Lincoln Drops By for a Visit

April 19, 1863 (Sunday)

Lincoln: Guess who!

Since Lincoln’s quasi-vacation to visit General Joe Hooker and the Army of the Potomac, opposite Fredericksburg, much had changed. At that point, Hooker’s plan of action involved taking the army a bit south and getting around General Lee’s right flank. Now, the plan had been swapped for one concerned with getting around the left flank.

In fact, he had sent George Stoneman and 10,000 cavaliers out to kick off the campaign. They had become more or less stuck in the mud and unable to fully cross the Rappahannock River. When he heard the news, this greatly troubled the President. For three days, he mulled it over, before deciding that this spring campaign was something that must be discussed with Hooker in person. Rather than pulling the commander of the Army of the Potomac away from his headquarters, Lincoln chose to drop by for a visit.

The night before, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wired Hooker: “The President will leave here for Aqnia to see you to-morrow (Sunday) morning at 7 o’clock, expecting to reach there about 10 a. m. Can you meet him there?” Hooker, of course, would make the time.

Lincoln’s leaving was kept nearly secret. Only Secretary Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck (whom Hooker despised) accompanied him. Even John Hay, the President’s personal secretary, had no solid idea where he went. In writing to his friend and co-secretary John Nicolay (who was in North Carolina dealing with General David Hunter), he could only say that the “President and the Secretary of War went off on a reconnaissance yesterday, I suppose to Aquia Creek, but returned in the evening. What they did or saw has not transpired.”

This map looks suspiciously like the last map!

Hooker met Lincoln, Halleck and Stanton at Aquia Creek where they talked for what could only have been a few hours. Lincoln must have brought up Stoneman’s failing raid, but since it was not canceled, Hooker must have defended as he had before. Even if Stoneman couldn’t get all the way around the Confederate Army’s rear, he was still in a perfect position for the coming campaign.

The talk certainly turned to the overall situation. Hooker’s army at Falmouth was faced off against Lee’s army at Fredericksburg. To the south, at Suffolk, Virginia, Confederates under James Longstreet had been sent to deal with Union troops commanded by General John Dix. This divided Lee’s army, lopping off 15,000 men. It was essential that these troops not rejoin the main Rebel army prior to Hooker’s attack.

Secretary of War Stanton had offered Hooker direct control of all of Dix’s troops so they could act in concert with the army’s thrust. Hooker declined. And now at the meeting, Henry Halleck offered to move Dix’s troops wherever they might do the most good. Hooker decided that they were perfectly placed to keep Longstreet’s force occupied so that they would not reinforce Lee.

Hooker: If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a better plan…

The basic plan was laid out, but the specifics would have to wait. Stoneman’s Cavalry now seemed to take a secondary roll. If they could cross the Rappahannock, that would be wonderful, but the main thrust would come from the infantry. Hooker planned to divide his army, cross the river at one of the fords upstream from Fredericksburg, and attack Lee’s left and rear, cutting the Confederates off from Richmond – a task that had originally been assigned to Stoneman’s Cavalry. Due to the rains, the river was still too swollen to cross. Soon, hoped Hooker, that would change.

Lincoln made it back to Washington after dark, apparently satisfied with what he could gather of Hooker’s new plan.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p227, 505-506; Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears; The Chancellorsville Campaign: The Nation’s High Water Mark by James K. Bryant. []
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