April 29, 1863 (Wednesday)
The morning, though cloudy, was full of spring along the Rappahannock River. The peach and cherry trees had just started to bloom, their pink and white pedals speckling the hills south of Fredericksburg. The grass shown bright green, as the small stalks of wheat poked through the earth stained with blood four months past. In the air, birds sang, bees buzzed and small smatterings of muskets could be heard, carried upon warm morning breezes.
“Well, I thought I heard firing,” said General Lee to one of Stonewall Jackson’s messengers, “and was beginning to think that it was time some of you young fellows were coming to tell me what it was all about.”
What it was all about was that the Yankees had crossed the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg. Over two pontoon bridges they marched and fanned out in a long array before Stonewall Jackson’s lines. They crossed, but did not give battle. Jackson, believing this to be a curious thing and quite possibly a feint, rode quickly to General Lee’s headquarters. His mood was lifted and his eyes a shocking blue. Battle was imminent. Be it upon his lines or in some yet unknown direction, General Jackson was ready.
But “ready” could mean different things. For Jackson, the mere sound of small arms fire might stir him to action. For Lee, head of the Army of Northern Virginia, it meant knowing precisely what the Union Army was doing before they even started it. And in this, Lee was most definitely not ready.
The message chattered down the telegraph wires from Culpeper to Gordonsville to Richmond to Fredericksburg: At least 14,000 Federals had crossed the Rappahannock at Kelley’s Ford, thirty miles behind the main Confederate lines. This hardly made sense. Was Union General Joe Hooker trying to outflank Lee? Or was he making for the Virginia Central Railroad at Gordonsville? On the morning of this date, Lee expected neither.
He quickly sent Richmond a message. “He is certainly crossing in large force here,” wrote Lee of the situation at Fredericksburg, “and it looks as if he was in earnest. I hear of no other point at which he is crossing, except below Kelly’s Ford, where General Howard has crossed with his division, said to be 14,000, six pieces of artillery, and some cavalry.” At this point, soon after learning of the Federal corps crossing the Rappahannock, Lee still believed the bulk of Hooker’s Army to be across the river from him at Falmouth.
“I have nothing to oppose to all that force up there except the two brigades of cavalry under General Stuart,” Lee concluded.
During the winter months, Lee had sent three full divisions under General James Longstreet to southereastern Virginia, depleting his already smaller army by 28,000 men, leaving the Army of Northern Virginia with but 60,000 to stave off the Federals numbering 133,000. It was now time to bring Longstreet and his divisions back into the main body.
“If any troops can be sent by rail to Gordonsville, under a good officer, I recommend it.” wrote Lee in one of many messages this morning. “Longstreet’s division, if available, had better come to me, and the troops for Gordonsville and the protection of the railroad, from Richmond and North Carolina, if practicable. General Howard, of the enemy’s forces, making toward Gordonsville; has six batteries with him.” Longstreet had been notified and ordered to make a hasty return.
The morning, despite all of its efflorescence, turned dark. The high morning clouds coupled with the news of a single Federal Corps crossing the Rappahannock turned baleful and foreboding as the thick heaviness brought rain and further dispatches detailing the true nature of things. Union Cavalry had crossed the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford.
But what Lee could not yet know was how very dark things had become. It was not simply one Federal Corps, but three. They were led not by Joe Hooker, who had returned to his headquarters at Fredericksburg, but by Henry Slocum, commander of the XII Corps. His corps would head the march, followed by O.O. Howard’s XI Corps, moving steadily for Germanna Ford. General George Meade would take his V Corps on a parallel road to Ely’s Ford, farther downstream. The plan was to reunite at the crossroads of Chancellorsville, where General Hooker would join them once more.
Confederate Cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, had been keeping a close eye upon what he believed to be the 14,000 men under General Howard. He kept his two brigades in readiness near Culpeper, fully expecting the Federals to be marching on Gordonsville. When, around 1pm, this turned out to be untrue, Stuart fell into a confused state, and sent Fitz Lee’s cavilers to suss it out.
What even they could not tell was the General Slocum with the XI and XII Corps was crossing the Rapidan. Germanna Ford was taken by 3:30pm. The men, lifting their muskets, cartridge boxes and powder above their heads, waded through the swiftly flowing chest-high river. Though the stuff of fireside tales, this was no way to cross two corps of troops. Earlier that spring, General Lee had ordered a bridge to be built across Germanna Ford. The pioneers had fled upon Slocum’s first appearance, leaving behind a mostly-finished bridge and the materials to complete it. Within two hours, the troops tramped across with hardly a wet foot among them.
Downstream at Ely’s Ford, General Meade faced the same quick water, but had no bridge to span the river. At first he supposed that he could make some kind of rafts to ferry the men across. However, after hearing that Slocum was already crossing, he had to order his men into the current. Some removed their pants, slinging them over their rifles, and splashing through the water, made their way to the yonder shore. And there, just after crossing, the three corps would spend the night.
Detachments of Jeb Stuart’s Rebel Cavalry were successful in capturing a few Federal soldiers from each of the three corps. Just as the previous day, he was the first to know the full breadth of Hooker’s plan to outflank Lee’s Army. And just like the day before, the telegraph station in Gordonsville closed for the night before he could relay the message to General Lee.
Back at headquarters in Fredericksburg, the only information General Lee could gather was from the pickets of General Anderson’s Division, closest to the coming Yankees. It added to Stuart’s morning dispatch, but gave no clear picture of what was happening. Lee ordered Lafayette McLaws, commanding the division in Fredericksburg itself, to be ready to move the next morning to aid Anderson. To Jackson, he said nothing – it would have to wait until things seemed clearer.
In one last message to Richmond, Lee openly admitted, “Our scattered condition favors their operations.” He knew that General Hooker had caught him ill prepared for such a move. Lee had underestimated his opponent and in all likelihood would soon be paying the heavy price.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p757-760; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears. [↩]