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.