Franklin’s Crossing, June 1863: Gettysburg Act One or Third Fredericksburg?


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.)

The rarely seen image at left (courtesy of the New York Public Library, http://www.nypl.org, in accordance with its policy on non-commercial use of low-rez files) 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 pontoon-borne assault. I based the “June” date on the tree leaf-out that distinguishes the photographs of that month from those made during the Second Fredericksburg operations here a month before, as noted in the work of historian John Kelley. At right, from the collection of the Library of Congress, is a better-known companion view that looks in the opposite direction, an image that Kelly dates specifically to June 7.

(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.

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.

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.

Possibly appearing here for the first time in an interpretive venue, this sketch by Alfred R. Waud depicts some of the Confederate defenders of Franklin’s Crossing on the evening of June 5. Library of Congress.

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.

Another rarely seen image: the river side of ruined Mannsfield, looking south from the remnant of its formal garden, during the Federals’ occupation of the Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead in June 1863. My dating of photograph to June is also based on John Kelley’s leaf-out analysis of other images made that month. I suspect that the tree projecting over the wall in left background is a leafless exception due to its scorching in the fire that had destroyed the building’s wooden interior two months before. Library of Congress.

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.)

Detail from the image of Mannsfield above, showing at least three Union soldiers and, probably, a flag in background.

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.

Additional Federals pose in the Mannsfield garden in another detail from the image above.

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.

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16 thoughts on “Franklin’s Crossing, June 1863: Gettysburg Act One or Third Fredericksburg?

  1. Is it possible to connect the photographic view from the NY library with the work “A Mystery Photograph No More.” I’m speaking about the left – top section of the photograph.
    Last thought – are there any efforts to preserve what is left of Franklin’s Crossing. The aerial image is quite profound. It is almost like a nightmare to see another Walmart alongside of an important Civil War historic site.

    • I visited this site last month for the first time. My GG GF was in the NJ 26th and fought in the post-enlistment engagement. We are very interested in preserving whatever we can of this site and are willing to provide the funding. If you know of anyone who can provide guidance, please let me know. Walmart has been not real helpful.

  2. Noel,
    This is great material and indeed shows how easily hindsight bias can allow a handy via from one larger element in time to another. Indeed, no one at that time on the Union side could have considered this the beginning movements to pursue Lee on his way north. Characterizing this as “Third Fredericksburg” is really a step forward in the scholarship. I applaud your take on this. Excellent analysis.
    May I point out something, and perhaps you have, but I missed it? When you mention the low water level in the river for a period, the New York Public Library image seems to illustrate that by the presence of a large sand bar and much shorter pontoon sections. The June 5 date you supply is validated by that apparent evidence.
    Again, fantastic work. Congratulations.
    John Cummings

  3. Superb analysis, Noel. A good historian finds new ways of looking at old information and you can certainly be characterized as a good historian. I especially appreciate that you looked for any planned follow up as a way to gauge the seriousness of Hooker’s effort. Logistics is never an after thought to military men and ought not to be one to military historians. Nicely done. I look forward to Part 2.

  4. Thanks, all, for the thoughts and kind words. John K.: I don’t have a tiff version of the NYPL image. I figured that you’d be ordering one sooner or later; yours would be about the best-qualified pair of eyes to give the tiff a good looking over to see what you can find, especially as it relates to other photos of the area. I lack the background and type of involvement with the site to address your preservation question, by the way, but I do know that a variety of interested folks have certainly raised its profile in the past year or two, including my colleagues garnering front-page newspaper coverage for their tour of the site this May, and county and business leaders who facilitated the tour. John C.: Good observation about the water-level being altered downstream as well as upstream from Fredericksburg. Looking at the Library of Congress photo under hi-rez, my sense is that the narrower stretch of water is actually a longish pool on the lowest level of the riverbank on the Spotsylvania side. Noel

    • Noel,
      Yes, you are correct, the pool of water is slightly visible in the LC image behind the left hand tree cluster, and the foreshortening gave the impression of a narrower passage. It was difficult to discern details of the low-res image from the NYPL. High resolution scans have changed our world.
      John

  5. I believe that sketch isn’t of Confederate defenders, but Union troops sheltering on the reverse side of the rifle pits after the crossing.

    • Stu, Great observation. For quite some time after first seeing the sketch, I had also assumed that the troops were Federals, my notion being encouraged by the dominant style of headgear as well as the configuration of the earthwork. Then I noticed that Waud had followed his usual practice and supplied a narrative to Harper’s, whose editors then published it along with the woodcut version of the sketch in their June 27 issue. The narrative states that the Union artillery on June 5 “did magnificent practice; hardly a shot missed the earth-work; its defenders, the Second Florida, were kept enveloped in smoke and dust; and yet so great a protection is a little bank of earth, that not a man was killed.” Supporting evidence for Waud’s subjects being Confederates comes from the absence of Confederate artillery fire in those Union narratives of the events of June 5 that I’ve seen. A Jerseyman reported “only few feeble shots” from the Confederate infantry once the top of the bluff was gained, while Wilbur Fisk, who came across with the 2nd Vermont later that same day, included the following in his summary of action on both the 5th and the 6th: “No doubt the rebels had batteries that could have annihilated us…but for some reason they remained quiet.” Perhaps the men in the sketch are sheltering behind the rear or western side of what was variously described as “a small fort” or “the little fort,” apparently situated just to the rear of the riflepits. Noel

  6. At the moment one of my sources had the NYLibrary image as originating at the Library of Congress. I checked with the Library of Congress and they do not have this image. The first source I know of was Mark Katz. I wish the Library of Congress had that image. In August, 2004, when the Center for Civil War Photography had their Seminar in Fredericksburg, I gave a talk titled Embedded with the Troops, Photo Journalism in the Civil War and I used the NYL image to show the row boats on the east side of Franklin’s Crossing and to coordinate it with O’Sullivan’s view that was mislabeled by Alexander Gardner. At that time, the source was Mark Katz and I am assuming he got it fromthe NY Library.
    I’ll be happy to share that power point presentation.

  7. Just researching a civil war letter I have acquired and led me to this blog It’s late, but I believe it gives some details of the action referred to in the above.

    Unfortunately, I am having some difficulty identifying the soldier who wrote the letter. Originally the letter was attributed to Thomas Nicholson of the 140th PA. But in reading the details it becomes evident that this is referring to the 6th Corp. There is a reference to the 62nd NY and to a cannon ball going through Gen Newton’s tent. There was a Nicholson in the 98th PA 3rd Brigade 3rd Division 6th Corp, but not Thomas. We may never know the soldier as he may have assumed a “nom de guerre”.

    At the bottom of the first page it states ” On the ninth nothing of importance happened; in the evening a thousand men were detailed out of our Brigade to work on a rifle pit on the other side of the river.” Top of the second page says On the evening of the 10th we came over the river & drew up in position behind the rifle pit near the Bernard House.

    I can forward scans of the letter.

    • Rick, Thank you for reading, and for sharing that. Unfortunately, the relatively long duration of the June operation at Franklin’s, and the paucity of my free time, allows me to explore mainly the events at the beginning and end of the bridgehead’s lifespan, and then only occasionally. But no doubt June 10, 1863, and other days in-between, saw interesting and significant events. We are always grateful for copies of materials not already present in the park’s research archives; my thanks in advance if you can indeed share copies of what you have with our staff historian, Don Pfanz, at the email Donald_Pfanz [at] nps.gov. Noel H.

  8. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  9. I visited the Franklin’s Crossing site by boat earlier this year. The cliff is clearly visible with it;s white sandy look that is characteristic of cliffs on the Rappahannock., and there is an old road trace down there.The river has been dredged over the years, and there is one of those box like dredging dykes in the water on the Spotsylvania side, right where you have mapped the bridges. This area has been heavily abused by the former FMC Plant that was here. Preserving the sight is possible. You can’t see Walmart for the trees. I got far to the Stafford side in my boat, and it was easy to see how a crossing here would have unfolded compared to your map.

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