April 26, 1863 (Sunday)
The weather in Virginia had been terrible. Ceaseless rains had swollen rivers and turned packed dirt roads to swamps. For General Joe Hooker, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, it was as frustrating as it was infuriating. The rains had postponed and then changed his plans to get at General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, tucked in behind its trenches around Fredericksburg. To do this, he needed to span the unspanable Rappahannock River.
But over the past several days, the rains had let up. The sun had shown, and Hooker became hopeful, scheduling the 27th as the date when his great army would leave their camps. Secrecy and speed were essential to its success, and so he told nobody of its intent or intricacies; until today.
His reasoning for this secrecy was explained to General John Peck, commanding Union troops at Suffolk, in southeastern Virginia. Federal presence in that part of the state had forced General Lee to detach three divisions under James Longstreet. It was essential that these three divisions not return to Fredericksburg before Hooker had made his move.
“I have communicated to no one what my intentions are,” he wrote Peck. “If you were here, I could properly and willing impart them to you. So much is found out by the enemy in my front with regard to movements, that I have concealed my designs from my own staff, and I dare not intrust them to the wires, know as I do that htey are so often tapped.”
His plan, which he dared not entrust to the wires, would be enacted by three corps of infantry – the XI (Howard), XII (Slocum), and V (Meade). In that order, they were to cross the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford, thirty miles upstream from Fredericksburg. These three corps were not randomly selected. These were the three corps farthest away from the enemy. For the most part, they could not be seen by the Confederates. As they crossed, the cavalry under George Stoneman was to cross even farther upstream.
They were to begin their march at dawn the following day, and to encamp the night of the 27th as close to Kelley’s Ford as possible, “without discovering itself to the enemy.” Each division was to be assigned a battery of artillery and a small number of wagons of feed for the animals.
To the remaining four army corps, on this day, he kept silent. These were the corps closest to the enemy. Their tents and camps were in plain view. They would find out the following day that the II Corps (Couch) was to leave a division at Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg, and proceed on the 28th to Bank’s and US Fords. The detached division was to make a loud demonstration. If that demonstration drew some of the Confederate Army into a battle, the rest of the corps would be close enough to assist.
As for the I (Reynolds, III (Sickles), and VI (Sedgwick) Corps, they were to be entirely commanded by General John Sedgwick. They were to remain in Falmouth until the 29th, when they would attack across the river just south of Fredericksburg. And so Lee’s men should not have been able to tell that Hooker’s Army was on the move until it was too late. Hooker suspected that Lee would not find out about his move up the Rappahannock before the 29th.
This would place General Lee’s entire Army of Northern Virginia between two large Federal forces. The Confederates at Fredericksburg numbered 60,000. Hooker’s right wing totaled 42,000, while his left was 59,000. The center was held by the 17,000-strong II Corps. By the 28th, all of the Army of the Potomac would be either in motion or following orders to stay close to Falmouth.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p255, 256-257, 262, 264, 266, 268; Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter Hebert. [↩]