In Part 1 of this article, I offered a preliminary take on the Army of the Potomac’s Rappahannock River bridgehead established June 5, 1863 at Franklin’s Crossing, a short distance downstream from Fredericksburg. Although the intermittent fighting there on June 5 and the week following is typically interpreted as the opening combat of the Gettysburg campaign, Part 1 made a case for “Third Fredericksburg” as an alternate designation (one that I’ll continue to use here).
The protracted occupation and safety of the Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead in June 1863, relative to its previous Union occupations, encouraged detailed artistic and written description by Northerners. Alfred Waud made this panoramic sketch of a fortification protecting Battery D (Williston’s), 2nd U.S. Artillery inside the bridgehead sometime June 8-13. Waud’s sketch, likely appearing here for the first time with full identification, looks southwest with the river and bridges just outside the view to the left and left-rear. Courtesy Library of Congress.
That earlier blog article also offered an interpretation that was critical of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Since we’ve just closed-out the sesquicentennial summer for the bridgehead (abandoned after nine days, in the early morning hours of June 14, 1863), I’d like to balance my previous take with one that’s friendlier towards the Union commander. Once again, I’ll focus on what was known to Hooker (or imagined by him) and inspired the creation and holding of the bridgehead, as opposed what was known to his opponent. Equally important, comparing the planning and execution of Hooker’s June operations at and near Fredericksburg—whether implemented or cancelled—with that for his Chancellorsville moves helps us better understand both.
Some quick review: on June 5 Hooker concluded that Lee was likely leaving the Fredericksburg lines intending to either interpose his troops between Hooker’s army and Washington or cross the upper Potomac. Hooker ordered his engineers, supported by infantry of John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps, to establish pontoon spans and a bridgehead at Franklin’s Crossing as a “demonstration,” albeit one with a fact-finding goal that initially made it more of a reconnaissance-in-force.
Franklin’s Crossing, June 1863, mapped by a member of the 15th N.J. Infantry (at “D” until June 9). Another Federal recorded that around 1,000 men from various regiments had spent the night of June 7-8 “digging rifle-pits, and breastworks for the artillery,” with dawn on June 8 revealing a new fortification “a mile long” (longest double line). This map errs in noting only one bridge, and places what is probably Battery D (“B” at lower right) slightly too close to the ruins of Mannsfield but is useful for depicting the variety of earthworks, including what appears to be an earlier, “First” rifle pit (“M”). Detail of copy of map in collection of Fredericksburg & Spot. NMP.
By late morning that same day, however, Hooker had expanded his plan for the Franklin’s operation into a major attack that would see the Federals, in Hooker’s words, “pitch into” the rear of Lee’s possibly strung-out, departing army at or near Fredericksburg. Planning for the attack was soon cancelled; Lincoln and Halleck quashed the scheme in responses received by Hooker around 4 p.m. Meanwhile, Hooker received news from the bridgehead that Confederates were assembling in the Prospect Hill-Deep Run line “from all quarters…and still arriving.” Around nightfall on June 5, he notified the President that he had come to doubt the likelihood of a Confederate departure from Fredericksburg and vicinity, and that he now intended to maintain the bridgehead for only “a few days.”
Detail from Waud’s sketch, with the ruins of Mannsfield’s fire-gutted, central section partially visible through the trees at center, and the mansion’s relatively intact, smaller north-wing appearing clearly at right. The trees’ leaf-out shows that the “1862” date penciled on Waud’s drawing (possibly in a different hand from that part of the inscription identifying the battery as “Willistons”) is erroneous, since the only sojourn of Battery D in 1862 had occurred in December.
Yet the prospect of striking the rear of a departing or dramatically weakened enemy someplace near Fredericksburg continued to intrigue the Union commander. Less than a day later, on June 6, cross-river observations of an apparent Confederate evacuation of positions north of Deep Run and northwest of the bridgehead prompted Hooker to order Sedgwick to make a “reconnaissance.” Sedgwick was authorized to commit his “entire corps, if necessary.” As it turned out, he needed only until midmorning on the 6th, and the services of the single division already present in the bridgehead (Albion Howe’s), to determine that, “The enemy are strong in our front,” and that “I cannot move 200 yards without bringing on a general engagement…. It is not safe to mass the troops on this side.”
The Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead in 2013, from a viewpoint not far from that used by Alfred Waud in June 1863, and from a similar angle. The estimated site of Mannsfield is hidden in this perspective by the modern house and trees in right-middleground; the site is around the bend of the street in far background, center, then up that same street two or three houses. Photo by Noel Harrison.
Hooker again proposed a major thrust near Fredericksburg on the evening of June 10, with the bridgehead now occupied by John Newton’s division of the Sixth Corps. The army commander telegraphed Lincoln with a more elaborate scheme for an 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.” Hooker characterized his plan as “the most speedy and certain mode of giving the rebellion a mortal blow.”