, and the thirst for the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of war was fully satisfied.”
Several ladies fainted at the impressive sight. But not all Confederates appreciated the show. Brigadier General William “Grumble” Jones, recently attached to Lee’s army from the Shenandoah Valley, had “a disdainful air, for he hated the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of war.” His men, like their commander, “grumbled at the useless waste of energy, especially that of the horses.”
That night, Stuart held a grand ball attended by the ladies and his officers. By that time, Longstreet’s lead division under Major General John Bell Hood was at Culpeper Court House, and all Confederates except for Hill’s corps had left Fredericksburg.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18977; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 292; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 436-37, 447; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 304-05; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5696; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 362; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 286, 307-08
May 7, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck arrived at Aquia Creek to meet with Major General Joseph Hooker regarding the Army of the Potomac’s latest defeat.
The president had arranged for a steamer to take him to Hooker’s headquarters after learning the extent of the Federal defeat at Chancellorsville. Lincoln and Halleck debarked on the morning of the 7th and took a special train to Falmouth, where they met with Hooker to discuss current and future operations.
Lincoln expressed relief to find that the “troops are none the worse for the campaign,” as evidenced by generally high morale and few desertions. He also said he was “agreeably surprised with the situation.” Lincoln did not assign blame for the defeat, but, knowing the indignation the defeat would cause throughout the North, he urged Hooker to begin a new offensive as soon as possible.
The meeting lasted just a few hours, after which Lincoln and Halleck left for Washington. As he left, Lincoln handed Hooker a letter:
“If possible I would be very glad of another movement early enough to give us some benefit from the fact of the enemies communications being broken, but neither for this reason or any other, do I wish anything done in desperation or rashness. If you have (a plan), prosecute it without interference from me. If you have not, please inform me, so that I, incompetent as I may be, can try and assist in the formation of some plan for the army.”
Lincoln told newspaper reporters at Falmouth that he was returning to Washington with “his confidence in Gen. Hooker and his army unshaken.” When a correspondent asked him if he would remove Hooker from command, Lincoln said that because he had stuck with George B. McClellan “a number of times, he saw no reason why he should not try General Hooker twice.”
Hooker responded the same day, writing:
“If in the first effort we failed, it was not for want of strength or conduct of the small number of troops actually engaged, but from a cause which could not be foreseen (i.e., the Confederate flank attack on May 2), and could not be provided against. As to the best time for renewing our advance upon the enemy, I can only decide after an opportunity has been afforded to learn the feeling of the troops. I have decided in my own mind the plan to be adopted in our next effort, if it should be your wish to have one made. It will be one in which the operations of all the corps… will be within my personal supervision.”
As the Federals returned to their old camps at Falmouth and resumed the daily routines of army life, northern newspapers spread blame among nearly everybody for the Chancellorsville debacle. Hooker reported that his present force totaled 136,704 officers and men, but many problems within the army delayed his plans to start another offensive.
From the White House, Lincoln responded with skepticism that Hooker could launch another offensive so quickly. He wrote that he would allow Hooker to stay put for now but would not object to Hooker putting the army in motion once more.
Lincoln then shifted focus to another concern: Hooker’s attitude. This bothered the president because it reflected a “cool, clear, and satisfied” air that refused to acknowledge responsibility for failure or willingness to learn from mistakes. Lincoln guessed that this attitude led to many of Hooker’s subordinates no longer wanting to serve under him.
Major General Darius N. Couch, Hooker’s second-in-command, was so disgusted by Hooker’s performance at Chancellorsville that he demanded to be transferred out of the army, away from Hooker. He joined with Major General Henry W. Slocum to urge Lincoln to replace Hooker with Major General George G. Meade. Major General John F. Reynolds had met with Lincoln at the White House and also recommended that Meade take Hooker’s place.
When Meade learned this, he told Lincoln he had no ambition to command the army, but he joined with Major General John Sedgwick in quietly expressing dissatisfaction with Hooker’s leadership. Only three of Hooker’s corps commanders–Major Generals Oliver O. Howard, George Stoneman, and Daniel Sickles–supported Hooker, but Hooker alienated Stoneman and Howard by asserting that they were the most responsible for the defeat.
Lincoln warned Hooker that “some of your corps and Division Commanders are not giving you their entire confidence.” This brought back memories of Hooker blatantly undermining Ambrose E. Burnside five months ago when Burnside commanded the army. Rather than fire back, Hooker left it up to Lincoln to decide what to do about it.
Lincoln rejected the calls to remove Hooker, saying that he was “not disposed to throw away a gun because it missed fire once,” but instead “would pick the lock and try it again.” But he did approve Couch’s transfer, with Major General Winfield Scott Hancock taking over Couch’s II Corps. Major General Alfred Pleasonton also took over for Stoneman as cavalry corps commander.
Lincoln then met with Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to discuss Hooker’s fate. They agreed that the atmosphere was too politically charged to remove Hooker at this time, but if Hooker submitted his resignation some time in the future, they would accept.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 14-16, 34; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18962; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 282-84; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9275, 9318; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 300; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 520-21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 350, 353, 356-57