Let Your Pickets Chat – Hooker Tries to Figure Out Lee, Orders a Cavalry Assault

June 6, 1863 (Saturday)

Sykes: Do I look chatty to you?
Sykes: Do I look chatty to you?

On this rainy, late spring day, General Joe Hooker decided to test Robert E. Lee’s flanks. Rather, he decided to test what he believed were the flanks. First, below Fredericksburg, he wished for George Sykes to move at least a division across the river where Col. Lewis A. Grant had crossed the previous day. He was warned not to bring on a general engagement, but to “ascertain all that is desired.”

Aeronauts in their balloons had spotted vacant and abandoned enemy camps and Sykes was tasked with finding out just what kind of Confederate presence remained south of Fredericksburg. Up the Rappahannock River, he ordered George Meade to “feel the enemy and cause him to develop his strength.” Meade’s V Corps occupied many of the fords between Fredericksburg and the railroad crossing to the west. As with Sykes, Hooker wanted to know exactly which units were facing his army. “Let your pickets chat enough not to tell him anything,” continued the order, “But to find out his regiments.”

Though Hooker had no real idea of the Rebels to his front, he was certain that Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry was at Culpeper. From the word of captured Confederates, he had learned that Stuart was preparing to head out on another raid. “As the accumulation of the heavy rebel force of cavalry about Culpeper may mean mischief,” wrote Hooker to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington, “I am determined, if practicable, to break it up in its incipiency.”

Hooker planned to send all of his cavalry and about 3,000 infantry, against whatever troopers Stuart had collected. He planned to unleash them on the 9th. What he needed from Washington, however, was more cavalry.

Though Hooker probably wasn’t completely convinced that Stuart was about to let loose his cavaliers, he must have known something big was up. That many enemy troopers in one place could only spell trouble. Since they were heavily gathering upon his right flank, sending his own cavalry, under Alfred Pleasonton, was a fairly wise decision.

Here's an accurate-ish map.
Here’s an accurate-ish map.

While he prepared his cavalry for the interception and hoped for more numbers from Washington, the question of just which Rebel regiments held the rifle pits in and around Fredericksburg plagued him. It was reported by a signalman that the Rebels between Marye’s Heights and Sykes’s crossing below the town were receiving heavy reinforcements – at least seven regiments. He also, however, saw wagons, artillery and ambulances moving away from the town. This was all very confusing – at least to Hooker.

In Washington, things seems a bit clearer, though that tends to happen from afar. General Samuel P. Heintzelman commanded the Department of Washington, mostly consisting of forts and a bit of cavalry. While Hooker was coaxing Meade and Sykes to chat it up with the Rebel pickets, Heintzelman was in communication with Julius Stahel, commanding the cavalry around the Manassas area.

“There is little doubt Lee has moved his army from Hooker’s front,” he wrote to Stahel. “His object is not known. Push a strong reconnaissance into the Shenandoah Valley at once, to acquire any information which may be had of the enemy’s whereabouts or intentions.” Stahel replied quickly, telling Heintzelman that John Buford’s Cavalry was headed towards Culpeper to deal with Jeb Stuart.

John Bell Hood knows Lee would never lead them astray.
John Bell Hood knows Lee would never lead them astray.

Buford had gone from commanding a brigade of reserves to heading the right wing of Alfred Pleasonton’s Cavalry Corps (General David Gregg, nearby, commanded the left). Though Pleasonton would receive official written orders the following day, Hooker’s verbal orders were enough to spring him into action, and he began to gather his troops and the 3,000 infantrymen under Generals Adelbert Ames and David Russell.

While Jeb Stuart’s forces gathered at Brandy Station, two corps of Lee’s Rebel Army pushed on towards Culpeper, a few miles south. John Bell Hood’s Division, which had been in Culpeper for a couple of days, was sent to the river, ten miles north, to see what kind of force the Federals had at the fords across the Rappahannock. The Confederates had no real idea if General Hooker was buying their ruse. Did he still believe that all of Lee’s army was in Fredericksburg? If not, had he sent any of his infantry towards Culpeper? Hood was to find out.

General Hood was joined by E. Porter Alexander, commanding James Longstreet’s artillery. Together they rode and talked through the driving rain. The conversation turned to what Hood believed to be their chances in the coming campaign. Hood conceded that it was a risky proposition. He specifically wondered how they might be able to keep a supply line open all the way into Pennsylvania. Still, with all the risks, Hood and Alexander, like most of their Confederate comrades, trusted General Lee implicitly and were certain of victory.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p33; Part 3, p13, 15-16, 17; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Sturtevant Nye; Fighting for the Confederacy by Edward Porter Alexander. []
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Let Your Pickets Chat – Hooker Tries to Figure Out Lee, Orders a Cavalry Assault by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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One thought on “Let Your Pickets Chat – Hooker Tries to Figure Out Lee, Orders a Cavalry Assault

  1. The tension is getting unbearable 🙂

    This is the first site I check every day when I log on. You do write well.

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