Posted By Eric on May 24, 2013
May 24, 1863 (Sunday)
While the armies of Grant and Banks, Johnston and Pemberton waged a bloody war upon each other in Mississippi and Louisiana, Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph Hooker had done seemingly little since the Union defeat at Chancellorsville. But though the armies themselves barely moved, in both camps, things were afoot.
On the 13th of May, Hooker’s presence in Washington had been requested by President Lincoln. Hooker had written a long and gloomy letter to Lincoln, explaining the sad state the Army of the Potomac found itself in. Morale was low and, due to the expiration of the terms of service, thousands of troops were leaving the Army. In closing, Hooker told Lincoln, as almost an aside, that he would begin his new campaign the very next day.
Taken aback, Lincoln then summoned Hooker to the White House. The President was completely unconvinced that Hooker could defeat the Confederates with such little planning. Perhaps immediately after the fighting at Chancellorsville, when the enemy was in disarray, but not now – not after they had such a long time to prepare their defenses.
But there was something else for General Hooker to consider. Several of his corps commanders had expressed their distrust of him, requesting another General be placed at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Though Lincoln did not delve into the details, they had proposed General George Meade, commander of the V Corps, for the post.
Through a grapevine that pretty well started and ended with Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtain, Hooker found out that Generals Meade and John Reynolds (both hailing from the Keystone State), were not exactly thrilled with Hooker’s performance. Word naturally leaked out into the press and Hooker found himself in the midst of a coup.
However, he did not overreact. In fact, he didn’t act at all, telling Lincoln that it was best if the President handled such matters. But that didn’t mean he was silent. Of his eight corps commanders (including the Cavalry Corps), three were initially friendly to Hooker. Dan Sickles of the III Corps was tried and true, and would be to the end. Otis Howard of the XI Corps, as well as George Stoneman of the Cavalry, owed it to Hooker for their promotions to their current positions. Generals Meade and Reynolds (V and I Corps) had kept mostly quiet about their distrust for Hooker, basically agreeing to serve under him as long as he was around.
And so it was only II Corps commander, Darius Couch, Henry Slocum of the XII, and John Sedgwick of the VI who were most vocal (and Sedgwick hardly said anything at all). Through all of this Couch was in the process of obtaining a transfer out of the Army of the Potomac. The originator and ringleader of the coup could no longer serve under Hooker. Since nobody, especially Hooker, was standing in his way, he was apt to get the transfer.
This would have left Hooker’s Army perhaps a little ruffled, but not irretrievably so. Unfortunately for Hooker, it was his mouth that got him in trouble. The reason for the defeat at Chancellorsville, he claimed, rested squarely upon the shoulders of Howard, Stoneman and Sedgwick – the three corps commanders aside from Sickles, who had very little problem with Hooker. And with that, Hooker was left with but one friend – Daniel Sickles of the III Corps.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Rappahannock, the Confederates were not going through any of this ridiculous politicking. Even so soon after the death of Stonewall Jackson, General Robert E. Lee was planning his next move.
Two days after Hooker had been summoned to Washington, Lee arrived in Richmond to discuss with Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War James Seddon the coming campaign. Vicksburg loomed large over the room. Davis was obsessed with saving it. Lee’s only remaining Corps commander, James Longstreet, had suggested sending two of his divisions west to reinforce Braxton Bragg in Tennessee. They would defeat William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland, and then turn upon Grant’s Army at Vicksburg.
Lee, whose focus was almost exclusively upon Virginia, did not like the idea at all. He believed that if any troops were detached from his Army of Northern Virginia, he would be forced to retreat into the defenses of Richmond. He was, in a very real way, forcing Davis to pick Virginia over Mississippi – it was looking as if he couldn’t have both.
Lee probably first told his plan to James Longstreet, who quickly came on board. His idea was to cross the Rappahannock, marching north through Maryland to invade Pennsylvania. He argued that his army could not remain on the Rappahannock line for much longer. He feared that Hooker was planning yet another crossing and perhaps this time it would work – one just never knew.
Another consideration was Virginia herself. The warring armies had picked clean the fields and larders. Lee’s troops were on skinny rations. Perhaps Pennsylvania should feel some of the pains of war. Most of all, Lee was convinced that it would work. He was sure that his last invasion would have been a success had McClellan not moved as quickly as he had. By this time, Lee knew of the “Lost Order,” further convincing him that it was merely a fluke that he was turned back at Antietam.
By the 17th, Lee was preparing his army for the invasion of Pennsylvania. Soon, he would reorganize his force to somehow go on without Stonewall Jackson commanding his half.
And on this day, there was still little movement. Though there was intense broiling within the Union camp, and machinations upon machinations within the Confederate camp, both armies seemed content to remain very much at rest, but for one, that was not so.1
- Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Here Come the Rebels! by Wilbur Sturtevant Ney; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin B. Coddington. [↩]