The end of May 1863 found the opposing armies in northern Virginia separated by the Rappahannock River. North of the river MG Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac were collecting themselves after their defeat at Chancellorsville. They spent the last days of spring reorganizing, resupplying, and reinforcing in preparation for future movements. Contrary to his poor combat performance Hooker was proving to be an adequate administrator. As the start of June approached morale had been restored and the army was again ready for action. The feeling amongst most units was that as good weather arrived a new campaign was just around the corner. Across the river morale in the Army of Northern Virginia was extremely high. The victory at Chancellorsville had been costly but an air of invincibility was pervasive. But Robert E. Lee knew that the feeling was fleeting. Logistical problems, irreplaceable personnel losses, and a collapsing situation in the west made long term viability of the Confederate military situation doubtful. A short term solution had to be found. Perhaps another defeat, this one on their home soil, would push the Union to the peace table. While the Federal commanders were contemplating their next move he began the execution of his. The Army of Northern Virginia began slipping away to the west and north. Under these developing conditions the scenario at the river changed. The new situation called for Hooker to react and set the stage for a little regarded action at Franklin’s Crossing. Despite its obscurity the action there had consequences far greater than the small number of casualties recorded in its execution. “Not to pass in inaction” Despite Lee’s desire for secrecy the movements of his troops immediately sparked a flurry of reports and rumors in the Federal command. By 4 June it was impossible not to comprehend that the Army of Northern Virginia was moving away. But where they were going remained the question. MG Hooker writing to Halleck around noon on the 4th remarked;
“The movements of the enemy in our front do not indicate what their purpose or object may be…”
By noon the following day Hooker was writing to President Lincoln that it was apparent that Lee meant to “move up the river” to either cross the upper Potomac or “throw his army between mine and Washington.” Hooker proposed to “pitch into his rear” by attacking south across the Rappahannock. Lincoln replied about four hours later that Halleck was in charge of overall military operations but offered his opinion on what should be done. He stated firmly that if Lee should move north of the Rappahannock that he was intentionally enticing H ooker to attack across the river. A rear guard force fighting from entrenchments would tie up a considerable portion of his force robbing him of his full maneuver capability. He suggested remaining on the same side of the river if Lee moved north of it. He was more adamant about a move to the south side of the river telling Hooker;
“I would by no means cross to the south of it (Rappahannock).”
The President reminded Hooker that his were just “mere suggestions” and that the ultimate authority concerning movements lay with the military authorities. Only forty minutes later Halleck addressed the question at the request of the President. Unfortunately he also couched his guidance in the form of suggestion. Hooker was determined to act and without firm orders to the contrary he decided to act on his original proposal. He immediately set a plan in place to cross the Rappahannock in force and challenge the Confederate position near Fredericksburg. With a major water obstacle between his forces and the objective the onus of the operation quite naturally fell on his engineer force. While the bulk of the army moved away in reaction to Lee’s movements the VI Corps and the entire engineer force remained at the river. The Engineer Brigade* was ordered to prepare a bridge train capable of spanning 400 feet. The Engineer Battalion was also ordered to be ready to assist the operation. At 1000 hours on the 5th four companies of engineers moved with the assembled train to within a quarter mile of the river. Across the river General Lee had instructed A.P. Hill, his III Corps commander, to be prepared for the very thing that H ooker was proposing. Having stolen the initiative he told Hill to make “such disposition as will be best calculated to deceive the enemy.” His goal was to “keep him in ignorance of any change in the disposition of the army.” If Federal forces opted to the attack south of the river then Hill should be prepared to receive and repel him. Certainly the idea of engaging a large enemy force and pinning them south of the river must have delighted Lee. True to his orders Hill established a main defensive line back from the river and deployed an entrenched picket line on the southern bank.
*At this point of the war the Engineer Brigade was comprised of the 50th New York Engineers and three companies of the 15th New York Engineers. The remaining companies of the 15th were at Fort Monroe and would be mustered out on June 25th.Franklin's Crossing (Campaign Series)
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