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April 1863: The armies converge

April 6, 2002 1:46 am

Part 5 of a series on the
1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

THE RAINY APRIL of 1863 must
have convinced Federal Gen. Joe
Hooker that the meteorological gods frowned upon him as sternly as they had on Gen. Ambrose Burnside's "Mud March." Part of Hooker's plan called for a strong cavalry force (10,000 men) to cross the Rappahannock-Rapidan river line well upstream, then swing deep into Virginia behind Gen. Robert E. Lee's front. The havoc the mounted men could wreak behind Lee would unsettle the whole region, Hooker felt certain, and thus improve his own chances.

Gen. George Stoneman, commander of the cavalry raiders, had been a roommate of Thomas J. Jackson at West Point in the 1840s. What must Stoneman have thought about the apotheosis of his one-time roommate ("a country clodhopper," one contemporary called the young Jackson) into Mighty Stonewall, the war's leading hero and perhaps the most famous man on the planet?

"Stonewall" Jackson posed no immediate problems for Stoneman in mid-April: torrential rain did. On April 14, the Federal general staged intricate feints at Kelly's Ford and Rappahannock Station (modern Remington), while some of his cavalry pushed across the river even farther upstream. Just after midnight the skies opened. For 24 hours, rain poured on central Virginia, "in truth & reality, a terrible rain."

High water surged down from the Blue Ridge and the river rose 7 feet in a few hours. The cavalrymen who had crossed scurried back. A few drowned in the process and several dozen stranded men fell into Confederate hands. The rain kept on coming. Nine days later, a Northerner wrote, "the longer it rains, the harder it seems to come down." The aborted raid would not go forward for another fortnight. Its adventures at that later date form another chapter in the story of Chancellorsville.

Hooker's dense columns of infantry finally got under way on Monday, April 27, 1863. Brisk breezes had dried the roads and temperatures rose into the 70s during the march. "My plans are perfect," Hooker declared with characteristic immodesty. Given the strength available to him, and the situation of the armies, that boastful summary is hard to dispute. Imperfections in other aspects of Hooker's moral and intellectual arsenal, some of them striking in scope, would unhinge the perfect plan.

Tens of thousands of Yankees left winter camps at such Stafford locations as Brooke's Station and White Oak Church. They plodded northwest in long columns, past Berea (on modern U.S. 17). On the night of April 27, the transients boosted the population of Hartwood Church to by far its highest total in recorded history.

The next morning, the blue-clad array headed toward Kelly's Ford, a dozen or so miles farther upstream. Despite good weather and firm roads, the marching wore down winter-softened soldiers. An Ohio soldier wrote on April 28 in his diary: "saw a good many lying by the road side some have died." A steady stream of deserters also slipped away from Hooker's army, many of them men whose terms of enlistment had just expired, or soon would. Risking death instead of going home seemed a bad alternative.

At Kelly's Ford, the Federal advance met a pontoon train ready to construct an ersatz bridge across the Rappahannock. Joe Hooker's logistical determination was bearing fruit: He would not repeat the fumblings in that regard that had beset Burnside during the prior campaign.

Confederate cavalry on the river's southern bank dashed away without even token resistance when they saw the host opposing them. Federal infantry poured across the temporary bridges into Culpeper County. They had marched so far upstream that their crossing of the Rappahannock lay above that stream's confluence with the Rapidan.

The march from the Rappahannock to the Rapidan fords on April 29 split into two columns to expedite progress. Gen. George G. Meade and his Fifth Corps moved southeast through Richardsville to Ely's Ford, much of the way on the corridor now traversed by modern Routes 682 and 610. The Eleventh and Twelfth corps, under Gens. O.O. Howard and Henry W. Slocum, used secondary roads to reach Madden's Tavern and then turn toward Germanna Ford. (Some of O.O. Howard's troops would denominate him "Oh-Oh!" Howard after his deadly surprise by Jackson on a difficult day at Chancellorsville.)

The handful of Southern troops guarding Germanna and Ely's fords could hope to offer only scant resistance to Hooker's mighty array. By the evening of April 29, the Army of the Potomac stood on the brink of a tremendous success. Nothing could stop Hooker from crossing the Rapidan into The Wilderness and congregating in a strong position behind Lee's lines around Fredericksburg. Hooker's "perfect plan" had been executed superbly. His Confederate foe now faced not only daunting odds, but also a dismaying disadvantage in position.

Hooker's smooth progress to the southern edge of Culpeper County resulted from a good plan, sturdy marching, and efficient security measures. It also owed some credit to a strong demonstration near Fredericksburg by the commander of the army's Sixth Corps, Gen. John Sedgwick. Sedgwick had been rattling sa-bers ostentatiously opposite the city on April 27 and 28. On the misty, foggy morning of April 29, he put down pontoon bridges below town, where a sizable chunk of the Federal army had crossed to disaster a few months earlier.

Lt. James Power Smith (for many years after the war the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg) awakened Gen. Lee on April 29 to report the enemy lunge to the right bank of the Rappahannock. Lee had heard the rumbling of fire and told Smith dryly that he "was beginning to think it was time some of you young fellows were coming to tell me what it was all about You are a good boy for telling me."

"Stonewall" Jackson had been staying with his wife and baby daughter at the Yerby house, Belvoir, above Massaponax Creek opposite Hamilton's Crossing. (The house site and ruins, protected by a preservation easement, survive in the woods a half-mile north of State Route 635). Jackson hurried to the front, where he scribbled a note to his wife. She next saw him after his mortal wounding.

Through Wednesday, April 29, Sedgwick's troops skirmished with Confederates across the fields surrounding the Bowling Green Road (modern Routes 2 and 17), near where the Fredericksburg County Club now operates. An artillerist from Richmond saw through Sedgwick's busy feints: "Besides marching his troops about and making all the display he could, he was very inoffensive." Lee had written on April 23, "If a real attempt is made it will be above Fredericksburg."

In that mood, the Confederate commander accurately viewed the hubbub near Fredericksburg as designed to distract his attention from the major threat gathering to westward. Intelligence from that direction, however, trickled in far less freely than Lee would have preferred. Cavalry chief J.E.B. Stuart had seen swarms of enemies in that area, but wondered for a time whether they might be heading for Gordonsville.

Wherever the eventual clash would erupt, the Army of Northern Virginia clearly must concentrate its strength near Fredericksburg. Artillery broke up camps far south near Carmel Church and headed north. Cities of tents and shanties around Moss Neck and Guiney Station that had housed Southern infantry all winter disappeared in hours. Regiments formed into brigades and divisions, then swung with long strides onto the roads leading to Fredericksburg.

Through the mid-spring warmth, the seasoned veterans trudged along past greening woods and blooming orchards.

"The peach and cherry trees are in full bloom," an officer wrote in his diary, "and the grass is looking fresh and green." Nearly 30,000 of the men marching through the lovely verdure would be shot within the next few days.

While reinforcements marched toward Fredericksburg, Jackson, as was his custom, longed to attack the Federals in his front. After a careful examination, "Stonewall" concluded that he could not harm the enemy in that quarter, much as wished to. Initiative near Fredericksburg would remain with the Yankees.

As the last day of April dawned, Joe Hooker held an incomparably strong hand--but Lee and Jackson had begun to look west, and the two Virginians had crafted an impressive record for unhinging Yankee pros-pects whenever they swung into action. April 30 would be a day of decision and hard marching.

Next week: Headquarters
at Chancellorsville Inn

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books, the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published
in February by Louisiana State University Press.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.