April 28, 1863 (Tuesday)
General Joe Hooker’s flanking march to get behind Robert E. Lee’s Confederates at Fredericksburg had one major problem: Robert E. Lee. Keeping something this big a secret from Lee was nearly impossible. Hooker knew this and hoped that the cat would not be let out of the bag until the evening of the 28th – when he planned to cross the Rappahannock at Kelley’s Ford, thirty miles upstream of Fredericksburg.
Once across, Lee would undoubtedly be alerted and it would be a race to the Rapidan River, just below the Rappahannock. Hooker, understandably, had no desire at all to fight his way across the river. To make sure that Lee stayed in his place, he ordered a diversion to kick up a demonstration by crossing the Rappahannock just below Fredericksburg.
The first day of the march, the 27th, was a beautiful day for marching. General Otis Howard’s XI Corps led the silent parade. All music, even drums, were forbidden. Henry Slocum’s XII Corps would follow on a parallel road, while George Meade’s V Corps followed. By the night of the 27th, all three corps making up the flank movement were encamped near Hartford Church, just north of US Ford.
Throughout the night, Hooker’s pickets kept watch and guard over civilians who might try to signal his movement to General Lee. Mostly this was done by Darius Couch’s II Corps, ordered to follow the flanking corps, but only to around Banks and US Fords, over which they kept their posts. Surprisingly, the tactic worked. Lee had not a clue of Hooker’s movement on the 27th.
On the morning of this date, Hooker’s flanking troops were roused out of bed without the blare of a bugle. Again, everything was silent. The secret had to last a few more hours. The XI Corps led the march, with the XII and V Corps following, all along a single road. It was fourteen miles to Kelley’s Ford and the going would be long.
Throughout the day, the march stopped and started, and was generally lagging. Some units spent an hour stood still for every two hours of marching. Hooker, who was just now catching up with the column, grew more and more infuriated as he rode towards the front. When he reached General Oliver Otis Howard, leading the XI Corps, he flew into a rage of curses and accusations. It was, however, all bluster. Howard, who had indeed been slow and even disobeyed orders by lugging along too many wagons, arrived near Kelley’s Ford at 4:30pm. He was only thirty minutes late.
Around 6pm, as Hooker’s flanking troops were settling into their camps, a fleet of pontoon boats came paddling up the Rappahannock River. They were quickly thrown up across Kelley’s Ford as Rebel pickets from Rooney Lee’s Cavalry were taken completely by surprise. The Confederates were able to fire off but one volley before the boats were systematically formed into a bridge. By 10:30pm, the entire bridge was completed and, following a bit of confusion by a guide, Howard’s XI Corps was ready to cross.
But it was this bit of confusion that gave up the secret. One of Howard’s staff had been captured by a patrol of Jeb Stuart’s Rebel Cavalry. Without much prompting at all, he boasted that the XI Corps was just across the river, 14,000-strong. By 9pm, an hour and a half before the Federals crossed, Jeb Stuart was aware that something big was going on at Kelley’s Ford.
Stuart knew, but Lee would not learn of it until the next morning. The telegraph line running from Stuart’s headquarters in Culpeper had to first run to Gordonsville, then to Richmond, and then to Fredericksburg. As it did every night, the station in Gordonsville closed, not to reopen again till morning.
Hooker’s plan had worked perfectly, even though Stuart knew some (and only some) of the details. Back at Falmouth, the three remaining corps had done their jobs well, keeping up appearances to complete the ruse. The I Corps under John Reynolds, along with John Sedgewick’s VI Corps made a quick march to the Rappahannock, just below Falmouth, remaining out of sight of the Rebels across the river at Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, the Confederates on the other side suspected not a thing.1
- Sources: Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr.; Chancellorsville
by Stephen Sears; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter Hebert; Chancellorsville 1863 by Ernest B. Furguson. [↩]