June 2, 1863 (Tuesday)
“It seems apparent from the rumors that reach me that a movement of rebel troops is going on from south to north, and that the idea prevails over the lines that an invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania is soon to be made. I have heard nothing definite, but all the rumors concur to produce the impression stated.”
-Major-General Erasmus D. Keyes, Yorktown, Virginia. June 2, 1863
General Erasmus Keyes had commanded the 5,000-man expedition to West Point, Virginia, at the top of the Peninsula, and thirty miles east of Richmond. So close to Rebel lines, he was privy to rumors and could more easily watch the movement of enemy troops.
After General James Longstreet’s three Confederate divisions pulled out of the southeastern Virginia area they occupied before the Battle of Chancellorsville, he noticed they were marching north, towards Lee’s Army at Fredericksburg. While this was obvious, he also noticed a similar pattern in the south to north movement of other troops.
Then, as he was ordered out of West Point by General John Dix, commanding from Fortress Monroe, more and more rumors flooded in about a supposed campaign into the north. All the while, General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia sat seemingly quiet and still.
But by this date, General Joe Hooker, at the head of the Army of the Potomac, must have known something was amiss. He had deduced that General Lee had left Fredericksburg, probably for Richmond. The general had been absent from his army for as long as a week. Though the Rebel host was still, his camps, knew Hooker, were as full as ever, and there was every indication that Lee was about to move by Hooker’s right flank.
This was, of course, all true. Lee was planning an invasion of Pennsylvania. He had been in Richmond (though not for an entire week) and his army would, when they moved, skirt Hooker’s right flank. The only hitch, in Lee’s mind at least, was protecting Richmond from the Federal forces he believed to be gathering on the Peninsula.
That was true as well. Federal forces under Generals Dix and Keyes were disturbingly close to the Confederate capital. Lee wanted to leave not a single one of his men behind, hoping to rely upon D.H. Hill, commanding in North Carolina, to fill in the gaps.
Today, however, Lee was relieved to learn that the Federals had abandoned West Point, and possibly even York, but were marching on either side of the Piankatank River in a northwesterly direction. The Piankatank lay between the Rappahannock and York Rivers, north of the Peninsula.
The new was actually talking of two different Federal parties. The first, under Keyes, had indeed abandoned West Point (though not York). The second was probably cavalry under Judson Kilpatrick marching back to join General Hooker’s Army at Falmouth. Nevertheless, this was the news for which Lee had been waiting.
Of course, not everything pivoted upon the 5,000 Yankees poking around West Point, but it certainly eased Lee’s mind. Hooker’s stillness eased it even more.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was in excellent shape. They were an army of 80,000 men, comprised of 67,600 infantry and artillery, with 12,400 cavalry. Lee had not commanded such a grand force since the Seven Days Battles a year previous.
But Lee’s Army, though made up of many veterans, was in a sense new. Following the death of Stonewall Jackson, he had divided his army into three corps (rather than the previous two). This placed two officers, Generals A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell in seats they had never before filled. As corps commanders, they had never been tested, and would not likely be until they were upon Northern soil – and this was if everything worked according to Lee’s plan.
All this was out of his hands now. He was ready to march north, and believed his army to be ready as well. Most importantly, he was convinced that General Hooker’s Union Army was not ready at all.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p574, 595; Gettysburg by Steven Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin B. Coddington; Fighting for the Confederacy by Edward Porter Alexander. [↩]