I imagine the Florida and Mississippi boys – the called each other “boys” - regretted mocking the New York engineers that Tuesday afternoon, The stronger voiced had bellowed the 350 yards across the Rappahannock River, urging the brawny union men to come rest in the shade of the trees on their side of the river. But about 1:00 p.m., when 4 batteries of Federal artillery finally arrived and begun to blast away, the laughter ceased. While rebel sharpshooters killed 6 sons of New York and wounded 18 more, the engineers persisted in unloading 10 pontoon boats at the river's edge. Then 2 companies of Vermont boys rushed to the river, and in broad daylight the engineers paddled them across the open water to the Confederate shore.
By now the Florida and Mississippi skirmishers had been reinforced, but the granite state boys charged with the the bullets whistling over their heads. As the engineers returned for more men, the 2 companies of Union troops captured the Confederate rifle pits, and 6 officers and 84 men. Surprisingly, the Vermont boys suffered just 7 wounded in the head-on assault. The Army of the Potomac may have suffered humiliating defeat in its last 2 encounters with the Army of Northern Virginia, but on this day, 5 June, 1863, it displayed audacity and a pugnacious spirit.
By evening there was a full brigade of Vermont boys on the southern side of the river, and the New York engineers were stringing the pontoon boats together to assemble 2 bridges at Fredrick's Crossing (above) above where Deep Run Creek (above, far right) joined the Rappannock River, just below Fredricksburg, Virginia. But one of the Vermont officer's whispered a note of discontent about the successful operation, when he wondered, "Why they (the rebels) let our men quietly entrench themselves when it lay within their power to put them to a great deal of inconvenience, seemed strange at the time.”
Six months earlier, at the end of January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, had sent a very curious letter to the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Usually such notes after promotions are designed to inspire confidence, but having suffered through 2 rounds of the arrogant George McCellan – the Peninsula Campaign and Antietam - the foolishness of General John Pope - Second Mananas – and the blundering of Ambrose Burnside – Fredricksburg – Lincoln was more sanguine about the Massachusetts General's abilities.
After reminding Hooker he was responsible for guarding Washington, D.C. and Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the President warned Hooker (above), “...I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right...You have confidence in yourself ..You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside's command... you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country...I have heard...of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship...”
Hooker had rewarded the president with the debacle of Chancellorsville, 18,000 Federal casualties, and a retreat back behind the Rappannock. “Fighting Joe” had not been relieved of his command at once because he still displayed a talent for taking care of his men. It was Hooker who had rebuilt the army after the bloody failure at Fredricksburg, by improving the supply lines, improving sanitary conditions in camp
And he formalized the system of 24 and 48 hour passes in all units, even those in Washington, D.C. - where the workers in the legal houses of prostitution became known as “Hooker's Division” The new army was so improved that within a month of Chancellorsville, it could display both elan and competency at Fredrick's Crossing, aka Deep Run Creek. And it was Joe Hooker who had dreamed up the cross river punch, and now he wanted to go further.
General Hooker (above) had not informed his superiors, General Henry Halleck and President Lincoln, of his intention to cross the river until two hours before launching the attack. He justified his aggressiveness with balloon observations that several rebel camps on the west bank had disappeared. If, as Hooker suspected, Lee was moving north, Fighting Joe saw an opening.”I am of the opinion,” he telegraphed Lincoln, “that it is my duty to pitch into his rear...” Hooker suggested a “rapid advance on Richmond”, adding that the capture of the rebel capital would be “the most speedy and certain mode of giving the rebellion a mortal blow.”
Appalled, Lincoln replied at 4:00 p.m. that same Tuesday, the Illinois lawyer trying desperately to explain military reality to the West Point graduate. “If he (Lee) should leave a rear force,” telegraphed Lincoln, “it would fight in entrenchments and have you at (a) disadvantage” Lincoln then Americanized Napoleon's principles of warfare, explaining an army fighting with the Rappahannock at its back was “...like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other. If Lee would come to my side of the river, I would keep on the same side, and fight him...”
Forty minutes later Hooker's military superior, General Halleck, asked “Would it not be more advantageous to fight his movable column first, instead of first attacking his entrenchments, with your own forces separated by the Rappahannock?” Latter Halleck telegraphed that Lincoln had asked if he agreed with the President's military assessment. Halleck assured Hooker, “I do.”
And that was that. Still, Hooker was still reluctant to lose his glorious coup de main on Richmond, insisting on holding onto the bridgehead “for a few days”. But something else arose which distracted the Massachusetts native.
Federal Brigadier General John Buford reported evidence that J.E.B. Stuart and his entire Rebel cavalry corps, almost 7,000 troopers (above), had concentrated near Brandy Station in Culpeper County, Virginia.. Given the strain such a gathering of horses and men would place on the rebel supply train, it was obvious General Stuart must be preparing another raid into Maryland.
And Federal Major General Alfred Pleasonton (above) suggested he take 7,000 blue coated cavalry and 4,000 infantry south of the Rappahannock to break up the raid before it started. On 7 June, 1863, General Hooker approved the operation, to “disperse and destroy" the rebel cavalry.
What neither Hooker nor Pleasanton, nor even John Buford, knew was that not only were the rebel cavalry gathering in Culpeper county, but so were the infantry corps of Generals Richard Ewell and "Old Pete" Longstreet - 54,000 men preparing for the invasion of Pennsylvania. And the Federal cavalry was about to poke their nose right into that hornet's nest.