April 17, 1863 (Friday)
Even as Union General George Stoneman’s raid to get behind the Confederate Army was grinding to a muddy halt along the Rappahannock, General Lee was completely in the dark as to what the Yankees were up to. The problem was due to two related practices. First, General Joe Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, was intent on security. He was tight-lipped and was determined that nobody knew his Army’s plans before they happened. Second, his Chief of Staff Dan Butterfield had concocted a false message hoping that the Rebels would intercept it and take it as truth.
According to Butterfield, Stoneman’s 10,000 cavaliers were headed to the Shenandoah Valley to teach the Rebel cavalry under Grumble Jones a lesson. As planned, the Confederates discovered the message and believed that they had uncovered a plot.
On the 14th, the day after the message was sent, General Lee informed Grumble Jones: “I learn enemy’s cavalry are moving against you in Shenandoah Valley; will attack Fitz. Lee in passing. They have crossed at Rappahannock Station. General Stuart, with two brigades, will attend them. Collect your forces and be on your guard.”
At any time, a message such as this would matter, but in mid-April, 1863, it was even more important. There were two bands of Confederate Cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley at this time. The first, 2,500 men under John Imboden, had wintered at Staunton. The other, under Grumble Jones, had spent the winter in the middle Valley. Both were about to leave on a great raid against the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. With 10,000 Yankees under Stoneman about to enter the Valley, their job was just made nearly impossible and a lot more bloody.
The plan called for simultaneous attacks all up and down the rail line throughout Western Virginia (soon to be West Virginia). Imboden was to move first against Beverly, Philippi and Grafton (all in Western Virginia), while Jones made for Moorefield and the bridges at Oakland and Rowlesburg.
But now the new of Stoneman’s presence gave Lee pause, as later on the 14th, Lee’s scouts confirmed that Union cavalry was indeed headed up the Rappahannock. Jones himself confirmed it that very day when he tangled with what he believed to be a vanguard of Stoneman’s troopers.
When Lee scrambled Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, he and Stuart traded ideas, both wondering just what was going on with the Yankees at Kelley’s Ford and the rail bridge over the Rappahannock. Union cavalry had crossed at the bridge and had attempted a crossing at Kelley’s. The former were beaten back (or at least retreated to the other side), while the latter never made it across.
Lee shared the message that Stoneman was headed for the Shenandoah Valley, but Stuart didn’t buy it. From captured Yankees, he learned that each man was carrying with him eight day’s worth of rations. It was clear that they were on a long raid, not just a jaunt across the Blue Ridge. Stuart surmised that the move was a feint to cover something bigger. He believed that General Hooker’s entire Army of the Potomac was about to switch bases to the Virginia Peninsula – perhaps White House on the Pamunkey River, or maybe somewhere south of the James.
But if it was indeed a ruse, if Stoneman wasn’t actually headed to the Shenandoah Valley, Lee told Stuart on this date that he believed it to be an attempt to draw his own army out of their defenses so that Hooker could seize Fredericksburg. This was, of course, Hooker’s basic plan. Lee had a few of the details wrong, but that was mostly due to Stoneman’s inability to cross the Rappahannock.
In a letter to Jefferson Davis, Lee mused on the whole idea. “I do not think General Hooker will venture to uncover Washington City, by transferring his army to James River,” Lee attested. But he was worried. “Owing to the condition of our horses and the scarcity of forage and provisions,” the Confederate Army was all but immobile. Still, Lee believed it “all-important that we should assume the aggressive by the 1st of May, when we may expect General Hooker’s army to be weakened by the expiration of the term of service of many of his regiments, and before new recruits can be received.”
And so with 60,000 men, Lee was preparing to tangle with Hooker’s 133,000. Of course, he wasn’t about to attack the Federals head on. Lee wanted to take his army into the Shenandoah Valley, wipe it clean of Yankees, and threaten Washington. This would pull Hooker’s Army north of the Potomac and hopefully allow some troops from Lee’s Army to reinforce the armies in Middle Tennessee and North Carolina.
But all this was speculation. As for the situation at hand, the idea that Stoneman’s cavalrymen were about to storm into the Valley was grown more and more unlikely. By the 16th, Grumble Jones, in a message to General Imboden, he reported: “There is no sign of the enemy in the Valley. […] My opinion is, the attack on the Valley has been abandoned, if ever entertained, by the enemy.”
Across the Rappahannock, General Joe Hooker was putting pen to paper, trying to smooth over Stoneman’s recent debacles. “His failure to accomplish speedily the objects of his expedition is a source of deep regret to me,” wrote Hooker in defense of Stoneman, “but I can find nothing in his conduct of it requiring my animadversion or censure. We cannot control the elements.”
Even if Stoneman could never cross the Rappahannock, argued Hooker, “I do not regard him out of position.” If his Army of the Potomac was to make such a grand move, Hooker reasoned that he would need to throw Stoneman out in that direction anyway. And though this seemed pretty much the opposite of his original plan, that seemed fine to him.
In closing, he again tried to assure the President: “We have no reason to suppose that the enemy have any knowledge of the design of General Stoneman’s movement.” This wasn’t exactly true. Though Lee had no idea what Stoneman’s intentions had been, his movements and current position were now perfectly known.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p721, 724-725, 728, 730, 220; The Baltimore and Ohio in the Civil War by Festus P. Summers; Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears. [↩]