In Hooker’s testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War
occurs this tribute to the Confederate infantry: “Our artillery had
always been superior to that of the rebels, as was also our infantry,
except in discipline; and that, for reasons not necessary to mention,
never did equal Lee’s army. With a rank and file vastly inferior to our
own, intellectually and physically, that army has, by discipline alone,
acquired a character for steadiness and efficiency, unsurpassed, in my
judgment, in ancient or modern times. We have not been able to rival it,
nor has there been any near approximation to it in the other rebel
The cavalry force was small, but energetic and enterprising to a degree
as yet by no means equalled by our own. The artillery was neither as
good, nor as well equipped or served, as ours, but was commanded with
intelligence, and able to give a good account of itself.
DIFFICULTY OF AN ATTACK.
An attack of Lee’s position in front, even had Burnside’s experience not
demonstrated its folly, seemed to promise great loss of life without
To turn his right flank required the moving of pontoon trains and
artillery over the worst of roads for at least twenty miles, through a
country cut up by a multitude of streams running across the route to be
taken, and emptying into either the Potomac or Rappahannock; all
requiring more or less bridging.
Lee’s spy system was excellent. It has been claimed in Southern reports,
that his staff had deciphered our signal code by watching a station at
Stafford. And Butterfield admits this in one of his despatches of May 3.
He would speedily ascertain any such movement, and could create
formidable intrenchments on one side the river, as fast as we could
build or repair roads on which to move down, upon the other. Moreover,
there was a thousand feet of stream to bridge at the first available
place below Skenker’s Neck.
There remained nothing to do but to turn Lee’s left flank; and this
could only be accomplished by stratagem, for Lee had strengthened every
part of the river by which Hooker could attempt a passage.
But this problem was, despite its difficulties, still possible of
solution; and Hooker set himself to work to elucidate it.
So soon as he had matured his plan, which he elaborated with the
greatest care, but kept perfectly secret from every one until the
movements themselves developed it, although making use of the knowledge
and skill of all his generals both before and during its initiation,
he speedily prepared for its vigorous execution. In May, the term of
service of some twenty-two thousand nine-months and two-years men would
expire. These men he must seek to utilize in the campaign.
The first intimation of a forward movement received by the army at large,
apart from the Cavalry Corps, had been a circular of April 13, notifying
commanding officers to have their troops supplied with eight days’
rations, and a hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition, sixty to be
carried by the soldiers, and the balance on the pack-mules.
After the battle of Fredericksburg, the army had returned to
substantially the same positions and quarters occupied before; and here
the men had housed themselves for the winter. The Mud March had broken
up these cantonments; but after a few days’ absence the several
regiments returned to their old camps, and the same huts had generally
been re-occupied by the same men. But when Fighting Joe Hooker’s orders
to march were issued, no one dreamed of any thing but victory; and the
Army of the Potomac burned its ships. Nothing was left standing but the
mud walls from which the shelter-tent roofs had been stripped, and an
occasional chimney. Many of the men (though contrary to orders) set
fire to what was left, and the animus non revertendi was as universal as
the full confidence that now there lay before the Army of the Potomac a
certain road, whatever might bar the path, to the long-wished-for goal
THE PROPOSED CAVALRY RAID.
Hooker proposed to open his flank attack by cutting Lee’s communications.
Accordingly, on April 12, Gen. Stoneman, commanding the Cavalry Corps,
received orders to march at seven A.M. next day, with his whole force
except one brigade. He was to ascend the Rappahannock, keeping well out
of view, and masking his movement with numerous small detachments,–
alleging a chase of Jones’s guerillas in the Shenandoah valley, as his
objective. The river was to be crossed west of the Orange and Alexandria
Railroad. At Culpeper he was to destroy or disperse Fitz Lee’s brigade
of some two thousand cavalry, and at Gordonsville the infantry
provost-guard; thence to push down the Virginia Central to the
Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad, destroying every thing along the
road. As the enemy would probably retreat by the latter route,
he was to select strong points on the roads parallel to it, intrench,
and hold his ground as obstinately as possible. If Lee retreated towards
Gordonsville, he was to harass him day and night. The Confederates had
but five thousand sabres to oppose him. “Let your watchword be, Fight!
and let all your orders be, Fight, Fight, FIGHT!” exclaimed enthusiastic
Joe Hooker in this order. The primary object was to keep the Confederates
from retreating to Richmond; and Stoneman was to rely on Hooker’s being
up with him in six days, or before his supplies were exhausted.
If possible, he was to detach at the most available points parties to
destroy every thing in the direction of Charlottesville, and of the
The Cavalry Corps, except Pleasonton’s brigade, which accompanied
Hooker’s headquarters during this movement, left on the 13th. On the
15th Stoneman threw a division across the river at Rappahannock station,
where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad crosses the river. But a
sudden rise in consequence of heavy rains obliged this division to
return by swimming the horses. Gen. Lee says, referring to this check,
that “their efforts to establish themselves on the south side of the
river were successfully resisted by Stuart.” But the rise in the river
was the actual cause. There was no crossing of swords.
At the time the cavalry marched, an infantry brigade and a battery were
sent to Kelley’s Ford, and a regiment to United-States Ford, to hold
these crossings against scouting parties, or any counter-demonstration
on the part of the enemy.
The river did not fall so that Stoneman could pass at that point until
the 27th, when it was too late to accomplish valuable results under the
orders of the 12th; for the whole army was now on the march. Between
the 15th and 27th the cavalry, under instructions from Hooker, remained
in camp along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
It has, however, never been satisfactorily explained why it might not
have crossed higher up, and have utilized these precious two weeks.
It could not have been of less use than it was, and might possibly have
been able to call Stuart’s entire force away from Lee’s army. Nor was
it impossible, in part at least, to do the work cut out for it. Even to
threaten Lee’s communications would have seriously affected the
singleness of purpose he displayed in this campaign.
But the operations of Stoneman, as they had no effect whatever upon the
manoeuvres of either Lee or Hooker, may be treated of separately,
as a matter almost apart from the one under consideration.
And thus, in the failure of the cavalry raid, miscarried the first
effort of this ill-fated campaign.
It is not often that the danger of detaching the entire cavalry force of
an army, for service at a distance from its infantry corps, is
illustrated in so marked a manner as it was on this occasion. Hooker
left himself but a small brigade, of four regiments and a horse-battery,
to do the scouting for an army of over one hundred thousand men.
Had be retained a sufficient force to march with the main body, there
would no doubt have been at least a brigade of it, instead of a few
scouts, sent out to near Old Wilderness Tavern and along the Orange
plank road to the junction of the Brock road. Jackson’s movements would
then have been fully known.
The bulk of the cavalry of an army should be with the infantry corps
when in the presence of the enemy. For cavalry are the antennae of an
THE FEINT BY THE LEFT WING.
Gen. Hooker’s plan embraced, besides a cavalry raid to sever the enemy’s
communications, a demonstration in force on the left to draw the enemy’s
attention, and the throwing of the main body of his forces across the
river on the right.
As early as April 21, Doubleday of the First Corps had been sent down
the river to Port Conway with some thirty-five hundred men, to light
camp-fires, and make demonstrations with pontoons, after doing which he
returned to camp. On the 23d Col. Morrow, with the Twenty-fourth
Michigan, went down, and crossed the river to Port Royal in boats.
These demonstrations had been intended to co-operate with Stoneman’s
raid, which at these dates should have been well on Lee’s rear, and to
unsettle Lee’s firm footing preparatory to the heavy blows Hooker was
preparing to deliver; but, as Stoneman was delayed, these movements
failed of much of their intended effect. Nevertheless, Jackson’s corps
was drawn down to the vicinity, and remained there some days.
On Monday, April 27, Hooker issues his orders to the First, Third,
and Sixth Corps, to place themselves in position, ready to cross; the
First at Pollock’s Mills Creek, and the Sixth at Franklin’s Crossing,
by 3.30 A.M., on Wednesday; and the Third at a place enabling it to
cross in support of either of the others at 4.30 A.M. The troops to
remain concealed until the movement begins. Artillery to be posted by
Gen. Hunt, Chief of Artillery of the army, to protect the crossing.
Gen. Benham to have two bridges laid by 3.30 A.M. at each crossing.
Troops, as needed, to be detailed to aid his engineer brigade.
Gen. Sedgwick to command the three corps, and make a demonstration in
full force on Wednesday morning to secure the telegraph road. Should
any considerable force be detached to meet the movement of the right
wing, Sedgwick is to carry the works at all hazards. Should the enemy
retreat towards Richmond, he is to pursue on the Bowling-Green road,
fighting wherever he reaches them, while Hooker will pursue on parallel
roads more to the west.
This order was punctually obeyed. Gen. Hunt placed forty-two guns at
Franklin’s, forty at Pollock’s Mill, and sixteen at Traveller’s Rest,
a mile below, a number more being held in reserve. Those in position
were so disposed as to “enfilade the rifle-pits, crush the fire of the
enemy’s works on the hill, cover the throwing of the bridges, and
protect the crossing of the troops.” (Hunt.)
These three corps camped that night without fires, and the pontoons were
carried to the river by hand to insure secrecy.
At daybreak, Wednesday, Russell’s brigade crossed in boats at Franklin’s
with little opposition. The bridges were then constructed; and Brooks’s
division passed over with a battery, and established itself strongly on
the south side.
At the lower crossing, Reynolds’s attempts to throw the bridges early in
the morning were defeated by sharpshooters and a supporting regiment.
But about half-past eight, the fog, which had been quite dense, lifted;
and under fire of the artillery the Confederates were driven away,
and the crossing made by Wadsworth.
During Wednesday and Thursday the entire command was held in readiness
to force a passage at any time, the bridge-heads being held by Brooks
and Wadsworth respectively.
THE REAL MOVE BY THE RIGHT WING.
Hooker was a master of logistics. The forethought and excellent
judgment displayed in all orders under which these preliminary moves of
the army-corps were made, as well as the high condition to which he had
brought the army, cannot elicit higher praise than to state the fact,
that, with the exception of the Cavalry Corps, all orders issued were
carried out au pied de la lettre, and that each body of troops was on
hand at the hour and place prescribed. This eulogy must, however,
be confined to orders given prior to the time when the fighting began.
On April 26 the commanding officers of the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps
were directed to march Monday morning, the 27th, towards Kelley’s Ford,
on the Rappahannock,–some fifteen miles above its junction with the
As much secrecy as possible was enjoined, and the men were not to be
allowed to go down to the river. Eight days’ rations to be carried in
the haversacks. Each corps to take a battery and two ambulances to a
division, the pack-train for small ammunition, and a few wagons for
forage only. The rest of the trains to be parked in the vicinity of
Banks’s Ford out of sight. A sufficient detail, to be made from the
troops whose term was about to expire, to be left behind to guard camp,
and do provost duty.
Meade was ordered to march the Fifth Corps in connection with the
Eleventh and Twelfth, and equipped in similar manner.
The three corps to be in camp at Kelley’s Ford, in positions indicated,
by four P.M. on Tuesday.
The first day’s march was to the vicinity of Hartwood Church. Next day,
at four A.M., the head of the column was in motion; and at four P.M. the
three corps were in camp at Kelley’s Ford.
At six P.M. the pontoon-bridge was begun, under charge of Capt. Comstock
of the engineers, by a detail mostly from the Eleventh Corps. Some four
hundred men of Buschbeck’s brigade crossed in boats, and attacked the
enemy’s pickets, which retired after firing a single shot. About ten
P.M. the bridge was finished, and the troops crossed; the Eleventh Corps
during the night, and the Twelfth Corps next morning. The Seventeenth
Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment was sent out as flankers to prevent the
Confederate scouting-parties from annoying the column. In this they
failed of entire success; as the rear of the Eleventh Corps was, during
the day, shelled by a Confederate battery belonging to Stuart’s horse
artillery, and the Twelfth Corps had some slight skirmishing in its
front with cavalry detachments from the same command.
As soon as Hooker had seen to the execution of his first orders, he
transferred his headquarters to Morrisville, five miles north of
Kelley’s Ford, and superintended the execution of the crossing and
advance. Urging Meade to equal celerity and secrecy in uncovering
United-States Ford, he instructed Slocum, should Meade’s crossing at
Ely’s be resisted, to push a column on the south side of the Rapidan to
open the latter ford.
At Germania Ford, on the Rapidan, previously seized by an advance party
of three or four smart marching regiments, a small body of one hundred
and twenty-five Confederate infantry, guarding the supplies for the
rebuilding of the bridge, then in progress, was captured.
The cavalry and artillery crossed at once by the ford, as well as a
portion of the infantry, the latter wading almost to the armpits.
But the construction of the bridge was soon temporarily completed by
Gens. Geary and Kane; and the rest of the troops and the pack-mules
passed safely, by the light of huge bonfires lighted on the banks.
The men were in the highest possible spirits, and testified to their
enjoyment of the march by the utmost hilarity.