Lincoln Administration Works on Military Strategy for Army of the Potomac

June 5, 1863

President Lincoln prepared a state paper to reply to a petition from Albany Congressman Erastus Corning and others.  Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “The President read to-day a paper which he had prepared in reply to Erastus Corning and others.  It has vigor and ability and with some corrections will be a strong paper.”

President Lincoln writes General Joseph Hooker, commander of Army of the Potomac: “Yours of to-day was received an hour ago. So much of professional military skill is requisite to answer it, that I have turned the task over to Gen. Halleck. He promises to perform it with his utmost care. I have but one idea which I think worth suggesting to you, and that is in case you find Lee coming to the North of the Rappahannock, I would by no means cross to the South of it. If he should leave a rear force at Fredericksburg, tempting you to fall upon it, it would fight in intrenchments, and have you at disadvantage, and so, man for man, worst you at that point, while his main force would in some way be getting an advantage of you Northward. In one word, I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, 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 & fight him, or act on the defence, according as might be my estimate of his strength relatively to my own. But these are mere suggestions which I desire to be controlled by the judgment of yourself and Gen. Halleck.”

Yesterday morning appearances indicated that during the night the Enemy had broken up a few of his camps and abandoned them. These changes were observed on the right of his line in the vicinity of Hamilton Crossing. So far as I was enabled to judge from all my means of information it was impossible for me to determine satisfactorily whether this movement had been merely a change of camps—the Enemy had moved in the direction of Richmond, or up the river, but taken in connection with the fact that some deserters came in from the divisions of [John B.] Hood and [George] Pickett I conclude that those divisions had been brought to the front from their late positions at Gordonsville and Taylorville and that this could be for no other purpose but to enable the Enemy to move up the river with a view to the execution of a movement similar to that of Lee’s last year. He must either have it in mind to cross the Upper Potomac or to throw his army between mine and Washington. In case I am correct in my conjecture, to accomplish either he must have been greatly reinforced and, if making this movement, the fair presumption is that he has been by the troops from Charleston

Of this I have no evidence farther than that furnished me by Gen Dix that they had come to Richmond

This morning some more of their camps have disappeared. Their picket line along the river is preserved and as strong as ever. Gen Buford with three divisions of Cavalry and ten pieces of Artillery is on the Alexandria and Orange Rail Road and yesterday was along the river beyond Sulphur Springs and reports no Enemy. As I am liable to be called on to make a movement with the utmost promptitude I desire that I may be informed as early as practicable of the views of the Government concerning this Army. Under instructions from the Maj Genl Com’d’g the army dated Jany 31st. I am instructed to keep in view always the importance of covering Washington and Harpers Ferry either directly or by so operating as to be able to punish any force of the Enemy sent against them.

In the event the Enemy should move, as I almost anticipate he will the head of his column will probably be headed towards the Potomac via Gordonsville or Culpepper while the rear will rest on Fredericksburg. After giving the subject my best reflections I am of opinion that it is my duty to pitch into his rear although in so doing the head of his column may reach Warrenton before I can return. Will it be within the spirit of my instructions to do so? In view of these contemplated movements of the Enemy I cannot too forcibly impress upon the mind of His Excellency The President the necessity of having one commander for all of the troops whose operations can have influence on those of Lee’s army. Under the present system all independent commanders are in ignorance of the movements of the others at least such is my situation.

I trust that I may not be considered in the way to this arrangement as it is a position I do not desire and only suggest it as I feel the necessity for concerted as well as vigorous action. It is necessary for me to say this much that my motive may not be misunderstood. . . .”

Late in the afternoon, Halleck writes Hooker: “The President has directed me to reply to your telegram to him of 10 a.m. to-day.  My instructions of January 31, which were then shown to the President, left you entirely free to act as circumstances, in your judgment, might require, with the simple injunction to keep in view the safety of Washington and Harper’s Ferry.  In regard to the contingency which you suppose may arise of General Lee’s leaving a part of his forces in Fredericksburg, while, with the head of his column, he moves by Gordonsville or Culpeper toward the Potomac, it seems to me that such an operation would give you great advantages upon his flank to cut him in two, and fight his divided forces. Would it not be more advantageous to fight his movable column first, instead of first attacking his intrenchments, with your own forces separated by the Rappahannock? Moreover, you are aware that the troops under General Heintzelman are much less than the number recommended . . . for the defenses of Washington. Neither this capital nor Harper’s Ferry could long hold out against a large force. They must depend for their security very much upon the co-operation of your army. It would, therefore, seem perilous to permit Lee’s main force to move upon the Potomac while your army is attacking an intrenched position on the other side of the Rappahannock. Of course your movements must depend in a great measure upon those made by Lee. There is another contingency not altogether improbable—that Lee will seek to hold you in check with his main force, while a strong force will be detached for a raid into Maryland and Pennsylvania. The main force of the enemy in North Carolina have probably come north, but I think all available troops in South Carolina and Georgia have been sent to re-enforce Johnston in Mississippi. Such is the information here.”

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