I Must Play With These Devils Before I Can Spring

April 21, 1863 (Tuesday)

When last General Joe Hooker communicated with President Lincoln in was in person, at Aquia Landing. Feeling a little uneasy about the cavalry raid undertaken by George Stoneman, Lincoln traveled to see Hooker and talk the whole thing out. Apparently Hooker convinced Lincoln that though Stoneman had been held up by the weather, it would all turn out just fine.

Joe Hooker wasn't so sure.
Joe Hooker wasn’t so sure.

Ultimately, Hooker’s plan (as it now stood) was to march up the Rappahannock, cross beyond General Lee’s left flank, and get behind the Army of Northern Virginia. This would require rapid movement, and, by this date, that movement had not yet started.

The reason was, again, the weather. He had heard from General Stoneman’s scouts that the fords were still flooded. He had been waiting and hoping that Stoneman would soon be able to cross. If Stoneman could cross, he could still be of use.

It seemed that Hooker’s plan was quickly evolving. Originally (well, sort of originally), he had wanted Stoneman to get between Lee and Richmond, cutting off the Confederate Army’s lines of supply. This would, Hooker believed, force the Rebels out of their trenches at Fredericksburg. At which time, the Army of the Potomac would cross and crush the weakened enemy out in the open.

Now that Stoneman was still unable to cross, Hooker’s plan had to be changed.

“The weather appears to continue averse to the execution of my plans as first formed,” wrote Hooker to Lincoln in the morning of this date. If Stoneman did not soon cross, he continued, “I feel that I must modify them [his plans] to conform to the condition of things as they are.”

Hooker lamented that he was “attached to the movement as first projected, as it promised unusual success.” But as it was looking on this date, with all the changes he might have to make, he still figured his plan would “secure us success, but not to so great an extent….”

This wasn’t exactly what Hooker was telling General John J. Peck, commanding the Union troops at Suffolk. Though they were basically besieged by Confederates under James Longstreet, it was Hooker’s wish that Longstreet’s three divisions that had been detached from Lee’s Army to do the besieging, not be allowed to rejoin Lee prior to the Federal attack.

This map will change eventually, right?
This map will change eventually, right?

Peck was holding things well enough, he reported from Suffolk, but was genuinely concerned that Hooker get his plan rolling. “You must be patient with me,” replied Hooker. “I must play with these devils before I can spring. Remember that my army is at the bottom of a well, and the enemy holds the top.”

While having to “play with these devils” made no real sense at all, and the bit about the well simply wasn’t true, Hooker knew for certain that a great opportunity was slipping away from him.

Before tucking himself in for the night, he again wrote Lincoln. “As I can only cross the river by stratagem,” he began, “it may be a few days before I make it.” He wrote that he had to threaten several poins, “and be in readiness to spring when a suitable opportunity presents itself.”

And so Hooker quickly went from having a fairly solid and intelligent plan, complete with a time table and objectives, to a vague idea that he would cross somewhere up the Rappahannock at some point and then wait for some amount of time for some kind of opportunity to somehow present itself. Clearly, things were not going well.

On the other side of the Rappahannock, things were no clearer. Fortunately for General Lee, all he had to do was defend his army and Richmond. Still, General Hooker had only a slightly better grasp on the plans of the Union Army than Lee had.

With Stoneman’s Cavalry unable to cross, Lee took it as an indication that instead of preparing for an attack, Hooker was “fearful of an attack from us.” He concluded that Stoneman’s stalemate was to “prevent [Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry from] moving against his right or getting in his rear.”

That is not to say that Lee wasn’t worried. To Jefferson Davis, he wrote with the suggestion of pulling a cavalry brigade each from Western Virginia and North Carolina. On this date, the President, also taking the threat seriously, complied.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p213-214, 215, 740; Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr; Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears. []
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I Must Play With These Devils Before I Can Spring by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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