April 6, 1863 (Monday)
“I only regret that your party is not as large as our hospitality,” replied Union General Joe Hooker to President Lincoln. The President had just been invited by the commander of the Army of the Potomac to grace the army with his presence. Since taking the reigns of the army from Ambrose Burnside, Hooker had been a frenzy of reorganization and information gathering.
And now that Lincoln had accepted, he would also need to engage in a frenzy of cleaning. Hooker’s headquarters had already become legendary as a place of general debauchery. As Charles Francis Adams, Jr put it, during the winter of 1862-1863, the headquarters of the Army “was a place to which no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman could go. It was a combination of bar-room and brothel.”
Aside from this, the area around where Lincoln would be staying had to be made right. Ditches were filled, various stumps were removed and swamps were drained.
Not only was Mr. Lincoln due to arrive, but so too was Mrs. Lincoln and their son, Tad. Attorney General Edward Bates and a gaggle of various ministers and attaches were also in tow. Through a blinding snowstorm they came, via the steamer Carrie Martin. Through much of it, Lincoln was jubilant, telling stories and laughing uproariously. It was quite a change from the intensity of Washington.
After most went to bed, however, his mood turned dower. The Federal Navy was soon to be attacking Charleston, South Carolina and Lincoln wondered out loud, “How many of our ironclads, do you suppose, are at the bottom of the Charleston harbor?”
When they arrived in the morning of April 5, Aquia Landing was fully decorated for the occasion. Bunting and streamers, flags and a railway boxcar were made up just for the Presidential party. General Dan Butterfield, Hooker’s chief of staff, was there to welcome them and show them to their tents. Three large hospital tents had been set up and they were to make themselves as much at home as possible.
Due to the snowstorm, the day of their arrival was too wet for any of the numerous reviews promised by General Hooker. But on this date, the 6th, came the cavalry.
The first regiment came at a trot. Rush’s Lancers, so named for the pikes they carried, rode in squadrons and galloped past the President, maneuvering at speed from a right wheel into a halt. The crowd in attendance gave applause and cheers. It must have ticked the ten year old Tad, which, in turn, must have tickled the doting Lincoln.
Soon, the rest of General Stoneman’s Cavalry Corps was before them, 10,000-strong. Attorney General Bates called it “the grandest sight I ever saw.” It was the largest such display of cavalry ever held in the Western hemisphere.
While the President’s men watched in awe, the spectacle was also enjoyed by the Confederates across the Rappahannock River. Hundreds, if not thousands, strained and squinted to get a better view of this amazing gathering of troopers. They had, of course, no idea that Abraham Lincoln himself was also watching. If they had, quick work could have certainly been made of the affair.
Over the next several days, the President and his family would enjoy an almost circus-like array of festivities with bands and reviews, tours and demonstrations. There would be, of course, time for talk of the coming campaign, but for now, wasn’t this snowy display of Federal cavalry enough?1
- Sources: Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears; Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr. [↩]