April 13, 1863 (Monday)
Union General Joe Hooker’s plan put into effect at 7am on this date when 10,000 cavalry troopers set out from the main camp of the Army of the Potomac near Falmouth, Virginia. Their orders, given to them only the day before, were to ride around the left flank of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Once they got behind the enemy’s forces, cutting off their supply line, Hooker would attack with the rest of his army. This sounded like a fairly good plan. There were, however, some issues.
In the orders given to General George Stoneman, heading up the cavalry corps, Hooker gave him a long leash. Hooker encouraged Stoneman to keep in touch with the main army, but only when as it was “necessary and practicable.” In return, Hooker promised to be in contact with him “before your supplies are exhausted.” Stoneman’s men were carrying about ten day’s worth of rations with them. It was very possible that Hooker and Stoneman would be out of communication for a week and a half.
The orders were specific as to where the enemy was believed to be (Culpeper Court House and Gordonsville), and approximately which crossings, roads and railway corridors to take. Stoneman would be operating well behind enemy lines with a very large body of troops. There was no question that they would soon be discovered. When they were, getting a message back to Hooker might not be so practicable even if it was necessary.
And detection was the next problem. Hooker wanted to throw the Rebels for a loop by having Stoneman spread the rumor that his men were off to the Shenandoah Valley to hunt Confederate cavalry under Grumble Jones. But this little ruse worked too well.
The semaphore code used by Federal signalmen had recently been cracked by their Confederate counterparts. Hooker’s Chief of Staff, General Dan Butterfield, knew of this and decided to use it to Stoneman’s advantage. Playing on the premise that the Federal cavalry were on their way to crossing the Blue Ridge, he relayed a message hoping that it would be captured and decoded by the Rebels. “Our cavalry is going to give Jones & guerrillas in the Shenandoah a smash,” it asserted. “They may give Fitz Lee a brush for cover. Keep watch of any movement of infantry that way that might cut them off & post Capt. C.”
The trick message worked. It was captured and quickly made its way up to General Lee himself. But it had worked all too well. The only cavalry that Stoneman had to contend with were what he believed to be 2,000 troopers under Fitz Lee at Culpeper Court House. In actuality, the number was probably closer to 1,200. For 10,000 Federals, the meeting would be short and decisive. But after General Lee heard of the false plan, he acted, scrambling two brigades of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to support Fitz Lee.
Stoneman knew nothing of this, of course, and continued on his way. They made nineteen miles, winding up at Morrisville [Elk Run on the map] by nightfall. Once settled in, Stoneman drew up a complicated plan for crossing the Rappahannock River that very night.
Stoneman’s Corps consisted of three divisions and a reserve brigade (along with artillery). The First Division, under Benjamin Davis, was to go far upstream and cross at Sulphur Springs and then rush down the southern bank to Beverly Ford, clearing away any Rebel pickets in their path. Once Davis reached Beverly, Second Division under William Averell would cross. They would be followed by Maxcy Gregg and his Third Division. John Buford’s Reserve Brigade was to cross near the railroad bridge between the two fords. Once they were all across, Averell was to lead the way to Fitz Lee and his band at Culpeper.
That night, the temperatures dropped well below freezing. To preserve their cover, none of the men were allowed to light campfires. But rest was not to come anyway. By 11pm, Davis’ Division was on the road to Sulphur Springs and Buford was headed to Kelley’s Ford to make a demonstration to draw attention away from Davis.
It was expected that the crossing would take the entire day, but by the night of the 14th, everyone would be on the Confederate side of the Rappahannock. That did not happen. Most of the day would be taken up by Buford’s demonstration. Davis was able to get across the river, but darkness came before he was able to get to Beverly Ford and open it up for the rest of the Corps.
And then came the rains.1
- Sources: Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr.; Chancellorsville 1863 by Ernest B. Furguson; Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears. [↩]