From: Noel Harrison
I’ve been thinking about historical context ever since reading the posts by my colleagues (here and here) about the variety of wartime uses of Franklin’s Crossing on the Rappahannock, situated just downstream from Fredericksburg.
My interest today is in one of those uses: the Federals’ assault crossing and bridge-laying at Franklin’s for the third time during the war, in June 1863. Directly or indirectly, the event would be classified as the curtain raiser of the Gettysburg campaign, by the compilers of the three-part volume 27 of the Official Records in 1889 and by most historians.
A Gettysburg context makes perfect sense to people who know the future. The bridgehead established on June 5 was indeed abandoned, early on June 14, 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 units in the two opposing armies was indeed at Gettysburg, in early July. (Their 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.)
(A high-resolution version of the New York Public Library photograph—entitled “View of the Rappahannock, showing pontoon and the enemy’s lines” Image ID: 1150134, in the Library’s Digital Gallery—may be ordered via section 2 of the “Use of Content” guidelines here.)
Yet Joseph Hooker ordered the June operation at Franklin’s Crossing not knowing the future but attempting to predict and influence it. More important, he maintained the bridgehead for more than a week as part of two successive plans to move the Army of the Potomac southwest or south to fight in east-central Virginia, not north or northwestward to fight above the Potomac. (Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter in late August 1862 had similarly suggested Fredericksburg as a base from which to threaten the rear areas of the Army of Northern Virginia moving north or northwest, specifically with a Union push “toward Hanover, or with a larger force to strike at Orange Court-House.”)
At Franklin’s in June 1863, the Rappahannock was passed, and combat did occur, unlike the similarly difficult-to-classify “Mud March” of the previous January. Again, a Gettysburg context for the June events makes sense to some degree—and I certainly don’t reject it—but might there be a companion- or alternate context that is not grounded in hindsight? My approach to that question, below, will focus only on what was known, at the time, to the man whose orders created the bridgehead, and (with the exception of a quotation at very bottom) avoid a parallel discussion of what was known to his opponent.
The Franklin’s Crossing operation was the intended first step in an evolving scheme. For the purpose of stating my case, I’ll dub this “Third Fredericksburg.” 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 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.
Yet the story of the June 1863 events offers an opportunity—surprisingly neglected thus far—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 April at the outset of Second Fredericksburg.
On May 7, 1863, one day after Chancellorsville’s close, President Lincoln was prodding Hooker to resume the offensive. The army commander responded that a thrust was in the works, this time with the operations of all the infantry corps “within my personal supervision.” He ordered or approved a move by the First Corps, which had been his least-committed and least-battered force during the recent fighting, into a bivouac area on and near Sherwood Forest plantation—much closer to the Rappahannock than the camping grounds occupied by the First prior to Chancellorsville. Hooker supplied an update a week later, informing the president that the service expirations of two-year and nine-month regiments had imposed a schedule adjustment but that his “hope” was to return the army to action the very next day, May 14. Lincoln discouraged the plan after meeting with Hooker in Washington, arguing that the moment of post-Chancellorsville opportunity had passed, with the enemy having had time to repair the communications disrupted during that campaign and also regain the Rappahannock defensive positions that it had “somewhat deranged.”
By the period May 31-June 3, Hooker’s own mood had swung to caution, if not alarm. Reports came in of the enemy preparing for a thrust over the Rappahannock, and of its water falling to levels that compromised “in numerous places” its capacity as a protective barrier. On June 3, Fifth Corps commander George Meade was directed to reinforce the Federal guard at Banks Ford, just upriver from Fredericksburg, and the other corps commanders to ready their regiments “for any movement that may be ordered” the next day.
The actual crossing and bridgehead at Franklin’s Crossing resulted from a shift in Hooker’s outlook back towards the bellicose. For John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps, the readiness ordered on the 3rd amid concerns about a possible breach in the Federals’ river defenses became readiness and then movement, ordered successively on the 5th, to support the engineers and artillerists who were now tasked with effecting a breach in the enemy’s. At Franklin’s Crossing on the evening of June 5, the engineers manhandled a number of wooden pontoons into the water—with enemy fire dropping their comrades here and there—and then detailed oarsmen. Elements of two of Sedgwick’s regiments, the Fifth Vermont and the 26th New Jersey, carried additional pontoons to the river’s edge, piled in around the engineers, and then everyone pushed off from the bank.
In providing cover for the outbound rowers, the Northern cannoneers plastered a rifle pit atop the opposite bluff and, evidently, a redoubt or lunette situated a bit further to the Confederate rear. Yet they had difficulty hitting a rifle pit located down from the crest and towards the river’s edge. A Jerseyman would later recall rowing through a hail of bullets; another became paralyzed with fear and allowed his pontoon to swing towards a collision with a neighboring vessel until one of its occupants, “leaning far over the gunwale with uplifted sword, hissed…‘Row, damn you, or I’ll cut your head off.’” The artillery fire did not cease until the leading attackers were well up the slope of the bluff, and seems to have been most effective by persuading the Confederates, once they could see that the enemy had landed in force, that captivity was preferable to a long retreat through a killing zone. The crossing cost the Federals 50-60 men dead and wounded but won them a prisoner haul of between 50 (Hooker’s estimate) and 93 (Provost Marshal General Marsena Patrick’s) as well as a bridgehead. The Confederate loss in killed that day is unknown.
For much of the day on June 5, Hooker had believed that Lee was withdrawing the Army of Northern Virginia from its lines around Fredericksburg, with the intention of either interposing his troops between Hooker’s army and Washington or crossing the upper Potomac. In a telegram sent to Lincoln in the late morning of the 5th, as the Union engineers were approaching Franklin’s, Hooker proposed that the Army of the Potomac “pitch into” what was presumably becoming the “rear” of Lee’s departing army: those Confederates who remained on the south side of the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg. Hooker wondered if such a thrust would be in accordance with the indirect option implied in guidelines he had received from Henry Halleck back on January 31: keep in view “always the importance of covering Washington and Harper’s Ferry, either directly or by so operating as to be able to punish any force of the enemy” moving against either place. Around nightfall on June 5, though, Hooker notified the president that he had come to doubt the likelihood of a Confederate withdrawal and now intended to maintain the bridgehead for only “a few days.”
The army commander again proposed a major thrust near Fredericksburg on June 10, when the Franklin’s bridgehead was still in place and garrisoned by a division from the Sixth Corps. That afternoon, Hooker telegraphed Lincoln with a more elaborate scheme for a southward attack: “throw a sufficient force over the river to compel the enemy to abandon his present position” around Fredericksburg and then undertake a “rapid advance on Richmond” while Lee’s army was still trying to move west and then northward. Hooker characterized his plan as “the most speedy and certain mode of giving the rebellion a mortal blow.”
Hooker’s two proposals seem at odds with his recently and prominently stated aversion, in General Orders No. 40, to making his main efforts through frontal attacks against strong positions. That order had been issued on the eve of the principal combats at Chancellorsville and predicted that “our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground.” After crossing at Franklin’s in December 1862 and April-May 1863, the Federals had both encountered and observed enemy defenses just beyond and to the west—along the grade of the RF&P Railroad, sunken in some places and raised in others, as well as on several cleared rises behind the railroad.
In June 1863, these well-known positions were not only occupied, by elements of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, but extended well beyond the northwest and southwest corners of the Federals’ bridgehead. Hooker’s telegram to Lincoln at nightfall on the 5th noted that the Confederates had responded quickly to the assault-crossing by assembling “in great numbers from all quarters” at their principal positions along and behind the railroad. Sedgwick attempted a reconnaissance in force on the 6th but by midmorning was confirming that the enemy was “strong in our front;” Union troops were unable to “move 200 yards without bringing on a general engagement.”
Aggressive Confederate picketing, which spiked into sharp combats that morning around the southwest corner of the bridgehead, and on the 9th and 11th along the northern perimeter, helped restrict the Sixth Corps lodgment to a rough box that began on the Rappahannock below the pontoon bridges (two 400-foot spans having been completed on the 6th); extended west to the Richmond Stage Road/Bowling Green Road and past the ruins of the Arthur Bernard House, “Mannsfield;” followed the general corridor of the road north to a point not far from the Ferneyhough House, “Sligo;” and then followed Deep Run east to the river near the Alfred Bernard House, “The Bend,” above the pontoons. (That left Mannsfield inside the Federal lines—to become a popular spot for curiosity seekers, and Sligo outside—to become a popular roost for Confederate sharpshooters.)
Lincoln and Halleck took a dim view of Hooker’s proposals of June 5 and June 10, for reasons that included the strength of the enemy’s position beyond Franklin’s Crossing. Telegraphing back to Hooker on June 5 (and prior to Hooker sharing his growing doubt, that evening, that Lee’s army was indeed departing), Halleck suggested attacking the enemy’s “movable column first, instead of first attacking his intrenchments” while the Rappahannock isolated part of Hooker’s forces. Lincoln expressed similar reservations that same afternoon: the enemy at Fredericksburg “would fight in intrenchments and have you at disadvantage…man for man…while his main force would in some way be getting an advantage of you northward.” The Army of the Potomac, Lincoln added, could become “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.” In rejecting Hooker’s plan of June 10, Lincoln and Halleck cited the likely time-delay associated with besieging the Confederate capital, and emphasized that “Lee’s Army, and not Richmond, is your sure objective point.”
Hooker ordered the Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead abandoned on June 13. Nearly all of the Federals there returned to the Stafford side of the Rappahannock during the early morning hours of the 14th. Confederates captured a number of left-behind pickets, some of whom had appeared at the river’s edge at daylight on the 14th, “begging most piteously,” and in vain, for a pontoon from the now-disassembled bridges on the opposite bank.
How might we understand Hooker’s proposals of June 5 and 10? Those were made in full awareness of 1) Lincoln’s general aversion to a crossing, in his message of May 14, 2) the bridgehead’s direct, westerly obstruction by the same Confederate defensive positions that had obstructed it during Chancellorsville—also referenced, generally, in the May 14 cautionary telegram from Lincoln, and 3) Halleck’s January 31 directive, the terms of which predisposed Hooker’s superiors to be skeptical of a southward attack against a northbound Lee. Also, a serious effort by Hooker to sell them on the June 10 plan could be reasonably expected to include at least passing mention of how he proposed to supply the operation against Richmond, or how John A. Dix’s forces in the Department of Virginia might cooperate to secure supply bases and/or reinforce the approaching Army of the Potomac. Yet the proposal offered neither. A jaundiced view of Third Fredericksburg and Hooker’s associated planning might therefore interpret those as means, at least in part, to restore his reputation for aggressiveness after Chancellorsville.
If Fighting Joe was indeed giving special priority to repairing his legacy, in other words, it would have been very helpful to have twice asked to return to the offensive while actually possessing a bridgehead on the enemy’s side of the Rappahannock (or, in the case of the plan suggested on the morning of June 5, being on the verge of possessing a bridgehead)—thus enhancing the seriousness of the proposals—even if those were ultimately rejected. In evaluating the two plans a century later, Historian Edwin B. Coddington stopped short of detecting the (partial) motive that I have just suggested but was highly critical nonetheless, arguing that “Hill’s 15,000 men, well protected by earthworks, could offer stiff and perhaps prolonged resistance,” and if needed fall back to alternate points of defense nearer Richmond and reinforcement by George Pickett’s division and J. Johnston Pettigrew’s brigade.
Coddington, after reviewing Hooker’s writings and statements about Chancellorsville and Third Fredericksburg (again, my term, not Coddington’s), argued that the army commander harbored “an almost abnormal tendency to blame other people or circumstances for his failures.” Almost immediately after the abandonment of the Franklin’s bridgehead, Coddington noted, Fighting Joe (along with his friend and chief of staff, Dan Butterfield) began characterizing it privately as a great, lost opportunity that fell victim to Halleck’s disdain for Hooker generally and the constraints of Halleck’s January 31 directive specifically—an interpretation that Hooker made publicly in 1864 while testifying before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Noel G. Harrison
Special thanks to Charlie Lively, Don Pfanz, and Jake Struhelka for research assistance. For John Kelley’s pathbreaking work on the June 1863 photographs, scroll down to the second article here.