I Would Not Go South Upon Lee’s Moving North – Lincoln’s Advice to Hooker

June 10, 1863 (Wednesday)

Pleasonton: There's no enemy infantry here! Well... not much of it, anyway. Except maybe kind of a lot. ... Help?
Pleasonton: There’s no enemy infantry here! Well… not much of it, anyway. Except maybe kind of a lot. … Help?

Following the vicious Battle of Brandy Station, Union General Pleasonton, took some solace in the belief that he had forced the Rebel cavalry under Jeb Stuart to give up any idea of a raid into the north. General Joe Hooker, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, still at Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, was not nearly as convinced.

“I am not so certain as you appear to be that the enemy will abandon his contemplated raid,” wrote Hooker to his Cavalry chief before asking if Pleasonton would be able to keep Stuart from crossing the Rappahannock.

Pleasonton was, of course, fully convinced that he could stop Stuart. However, at the end of the previous day’s battle, he noticed that some infantry skirmishers had poked through a bit of woods. If Genreal Lee actually had a large force of infantry around Culpeper and used them to aid Stuart, then all bets were off.

Rather than return to Falmouth, Hooker wanted Pleasonton to stick around Beverly and Kelly’s Fords to see what the Confederates might do next.

The battle itself revealed nothing of General Lee’s plan to march his entire Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. Lee was ever cautious to keep the two corps of infantry at Culpeper a secret from General Hooker’s men for as long as possible. The infantry seen by General Pleasonton at the end of the battle were a combination of mistaken identity and actual infantry thrown forward by Lee so Stuart would not be crushed and his secret let loose. In that way, Lee was successful. Pleasonton’s reconnaissance discovered no formidable enemy infantry anywhere near Culpeper and Brandy Station.

That afternoon, however, a slave owned by an officer in Stuart’s artillery had escaped and made his way into Pleasonton’s lines. Being so close to Rebel headquarters, he was privy to information that even most of the common troopers didn’t have. The self-liberated slave detailed Lee’s precise position. Longstreet’s and Ewell’s Corps were both at Culpeper, told the man. It was only A.P. Hill’s Corps that remained in Fredericksburg.

How's this map?
How’s this map?

He then went on to explain what was probably his former master’s idea of what Lee’s plan might be. Only Stuart’s Cavalry had any notion of going into Pennsylvania. The infantry would try to entice Hooker to cross at Fredericksburg before making a hasty path to Aquia Landing, getting between Hooker’s Army and Washington. This was, of course, not the plan at all, but it was one that Hooker and Lincoln had both speculated upon.

Later that day, another slave of a high-ranking Confederate officer escaped. This one, formerly belonging to an officer in Cobb’s Legion (McLaw’s Division, Longstreet’s Corps), told a story corroborating the first escaped slave’s tale. Two Confederate Corps were at Culpeper, and Stuart’s Cavalry was planning on raiding into Pennsylvania.

By the end of the day, Pleasonton was convinced the freed slaves were telling the truth. Most of Lee’s Army was at Culpeper and Stuart was, or at least had been, planning a raid. He was also convinced that his force had crippled Stuart’s cavalry the previous day, while his own was still in fine shape.

At this point, Hooker was fairly convinced that most of Lee’s Army had left Fredericksburg, but that Pleasonton’s battle of the previous day had not truly crippled Stuart. In a letter to President Lincoln, Hooker allowed that the battle may have thrown Stuart’s plans off track by a few days, but that was all.

Lincoln: And fret him, and fret him, and fret him, and fret him!
Lincoln: And fret him, and fret him, and fret him, and fret him!

Though Hooker had no idea what Lee was actually up to, he was hopeful that he might send a strong column of infantry along with Stuart on the raid north. If true, Hooker wrote, “he can leave nothing behind to interpose any serious obstacle of my rapid advance on Richmond.” He believed that taking the Confederate capital would be “the most speedy and certain mode of giving the rebellion a mortal blow.”

Lincoln’s reply was not at all what General Hooker wanted to hear. “If left to me,” began the President, “I would not go south of Rappahannock upon Lee’s moving north of it. If you had Richmond invested today, you would not be able to take it in twenty days; meanwhile your communications, and with them your army, would be ruined. I think Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your sure objective point. If he comes toward the Upper Potomac, follow on his flank and on his inside track, shortening your lines while he lengthens his. Fight him, too, when opportunity offers. If he stays where he is, fret him and fret him.”

Ewell: Here we go!
Ewell: Here we go!

On the other side of the Rappahannock, General Lee’s plans were basically on schedule. He had no intension at all to stay where he was. Lee started his leading Corps, under Richard Ewell, towards the Shenandoah Valley. Longstreet and Hill’s Corps would follow shortly, but would stick to the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains to screen Ewell’s movements.

Two divisions from Ewell’s Corps made it to Woodville, fifteen miles west of Culpeper, while the other division, under Robert Rodes, moved north towards Jefferson, so as to not clog the pikes.

Though the Rebel movement had just begun, news to the north spread quickly. The only Federal presence in the Shenandoah Valley was under General Robert Milroy at Winchester and Harper’s Ferry. His superior, Robert Schenck, commanding the Middle Department (mostly the B&O line through northern Maryland), was told to make ready Milroy’s force to fall back to Harpers Ferry in the face of a superior enemy force. Winchester, said General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, was of no use to anyone.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p34-35; Part 3, p45-46, 47, 48, 49; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears. []
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5 thoughts on “I Would Not Go South Upon Lee’s Moving North – Lincoln’s Advice to Hooker

  1. I always felt that Pleasanton, who was probably the greatest talent scout of all time…(besides nurturing and supporting Buford, he brought up Wesley Merritt and a guy named Custer) always got a bum rap over his leadership of the Army of the Potomac Cavalry Corps.

    True he was a martinet…so was Phil Sheridan…true he could be ruthless towards his fellow officers…so was his successor Sheridan. But he had just as much personal courage as Sheridan – he moved those cannons onto Hazel Grove as Jackson’s forces advanced at Chancelorsville; he planned and executed Brandy Station; and he was in the forefront of the charge later in the war at Westport against Jo Shelby and John Marmaduke. Yeah, he exaggerated…who didn’t. But he also picked up intel that Lee was indeed moving north, though many historians do argue about how effective his intel really was.

    His problem was that he had made enemies, especially one named Meade, who knew Pleasanton’s father and didn’t like him, and was deeply resentful at Pleasanton’s urging that he move on Lee’s shattered command after Pickett’s charge. The powers-that-be in Washington also didn’t like Pleasanton because he was right about the ill-fated Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid, and that he kept demanding fresh mounts for his men.

    And Pleasanton, unlike Sheridan, didn’t have a mentor by the name of Grant. Otherwise I strongly feel, even in disagreement with Longacre and others, that Pleasanton would have done just as well remaining in command of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps as his successor did. At any rate, his molding of the force at Brandy Station and Gettysburg paved the way for his successor to win at Yellow Tavern, in the Shenandoah, and later at Five Forks and Appomattox.

    Remember, at the same time Sheridan won laurels for smashing Early at Cedar Creek, Pleasanton was doing exactly the same thing to Price, Shelby, and Marmaduke at Westport.

  2. p.s. In Grant’s own “Memoirs” he pointed out that while he did replace Pleasanton with his own protégé Sheridan, he also stated that this did not disparage Pleasanton as he(Pleasanton) was as “effective” as any other Cavalry commander. Grant wanted his own man…and he put too much into Meade’s animus towards Pleasanton as well.

    1. Pleasanton may have been brave under fire, but he seemed to fail pretty hugely when it came to doing his actual job – gathering intelligence for the Army of the Potomac. He was good to his horses, though, and I quite like him for that. Still…

      1. Eric,

        Thank you for the comment. I do agree with you up to a point, and the point where we do split is this. Pleasanton’s main role was to revitalize the Union Cavalry and make it a match to Stuart’s cavaliers, and in this he succeeded quite admirably, despite the scoffs of Longacre and other detractors. Yes, he was also tasked to gather intel on Lee’s movements, and while he might not have excelled at this, he also wasn’t too bad securing the information either. It is still a matter of debate whether he did or didn’t pick up what Lee was up to after Brandy Station. Some accounts I read claim he did figure out that Lee was moving his infantry north…others claim, with his own verification, that there were infantry with Stuart – which of course saved Stuart’s hide at Brandy Station, but that he didn’t know where they were heading.

        One supporter of Pleasanton is ironically the late Edwin Fishel, himself a former US Army Intelligence officer and whose last book “The Secret War for the Union” is complimentary towards Pleasanton. Fishel claims Pleasanton was no intelligence officer, but he was a superb Cavalryman and an active soldier willing to confront Stuart – contradicting some of Longacre’s more nasty rhetoric.

        Furthermore Fishel also claimed that Pleasanton’s scouts were able to provide some clue to Pleasanton of what Lee was up to – but because the Blue Ridge Mountains and Confederate Infantry blocked his way to actually see what was going on, it was clues, not quite concrete. But between Colonel Sharpe, head of Union Army Intel and Pleasanton, the information gathered was enough to convince Hooker, especially after receiving Lincoln’s reprimand to go after Lee, not Richmond, that he had better move north…which he did.

        1. Hm… Food for thought to be sure. I’m just not sure how much Pleasonton had to do with Hooker finally deciding to follow Lee. Lincoln was fairly insistent upon it. I really wish I knew more about this to delve into it further. I always understood that he reported that some infantry made an appearance at Brandy Station, but he dismissed it. It’s been about six months since I wrote this piece on the battle, and since then, so much has happened in the war that the details are sadly faded.

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