Lee’s spy system was excellent. It has been claimed in Southern reports, that his staff had deciphered our signal code by watching a station at Stafford. And Butterfield admits this in one of his despatches of May 3. He would speedily ascertain any such movement, and could create formidable intrenchments on one side the river, as fast as we could build or repair roads on which to move down, upon the other. Moreover, there was a thousand feet of stream to bridge at the first available place below Skenker’s Neck.
There remained nothing to do but to turn Lee’s left flank; and this could only be accomplished by stratagem, for Lee had strengthened every part of the river by which Hooker could attempt a passage.
But this problem was, despite its difficulties, still possible of solution; and Hooker set himself to work to elucidate it.
So soon as he had matured his plan, which he elaborated with the greatest care, but kept perfectly secret from every one until the movements themselves developed it, although making use of the knowledge and skill of all his generals both before and during its initiation, he speedily prepared for its vigorous execution. In May, the term of service of some twenty-two thousand nine-months and two-years men would expire. These men he must seek to utilize in the campaign.
The first intimation of a forward movement received by the army at large, apart from the Cavalry Corps, had been a circular of April 13, notifying commanding officers to have their troops supplied with eight days’ rations, and a hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition, sixty to be carried by the soldiers, and the balance on the pack-mules.
After the battle of Fredericksburg, the army had returned to substantially the same positions and quarters occupied before; and here the men had housed themselves for the winter. The Mud March had broken up these cantonments; but after a few days’ absence the several regiments returned to their old camps, and the same huts had generally been re-occupied by the same men. But when Fighting Joe Hooker’s orders to march were issued, no one dreamed of any thing but victory; and the Army of the Potomac burned its ships. Nothing was left standing but the mud walls from which the shelter-tent roofs had been stripped, and an occasional chimney. Many of the men (though contrary to orders) set fire to what was left, and the animus non revertendi was as universal as the full confidence that now there lay before the Army of the Potomac a certain road, whatever might bar the path, to the long-wished-for goal of Richmond.
The proposed cavalry raid.