150 years ago: A snapshot in time – Army of the Potomac in dispatches

Back when I was a young Army officer, I spent many an hour manning a watch desk, radio hand-mike in hand. After a while I noticed a pattern. At the command post, we’d receive reports from subordinate units along with directives, orders, and inquiries from higher headquarters, all building up to a situational awareness for that particular moment. Yet, all too often that moment’s situational awareness turned out to be faulty. In some cases the false awareness shook out within a few moments (right before our eyes). In other cases only during some comfortable after action review did we discover the world wasn’t aligned as we thought.

Often I see the same pattern when looking through the correspondence sections in the Official Records (Civil War records that is!). Sure, the reports sections have the “juicy bits” detailing the actions. But the correspondence, I think, allow us to build out the elements of those moments situational awareness when the principals were making decisions. The reader also has a glimpse of what the commanders felt was important (though we must also consider the preserved correspondence is but a fraction of the full message traffic – the Official Records being just a selection of what was deemed important when records were gathered for publication).

Allow me to offer up some of the correspondence for the Army of the Potomac, passing around on this day (June 6) in 1863. First a message from Major-General Joseph Hooker, the Army commander, to fan-favorite Brigadier-General John Buford around 10 a.m.:

General: Information has been communicated to me that three brigades of the enemy’s cavalry are posted at Jefferson. Can you tell me how this is? Will your pickets be able to shut off all communication for three days across the river as high up as Sulphur Springs? If so, please have it done.

Buford’s response:

The general’s dispatch received. His information is incorrect about the number of cavalry at Jefferson. I shall attempt to keep communication closed across the river. I have a large force in the neighborhood of Jefferson, reconnoitering.

At around the same time, Hooker issued orders to the Sixth Corps, under Major-General John Sedgwick posted at Franklin’s Crossing opposite Fredericksburg. This was part of what historian Noel Harrison has coined “Third Fredericksburg“:

The major-general commanding directs that you make a reconnaissance in front of the bridges, and ascertain the position and strength of the enemy. Throw your corps over the river, if necessary. The absence of his pickets from General Couch’s front would seem to indicate his removal. Let this be done as speedily as possible. Seize any citizens as prisoners who could give any information.

By 10:30 a.m. Sedgwick reported:

The enemy are strong in our front. Three batteries have been placed in position this morning, but have not opened on us. Their picket line is stronger than last night, and has advanced on our pickets. Our pickets are on the Bowling Green road, extending to the front of the Bernard house (Mansfield), and thence to the river on the left. I cannot move 200 yards without bringing on a general fight. Before bringing over the rest of my corps, I await orders. I am satisfied that it is not safe to mass the troops on this side.

A contraband reports that Generals Lee and Longstreet were at this place last night. All the prisoners confirm this information.

Later a report from Captain James Hall reinforced Sedgwick’s assessment:

The enemy are receiving re-enforcements from below. I have seen seven regiments take position in rifle-pits near the Howison house and on the railroad below said house. The interval reported this a.m. between Marye’s Heights and point near Sedgwick’s Crossing, is filled by these new troops. Thirty wagons and ambulances moving on wooded ridge toward Wyatt’s house; two batteries on same ridge halted; 10 wagons going south; artillery, one battery, seen moving north on Bowling Green road, and toward the railroad depot; wagons accompany this artillery.

Additional “feelers” were sent out further upstream. To Major-General George Meade commanding the Fifth Corps covering Banks’ and United States Ford:

The general would like to have you get him information. Can you not feel the enemy, and cause him to develop his strength and position at various points along your front? Let your pickets chat enough not to tell him anything, but to find out his regiments.

Meade’s subordinates baulked at this order. Second Division commander Major-General George Sykes responded, “I am opposed to any movement across the river with the forces I have.” He did order pickets to gather information, but saw that as unreliable. From Army headquarters came the firm reply, “… you are not to disregard the order to feel the enemy a little.”

Major-General John A. Dix, at Fort Monroe, shared information with Hooker indicating a Confederate force of 10,000 was to his front, on the Peninsula. Hooker responded, late in the evening:

Dispatch received. My operations here call for vigilance on the part of the enemy. I have a bridge across the river, and a portion of my force crossed. Pickett, from our information, was at Taylorsville last week. We do not think 10,000 any great exaggeration of his strength. Two brigades left here yesterday noon by rail from Hamilton’s Crossing. Hays’ (Louisiana) brigade one of them. My operations will, perhaps, cause their return.

But back to Buford. Later on June 6 came orders to suspend further operations. Buford acknowledged, but had one element of his command too far afield to recall. Reporting this, Buford also provided information gathered during the day. To the Cavalry Corps headquarters he responded:

Colonel Duffié was to have crossed the river at Sulphur Springs this morning with 2,500 men. I have not heard from him yet. The information sent yesterday has been partially corroborated; none of it denied. Yesterday cannon firing was heard toward Culpeper. I suppose it was a salute, as I was told Stuart was to have had that day an inspection of his whole force.

Six days ago, Hood’s command was on the Rapidan, at Raccoon Ford. I can’t learn that there is any infantry north of the Rapidan, but am certain there is a very heavy cavalry force on the grazing grounds in Culpeper County.

My, my… a cavalry force in Culpeper. In your textbooks, please turn to the chapter on “cavalry screens.”

Hooker’s headquarters also began setting troops in motion. Orders directed a rather sizable force to assemble under Brigadier-General Adelbert Ames. The Reserve Artillery sent a horse artillery battery. To the commanders of Third, Eleventh, and Twelfth Corps went orders:

The major-general commanding directs that you send a command of 500 men (one or two regiments), to march to-night to Spotted Tavern, beyond Hartwood Church, and report to Brigadier-General Ames. The command to go prepared to be absent a few days from camp, say five or so; 150 rounds of ammunition by pack-mules and on the person; no wagons, knapsacks light, for purposes to be made known. It is desired that the command sent should be one well disciplined and drilled, capable of marching rapidly, and of endurance; that the officers should be noted for energy and efficiency. … The destination of these men will be confidential with the commanding officer….

Ames would report to the Cavalry Corps for his mission:

Inclosed find copy of order for the detail to join the column under General Ames, ordered to rendezvous at Spotted Tavern to-night. You will note that they are provided with three days’ cooked rations. General Ames will be ordered to report to you for orders. It is expected that you will provide for the supplies of the command, and all details not provided for in the orders inclosed, until the expedition returns, and the details are returned to their respective commands.

The column under General Shaler will be assembled, by similar orders, to be at Kelly’s Ford at such time as you may indicate in your reply to this that you desire them to be there….

Forces were now in motion. Orders soon to be cut. Once again, horses would splash across the Rappahannock.

I’ve “cherry picked” here somewhat for brevity. And also I’ve not included dispatches passed around within the adjacent commands, particularly the Washington Defenses, which also help “paint” the situation. Then again, Hooker didn’t have those references on June 6.

What these reports, orders, and other correspondence highlight is the level of activity within the Army of the Potomac. I’d submit if you wish to pin a date for the start of the Gettysburg Campaign, at least from the Federal perspective, June 6 would be a justifiable selection. Eight pages of correspondence… subsequent days in June would rarely have less. If you were told to forecast future events – or dare we say “play” general and make decisions – given the information in Hooker’s hand on June 6, would you feel confident?

Within all this flurry of activity, what were the folks in Washington most concerned about? Surely the wires would be hot with inquiries and suggestions, right? Arriving at 2:55 p.m. from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:

I have been trying hard to keep the women out of your camp, but finding that they were going in troops, under passes, as they said, from your provost-marshal and commanders, I have given up the job. I think no officer or soldier should have his wife in camp or with the army. In other military districts, the order of the Department excludes them. If you will order them away, and keep your provost-marshal and other officers from issuing passes, not one shall be issued here, and all that profess to come from the Department will be forgeries.

Priorities, I guess.

(The June 8 Correspondence is recorded in OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, pages 12-24.)

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