Rebel Pickets “Replaced Near Here By Cripples” – Hooker Takes Notice

June 4, 1863 (Thursday)

Buford: I've been everywhere, man.
Buford: I’ve been everywhere, man.

General Lee’s removal of a portion of James Longstreet’s troops from the Fredericksburg area had not gone unnoticed by the Union Army. Over the night, Union pickets along the Rappahannock spotted fires to the southeast. Often, before a march from an established camp, large fires would be built to consume anything that would have to otherwise be left behind. Shortly after, the Rebel pickets were withdrawn.

As dawn broke, the pickets were back, but not in the same numbers. Neither were they in the same shape. The officer of the day reported that the new pickets “were replaced near here by cripples.” From the vantage point of the pickets along the river, little could be seen. But the signal corps had a fine view and noticed six camps, approximately where men from Henry Heth’s Division of Ewell’s Corps had been. Six regiments of infantry – they suspected Archer’s Brigade – had gone somewhere, though nobody could tell where.

General Joe Hooker immediately wired his right flank. George Meade of the V Corps and John Buford of the cavalry both received messages telling of less enemy troops on the Union left. Suspecting Lee to be heading in a northerly direction, there was every indication that the enemy would be crossing the Rappahannock River somewhere near Meade and Buford’s commands.

The previous day, Buford had been all over the country around Warrenton, behind the Federal right, from the Rappahannock to Thoroughfare Gap. He saw no indication that the Rebels were stirring and trying to cross. Rumors here and there abounded, such as a supposed crossing at Thompson’s Ford near Sulphur Springs, but nothing came of anything.

A member of Hooker’s staff went personally to Banks Ford and found General George Sykes, who commanded a Division in Meade’s V Corps. Here, the enemy’s cavalry pickets had seemingly been replaced by an entire brigade of infantry. Perhaps this was Archer’s Brigade?

Stereograph of the balloon corps camps at Falmouth, spring 1863.
Stereograph of the balloon corps camps at Falmouth, spring 1863.

He also sent up two balloons. The aeronauts in the balloon aloft near Banks Ford, upriver from Fredericksburg, sent up around 6am, could see both artillery and infantry on the move. There was also a new fortification built for a battery. When the balloon was cast up some time later, they spied two Confederate camps that had been abandoned, though the rest of the camps were as full as ever.

From General John Reynolds’ I Corps lines, behind the main Federal line at Falmouth, another balloon caught notice of a column of dust being raised, as if by infantry, near Salem Church, west of Fredericksburg. Perhaps this column was from Archer’s men? Around the same time, the Banks Ford balloon reported a similar cloud of dust near Ely’s Ford on the road to Culpeper.

Here's your map today. Compare it with yesterday's, if you like.
Here’s your map today. Compare it with yesterday’s, if you like.

The abandoned camps that Hooker’s men had noticed were probably those of General Robert Rodes Division of Richard Ewell’s Corps. They were the first of Ewell’s men to step off for Culpeper. The remaining two divisions would soon follow. There was some consternation, especially from President Jefferson Davis, that Lee might not be able to break away from the Federals along the Rappahannock without bringing on a fight. Lee, however, was certain he could pull it off.

Archer: It wasn't me!
Archer: It wasn’t me!

Though there were no attempts by any of the Confederate cavalry to cross the Rappahannock at Sulphur Springs or anywhere else, Jeb Stuart had moved his cavaliers out of Culpeper towards Brandy Station. Cavalry from all over had come to join Stuart for the campaign. Albert Jenkin’s Brigade, which had been fighting in West Virginia, had showed up less than a week prior. Beverly Robertson’s, from North Carolina, arrived at around the same time. Even Grumble Jones, who had previously been scouting in the Shenandoah Valley, was on hand.

By this date, John Bell Hood’s infantry division in Longstreet’s Corps made it to Culpeper. Lafayette McLaws was a day’s march behind. General Rodes’ Division had not taken the road using Ely’s Ford, but instead dipped a bit farther south, following McLaws through Spotsylvania Court House.

Soon more of Lee’s Army would be at Culpeper than at Fredericksburg. Though Hooker had uncovered the symptoms of Lee’s plan, he had not at all divined Lee’s intentions.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p29. Part 3, p4-5, 7; Stuart’s Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign by John Singleton Mosby; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin B. Coddington. []
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Rebel Pickets “Replaced Near Here By Cripples” – Hooker Takes Notice by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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