In part 1 of this post, 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, my earlier post made a case for “Third Fredericksburg” as an alternate designation (one that I’ll continue to use here).
That earlier blog post also offered an interpretation that was critical of 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 for 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
My previous post on suggested one way to read Hooker’s June 10 plan: he was continuing an exercise in post-Chancellorsville legacy repair, with little expectation of approval for his proposals and engaging mainly in semantics. The Prospect Hill-Deep Run line was growing ever more formidable, as Sedgwick had tersely noted on June 6. In quashing Hooker’s first attack-plan for Third Fredericksburg, on June 5, Lincoln and Halleck had echoed Hooker’s own, previously stated aversion to tackling fortifications frontally.
By the time of the June 10 proposal to Lincoln and Halleck, however, Hooker’s ideas for clearing the first hurdle en route to Richmond were far more imaginative than mere frontal assaults against the Prospect Hill-Deep Run position. Hooker’s own writing about his goals, as those evolved between June 6 and June 10, reveal a two-part approach of (1) capitalizing on Union operations that diverted the Confederates’ strength from certain segments of their lines around Fredericksburg, then (2) crossing the Rappahannock at those weakened or unoccupied areas.
Hooker’s first, lengthy response in writing, on June 10, to the news of the Battle of Brandy Station was to redefine his cavalry/infantry effort there from a stand-alone attempt to “disperse and destroy” enemy mounted forces intent on a major raid to something quite different: the first stage of a supporting operation for Hooker’s principal move, which would be made back east, near Fredericksburg. As telegraphed to Lincoln, Hooker’s June 10 plan opened with his assessment of Brandy Station: the Confederate mounted force had been delayed but certainly not destroyed, and Lee, Hooker hoped, now felt compelled to add “a heavy column of infantry to accompany the cavalry on the proposed raid,” concentrating first on punching-across the Union-held Rappahannock crossings beyond Brandy Station (an enemy focus that Hooker’s cavalry would intensify by resisting “the passage of the river”).
Hooker informed Lincoln that his proposed encouraging of the “manifest tendency” of Lee’s main force “to drift in that direction”—Culpeper, Brandy, and the Rappahannock’s upper reaches—“would so much weaken him in my front”—the central stretch of the Rappahannock (downstream from its confluence with the Rapidan), held mainly by Confederates of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps—“that I can throw a sufficient force over the river to compel the enemy to abandon his present position” in the vicinity of Fredericksburg. That Confederate position, moreover, would have been weakened still further by Hooker’s repurposing of the existing Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead from a springboard to “pitch into” the enemy (June 5), or at least to aggressively reconnoiter enemy defenses (June 6), to a means of attracting and holding an “accumulation” of Confederate forces, as Hooker described the bridgehead on June 7.
Hooker’s 1863 correspondence and 1864 testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War reveal the particular crossing places that he was considering elsewhere along the central Rappahannock. In messages sent on June 6 and 7, 1863, Hooker asked General George Meade to have Fifth Corps units venture “a feeler” or by any other “stratagem” learn “what troops the enemy have” at the ford-exits opposite the riverbank held by Meade’s men. The ensuing exchange among Hooker, Meade, and division commander George Sykes specified both Banks’ and United States Fords as points of interest; Meade on June 5 had relayed Sykes’ promising report of “no signs of infantry at United States Ford or indications of large camps in its vicinity.” In 1864, Hooker asserted before the Joint Committee that Banks’ and United States Fords had been “weakly held” in June 1863, “and both practicable, as reported, for crossing.”
Additionally, Hooker on June 8, 1863 requested a reconnaissance of riverside topography as far downstream from Fredericksburg as the Seddon farm (“Snowden”) that would search “carefully” for Confederate positions, noting “all covered and exposed approaches thereto.” Prior to Chancellorsville, Hooker’s Chief Engineer, Cyrus Comstock, had provided an analysis that gave Seddon’s a mixed review as a crossing place: artillery on the Union side of the river would command the direct approaches to likely Confederate positions on the opposite side, but the Port Royal road’s bocage-like banks offered the enemy strong defenses, and there was likely danger from flanking artillery fire. At least part of the examination ordered on June 8 seems to have fallen to Gen. John Reynolds’ staffer Stephen M. Weld, who on June 9 made two separate trips to look across the Rappahannock for “anything new from the rebel force opposite Mrs. Seddon’s.” Weld reported that he “could discover nothing.”
Lincoln rendered Hooker’s planning moot at 6:40 p.m. on June 10, when he telegraphed a rejection of the proposal, 90 minutes after its receipt in Washington. Brandy Station, it turned out, was repurposed for no more than a day. Hooker’s resulting disappointment seemed sincere to Provost-Marshal General Marsena Patrick, whose diary entry for June 13 (the last full day of the bridgehead’s occupation) records, “I think & know, that Hooker feels very bad—He is prohibited from crossing to [w]hip Hill”—a sense of lost opportunity that Hooker echoed nine months later, in his 1864 testimony concerning United States and Banks’ Fords.
Yet his correspondence with Meade and Sykes in June 1863 had been somewhat vague and halfhearted on the scope and intent of possible moves across the Rappahannock. Hooker’s June 8 directive to seek an additional crossing place at or near Seddon’s may reflect concurrent, ongoing consideration of all promising options, but it may also indicate that, at the time, he had readily agreed with Sykes’ final assessment, forwarded late on June 6: “I [Sykes] am opposed to any movement across the river with the forces I have at Banks’ and United States Fords.”
Yet I remain fascinated by the similarities between Hooker’s June 10 scheme and associated planning, and his ideas before and during Chancellorsville in April and May. In the June 10 proposal, as with his pre-Chancellorsville proposal submitted two months earlier (on April 11), Federal cavalry were to play a key role in drawing Lee’s main strength away from the Fredericksburg area. And as in Hooker’s next plan for Chancellorsville (finalized on April 19), a major bridgehead at Franklin’s Crossing in June took on the role of attracting and holding an enemy accumulation.
Hooker’s readiness to adapt to changing circumstances in his planning for Third Fredericksburg—to encourage and exploit the “manifest tendency” of his opponent to shift northwestward—could be cited as support for historian Stephen W. Sears’ argument that the Union commander possessed impressive flexibility in grand tactics. Sears highlights in particular Hooker’s idea to salvage the situation, late during the battle of Chancellorsville, by withdrawing the bulk of his army across the river at United States Ford and re-cross it at Banks’ Ford to join the Sixth Corps and renew the offensive. Although I remain unclear on the extent to which Meade had shared Sykes’ June 6, 1863 assessment of the two fords—an opinion presumably forwarded to army headquarters with at least tacit endorsement by Meade—I was intrigued to see in Meade’s published letters that he still held out hope for a Union thrust along the Rappahannock, someplace, and even though he was highly critical of his commander’s decisionmaking during the previous campaign. In a letter home on June 11, Meade wrote, “Perhaps Hooker may find a chance to assume the offensive and reverse matters, as the enemy did at Chancellorsville. This I think would be good luck for us.”
Noel G. Harrison
Text sources in order of first appearance above—June 5 “demonstration”: Official Records (“OR”) 27: 1st part: 32-33, 3rd part: 8; June 5 attack proposal: OR 27: 1st part: 30-31, 33; June 6 reconnaissance: OR 27: 3rd part: 12-13; original “disperse and destroy” goal of Brandy Station: OR 27: 3rd part: 27; June 10 proposal—“mortal blow,” enemy’s “manifest” drift : OR 27: 1st part: 34-35; Franklin’s Crossing repurposed to attract “accumulation”: OR 27: 3rd part: 13, 24; U.S. Congress, Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (“Joint Committee”), p. 26; Banks’ and United States Fords potential crossings: OR 27: 3rd part: 9, 17-18, 24; OR 51: 1st part: 1046; Joint Committee, p. 160; Seddon farm potential crossing: OR 27: 3rd part: 33; OR 51: 1st part: 980-981; War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld, 1861-1865, pp. 211-212; Lincoln rejects plan: OR 27: 1st part: 35; Patrick on Hooker’s disappointment: David S. Sparks, ed., Inside Lincoln’s Army: The Diary of Marsena Rudolph Patrick, p. 258; Sykes’ final assessment on June 6: OR 27: 3rd part: 17; Hooker’s April plans and idea to salvage Chancellorsville: Stephen W. Sears, Chancellorsville, pp. 118-119, 132, 169-170, 399, 407, 423.
Picture- and caption sources in order of first appearance above–Waud bridgehead panorama #1: “Cross the Rapidan” [sic], Library of Congress; map: detail of map, Edmund D. Halsey MS diary, June 12, 1863, copy in collection of Fredericksburg & Spot. NMP; account of night work: Alfred S. Rowe, The Tenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry… pp. 196-97; Warner diary, various dates: James R. Lafferty, Jr., trans., “The War Diaries of Lt. Charles Nelson Warner, U.S.A. 1862-1865,” entries for December 1862, April, May and June 1863; estimated site of Mannsfield: John Hennessy, Digging Mannsfield; base-map for sites of June planning; Waud Banks Ford: “Blind Ford & Scotts Mill,” Library of Congress; sawmill and Chancellorsville pontoons at Banks’ Ford: Noel G. Harrison, Chancellorsville Battlefield Sites, pp. 199-203; Waud bridgehead panorama #2: “Soldiers preparing for battle” (left half), “Sharpshooter covering artillery men” (right half), Library of Congress; Timothy O’Sullivan photograph; John Kelley research: “Hidden in Plain Sight: The First Photographs of the Gettysburg Campaign.”
Bibliographical Note—Historian Edwin B. Coddington would scoff at Hooker’s proposals of June 5 (its rejection “well founded”) and June 10 (“fantastically bad,” with the additional burden of hubris about reaching and capturing Richmond). Coddington argued that the first obstacles confronting these plans, the Confederates at and near Fredericksburg, were “well protected by earthworks” and “could offer stiff and perhaps prolonged resistance.” Historians Edwin C. Fishel and Stephen W. Sears would take the opposite view in brief comments in books covering broader subjects, stating that Hooker’s notion of a June attack in the Fredericksburg area had a real chance for success. Fishel did not speculate on means and locations; Sears commented in a footnote that Hooker “never fully developed his plan” beyond envisioning the passage of additional Federals at unspecified places “above and below Fredericksburg” but not “attacking the entrenchments there frontally.” (Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, pp. 53, 67; Edwin C. Fishel, The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War, pp. 430-31; Stephen W. Sears, Gettysburg, pp. 83, 550.) A fine compilation of eyewitness writings about soldier life in and around the Franklin’s Crossing June bridgehead is in Noah Andre Trudeau’s “False Start at Franklin’s Crossing” (America’s Civil War, July 2001: 32-37, 86-88). Finally, my colleague Eric Mink has posted online this Union engineer’s map, dated “June 7 1863” but showing the completed infantry/artillery fortification, which was not actually built until that night. The date may refer to the finalized plan for the earthwork’s location, not the finished product; a party of Federal engineers had indeed “laid out a line” for it on the afternoon of June 7. (Gilbert Thompson, The Engineer Battalion in the Civil War, pp. 35-36.)