April 15, 1863 (Wednesday)
For General George Stoneman, what seemed to be an easy enough plan to get around General Lee’s left flank at Fredericksburg was turning into a muddy nightmare. General Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, had given Stoneman a week to ten days to get into position well behind the Rebel army. Stoneman’s cavalry had left camp on the 13th, and attempted to cross the Rappahannock River the next day, but nothing went as planned.
The 14th had been a beautiful spring day. Everything seemed wide and open. Hooker was convinced that the only troops that would ever face Stoneman were a couple of thousand cavalry under Fitz Lee. Though there was some delay, it was minor. Writing to Hooker on the 14th, Stoneman predicted that he would be across the river by the morning of the 15th (this date).
In writing to President Lincoln on this date, Hooker relayed the message, adding that he believed Stoneman would be in position near Hanover Junction by the night of the 17th, “if he should meet with no unusual delay.” Almost in passing, Hooker mentioned “this morning I can see nothing from the storm,” when talking about the Confederate position across the River at Fredericksburg.
Tempting fate, Hooker closed to letter rejoicing that “Stoneman had two good days to go up the river, and was enabled to cross it before it had become too much swollen.” He added that if the cavalry could reach their position soon, “the storm and mud will not damage our prospects.”
So far, everything seemed well enough. But as the hours wore on and the rain fell in torrents, everything fell apart. Stoneman tried to keep to plans, even attempting a wild maneuver that would take a Rush’s Lancers (the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry) across the river, into Richmond itself and down the Virginia Peninsula to Fortress Monroe. The Lancers made for the river, but found it too swollen and returned to camp.
Meanwhile, General John Buford, commanding the Reserves Brigade, was waiting near the railroad bridge spanning the Rappahannock. He was to wait for further orders, but none ever came until late in the day. He too was to return to camp.
The only Federal troops on the southern side of the Rappahannock was Benjamin Davis’ Division. Most of them had crossed the previous day, but now orders arrived for them to return to the northern bank. They quickly became the center of attention for about fifty Confederate pickets. Davis’ men dealt with them in short order, but had to swim their horses across to the northern bank.
Stoneman kept in communication with Hooker much of the day. Each message was even more dower than the last. When the cavalry leader informed Hooker that he would have to leave his artillery behind, Hooker called him to task.
“As you stated in your communication of yesterday that you would be over the river with your command at daylight this morning, it was so communicated to Washington,” Hooker scolded Stoneman, “and it was hoped that the crossing had been made in advance of the rise in the river.”
If the artillery had to be left behind, so be it. Hooker figured that if Stoneman could not “make use of that arm of the service, the enemy cannot.” But Hooker saw a silver lining in the swollen and impassible streams. If Stoneman could somehow make it across the Rappahannock, “it is not probable, in the event of your being able to advance, that you will be troubled by the infantry of the enemy.” The army was waiting for Stoneman to get into position, and speed was now the watchword.
When Hooker learned that the artillery would have to be left behind, he relayed the news to President Lincoln. “His artillery has been brought to a halt by the mud,” tapped across the telegraph wire, “one division only having crossed the river. If practicable, he will proceed without it. All the streams are swimming.”
Both of Hooker’s messages reached Lincoln around the same time, and both found him in a very melancholy mood. “The rain and mud, of course, were to be calculated upon,” allowed the President, before a pessimistic turn. “General S. is not moving rapidly enough to make the expedition come to anything. He has now been out three days, two of which were unusually fair weather, and all three without hindrance from the enemy, and yet he is not 25 miles from where he started. To reach his point he still has 60 to go, another river (the Rapidan) to cross, and will be hindered by the enemy.”
In closing, Lincoln was amiss. “I greatly fear it is another failure already. Write me often. I am very anxious.” Hooker would not respond until the morning of the 17th.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p213, 214; Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr.; Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears. [↩]