Let Your Watchword Be Fight! – Hooker to Unleash his Cavalry

April 12, 1863 (Sunday)

General Joe Hooker had a plan, or at least the makings of one. It certainly wasn’t a good plan, but it was something he could perhaps coax into being. General Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia sat on the other side of the Rappahannock River. It stretched from Fredericksburg south to Port Royal. The Rebels were dug in and ready to receive another frontal attack.

George Stoneman will start this ball!

So Hooker’s plan absolutely avoided that. For the longest time, his eyes had been downstream. He wanted to somehow turn Lee’s right flank. Perhaps Sinker’s Neck, a ford about sixteen miles south, could afford a crossing. Or maybe a simultaneous crossing in two places. But no matter how he worked it, he was always faced with attacking an entrenched enemy atop a hill.

Following Lincoln’s festive visit to the Army of the Potomac, Hooker thought again. Any crossing would probably result in ferocious bloodshed unless it was perfectly timed and planned. As he worked, more and more information came in about the state of the Confederate Army. Intelligence gleaned from spies clued him in to the fact that Lee’s troops were but a few day’s of missed rations away from starving.

Hooker needed to get Lee out of the trenches. If the enemy was in the open, Hooker’s sheer number advantage would win the day. The more he thought about the dire Confederate situation, the more everything began to click. If he somehow cut off the Rebel supply line, Lee would have to act immediately or risk destroying his own army.

For this task, his newly-created cavalry corps, 10,000 troopers under General George Stoneman, was perfectly suited. He wrote out the basic outline in a letter to President Lincoln and sent his chief of staff, Dan Butterfield, to show it to nobody but him. Assuming that Lincoln would consent, he sent marching orders to General Stoneman at the same time.

He was to start out at 7am the following day with orders to get between Richmond and the Confederate Army. Hooker left nothing to chance and little to Stoneman’s own discretion, making strong suggestions exactly which rumors were to be stirred up to throw the Rebels off the scent. Specifically, they were to announce that their target was the Confederate cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley under Grumble Jones.

Here’s a map to find your way!

It was suggested that Stoneman cross at “some point to the west of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.” But, warned Hooker, at Culpeper, he would probably run into Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, which could be dispersed with little effort. The same went for Gordonsville, which Rebel infantry had garrisoned. They were then to follow the Virginia Central Railroad east to Hanover Junction.

Along the way, they were to destroy “the railroad bridges, trains, cars, depots of provisions, lines of telegraphic communication, etc.”

With their supply lines cut, Hooker believed Lee had no choice but to retreat in an attempt to resecure them. He figured that Lee would probably use the Richmond & Potomac Railroad, which ran south from Frederick.

Ths is where the second part of Stoneman’s duty came in. He was to “select the strongest positions, such as the banks of streams, commanding heights, etc., in order to check or prevent” the enemy’s escape. If he could not do that, he was to “fall upon his flanks, attack his artillery and trains, and harass and delay him until he is exhausted and out of supplies.”

This was no small task, made even more cumbersome by the possibility that Lee could very well retreat towards Culpeper. If that happened, all Stoneman could do was “harass him day and night on the march and in camp unceasingly.”

“Let your watchword be fight,” wrote Hooker in closing, “and let your orders be fight, fight, fight, bearing in mind that time is as valuable to the general as the rebel carcasses.”

While all this was happening, Hooker planned to threaten both Kelley’s Ford and United States Ford. When Stoneman was in position, Hooker would make a crossing. He did not specify which ford he would use. That would be decided when he learned the route taken by Lee’s retreating army.

In the meantime, Stoneman readied his men for the next morning’s right. Hooker had high hopes for his cavalry and based the entire campaign upon it. President Lincoln replied that his plan “would be conformed to.” And so after months of winter, the spring campaign was about to begin.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 1, p 1066-1067; Part 2, p199-200; Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert. []
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2 thoughts on “Let Your Watchword Be Fight! – Hooker to Unleash his Cavalry

  1. If my timeline is correct, Lee was taking steps to relieve the shortage of foodstuffs for his army. However, those steps involved sending James Longstreet and a substantial number of troops to the eastern part of Virginia to pen the Union forces there into Suffolk so the Confederates could comb the countryside for food and forage. In other words, Lee had already split his army even before the Yankees made their move.

    1. Yes. Lee did that back in February. That was discussed here, and will be talked about quite a bit again as it becomes more pertinent to the story.

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