150 Years Ago This Week: Prelude to a major battle

April, 1863

The Congress of the Confederate States levied a comprehensive “tax in kind” of one-tenth of all produce of the land for the year 1863 on April 24. Skirmishing took place the next day at Hard Times Landing in Mississippi as Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s troops continued to push south after bypassing Vicksburg.

Maj. Gen. Dabney H. Maury assumed command of the Department of East Tennessee; this was a difficult assignment given the prevailing pro-Union sentiments in this area. In London, the British parliament loudly debated the seizure of British vessels by American cruisers on blockade duty. Out in the west, skirmishing between Union and Confederate forces took place at Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory, and in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) at Webber’s Falls.

Brig. Gen. John Marmaduke’s Confederate cavalry continued on their raid into Missouri on April 26. There was an unsuccessful attempt by the Southerners to capture Cape Girardeau, Mo. and some 2,200 Union troops under Col. John S. Shelby. Deep in Mississippi, Col. Benjamin Grierson’s Union cavalry raid continued on their push south.

In western Virginia, at Rowlesburg, there was almost continuous fighting around the B&O railroad by Brig. Gen. William “Grumble” Jones’ Confederate infantry and Brig. Gen. John Imboden’s Confederate cavalry; Union forces guarding the railroad at Altamont, Oakland and Cranberry Summit, Md. came under attack during the Imboden-Jones raid against the B&O.

On Monday, April 27, the Army of the Potomac, with 70,000 men under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, left their winter quarters at Falmouth, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Va., and marched west, upstream on the Rappahannock, to fords crossing the river. Staying behind were some 30,000 troops under Maj. Gen. John Sedgewick, occupying a position near the Confederate camps at Fredericksburg.

These Union soldiers were to play a key role in the military actions in the days ahead. The long preparations of the Union army against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were over. President Lincoln, always anxious, particularly about Gen. Hooker, telegraphed the general: “How does it look now?” Gen. Hooker wired back that it was too early to tell.

All the while, there was fighting throughout the two warring sections, north and south and in the east and west. The active spring military campaigns were in full swing.

On April 28, Maj. Gen. Hooker’s army began crossing the Rappahannock River in the area known as the Wilderness, upstream from Fredericksburg. Gen. Sedgewick’s Union troops still confronted Gen. Lee’s army. A flank attack by the Federals was obviously planned. Early in the morning, the church bells in the Episcopal church rang in town rang out an alarm.

On April 29, at Kelley’s and at U.S. Fords on the Rappahannock, the Army of the Potomac was across the river, driving into the heavily wooded Wilderness area, clear of the left flank of the Confederate army. Brig. Gen. George Stoneman and his Union cavalry operated against Gen. Lee’s lines of communications.

On April 30, the Army of the Potomac set up camp around the Chancellor family house, known as Chancellorsville. West of Fredericksburg, Gen. Lee grasped what the Federals were doing, and began moving his 47,000 troops in the direction of Chancellorsville to block Gen. Hooker’s army. Gen. Lee left some 10,000 troops under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early in Fredericksburg to counter any movements by Maj. Gen. Sedgewick’s 30,000 Union troops. It was clear that a major clash between the two armies was about to occur.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.