May 28, 1863 (Thursday)
General Alfred Pleasonton was a fine self-promoter. It was he who claimed that he saved the Union Army from the brunt of Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville. At that time, he commanded a cavalry division. Aside from General George Stoneman, the Cavalry Corps’ commander, he was that branch’s senior-most officer. When Stoneman applied to General Joe Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, for a leave of absence due to illness, Hooker very quickly granted it and placed Pleasonton in charge. The seniority, coupled with his advertised deeds on the field of battle, easily won him the position.
At thirty-nine, Pleasonton was the very model of a Cavalry General. He was always in parade dress, with gloves, and a straw hat to add that personal flair so needed in his line of the service. His thin beard was accented by a fuller mustache, its tips waxed to perfection.
It had been nearly a week since he had taken over for Stoneman, being placed by Hooker in, at first, a temporary command until it could be made official. Hooker was not at all happy with General Stoneman and wanted him out of the Army. Since assuming his new roll, Pleasonton had examined his Corps.
He had always been known for taking fine care of the horses and men of his division. Now, that care was being spread throughout the cavalry. On the 24th, for example, Pleasonton ordered that the men take with them upon their horses only “his arms, the rations of forage and subsistence ordered, one blanket besides the saddle blanket, and that under the saddle, and an overcoat.”
For the past few days, Hooker had been sensing that his counterpart, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was up to something. Reports had filtered in that Rebel cavalry had been gathering at Culpeper Court House. Further rumors had it from Confederate deserters that the Rebel army was about to march around Hooker’s right flank. But nothing concrete could be learned, and Hooker took to reading the Richmond newspapers for something, anything, that might tip Lee’s hand.
General Pleasonton’s findings were not what General Hooker wanted to hear at the start of campaign season. According to the returns from March, the Union Cavalry Corps boasted “upward of 12,000 men and horses.” Now, it was about one-third of that strength, and Pleasonton believed it “not fitted to take the field.”
The cavalry was composed of three divisions and a reserve brigade. The First Division, which had been commanded by Pleasonton until recently, could field 2,774 horses. The Second Division, under Col. Alfred Duffie, could field but 1,212. General David Gregg, commanding the Third Division, could field 1,861. With John Buford’s Reserver Brigade of 830, the Union Cavalry had an effective strength of 6,677. Deduct a couple thousand detachments under Judson Kilpatrick, and they were left with less than 5,000.
“In taking this command,” wrote Pleasonton to Hooker, “I cannot do myself such an injustice as to remain silent as to the unsatisfactory condition in which I find this corps.” He promised to “use every exertion to bring it to a state of efficiency at the earliest possible moment.”
Because of these findings, Hooker ordered Pleasonton to keep as much of the cavalry in camp as possible. For the time being, the picketing along the Rappahannock, previously handled by General Gregg’s Division, would be undertaken by George Meade’s V Corps of infantry. While this was possible, further reports of massing Rebel cavalry at Culpeper induced Pleasonton to send Burford’s Reserves to reinforce Gregg near the railroad bridge over the Rappahannock. “The Rebels always mean something when their scouts become numerous,” he warned.
Buford was ordered to Bealton, a small crossroads halfway between Culpeper and Warrenton, where the Confederate Raider, John Mosby was rumored to be operating. Rumors, however, were no longer what Hooker wanted. Hooker told Pleasonton that “no labor be spared to ascertain the true object of the movement. At all events, they have no business on this side of the river.”
Upping the stakes quite a bit, Pleasonton relayed the message to Buford, adding a bit of spice to the mix. “On arriving at Bealton,” he told Buford, “should you find yourself with sufficient force, you will drive the enemy out of his camp near Culpeper and across the Rapidan, destroying the bridge at that point.”
History has remembered Pleasonton as a fine fighter, but a poor gatherer of information. While this is indisputable, he believed, like Hooker, that the Rebels were up to something. “The advance of the enemy’s cavalry in the vicinity of Warrenton may have for its object to conceal a movement in force up the [Shenandoah] Valley.” Buford was ordered to find out for sure. Soon, Buford would take command of Pleasonton’s old Division. For now, however, the Federal Cavalry, backed by some of Meade’s V Corps, would picket and patrol the Rappahannock River, waiting for the Rebels to do something.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 1, p773; Part 2, p513, 518, 520-522, 528, 533, 535-536; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Here Come the Rebels! by Wilbur Nye. [↩]