From: Noel Harrison
In June 1863, Federal troops staged an assault crossing and bridge laying at Franklin’s Crossing on the Rappahannock River, just downstream from Fredericksburg. In later years, the June event would often be classified directly or indirectly as the curtain-raiser of the Gettysburg campaign, including by the compilers of the three-part volume 27 of The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
A Gettysburg context makes perfect sense to people who know the future. Union forces indeed abandoned the Franklin’s bridgehead, occupied from June 5 until June 14, 1863, before it could host or become the springboard to a battle. After Chancellorsville, which had occurred one month before, the next battle to involve the majority of the units of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia was indeed at Gettysburg, in early July. (The opposing mounted forces, with some infantry involvement, fought at Brandy Station on June 9, and a Confederate corps engaged and routed a Union division at and near Winchester on June 13-15.)
The rarely seen image at left shows the Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead in June 1863 and looks north in a “Confederate’s-eye view” across the site of the June 5 assault by Union forces that had preceded their construction of the two pontoon bridges. Click to enlarge. Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. At right is a better-known companion view that looks in the opposite direction. Source: Library of Congress.
(I share the north-looking photograph, above, in accordance with the New York Public Library’s posted belief that the item is in the public domain under the laws of the United States.)
Yet Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker in June 1863 ordered the operation at Franklin’s Crossing not knowing the future but attempting to predict and influence it. As described in this blog post and its second part, he maintained the bridgehead for more than a week as part of successive plans to move the Army of the Potomac south or southwest to fight in central Virginia, not north or northwest to fight above the Potomac. In August 1862, prior to the Battle of Second Manassas, Union Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter had similarly suggested a Union push from Fredericksburg south “toward Hanover, or with a larger force to strike at Orange Court-House,” to the southwest, as the Army of Northern Virginia itself moved northward.
At Franklin’s Crossing in June 1863, the Rappahannock was passed, and combat did occur, unlike the similarly difficult-to-classify “Mud March” of the previous January. The June fighting waxed dramatic enough to inspire one veteran to reference and (in my read) even elaborate on Stephen Crane’s depictions of battlefield behavior in The Red Badge of Courage, when publishing a recollection of the action in the late 1890’s. Again, a Gettysburg context for the June 1863 events at Franklin’s makes sense to some degree, and I certainly don’t reject it, but I seek companion- or alternate interpretation not grounded in hindsight. My offering of another designation, “Third Fredericksburg,” in the title above, emphasizes the perspective of Hooker, whose orders created the bridgehead and formulated an evolving scheme, oriented away from Gettysburg, for the bridgehead’s exploitation. I avoid a parallel discussion of what was known to and planned by his opponent, Gen. Robert E. Lee, other than my use of a single quotation from a secondary source, below.
This map by John Hennessy shows the three-bridge configuration at Franklin’s Crossing at the onset of the Second Fredericksburg operations on April 29, 1863, and provides a good orientation to the modern landscape there. The Union pontoon bridges completed on June 6, 1863—just two, though—were situated in the same general location occupied by the three spans a month before.
I have no more desire to inflate Hooker’s plan into a conceptual masterpiece than I do the resulting, intermittently brisk engagement of June 5-14 around the Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead into anything approaching the intensity of the “Second Fredericksburg” component of the Chancellorsville campaign, in late April and early May, much less that of the First Fredericksburg fighting of December 1862. As I suggest below, Hooker’s motivations for establishing the bridgehead in June 1863 may have included adjusting in the present his military reputation of the future. Yet the story of the events of early June 1863 offers an opportunity—surprisingly neglected thus far in historical writing—to better understand the man who had planned and managed Chancellorsville. Hooker, after all, chose Franklin’s for his opening infantry move in June, just as he had done in late April at the outset of Second Fredericksburg.