Hooker proposed to open his flank attack by cutting Lee’s communications. Accordingly, on April 12, Gen. Stoneman, commanding the Cavalry Corps, received orders to march at seven A.M. next day, with his whole force except one brigade. He was to ascend the Rappahannock, keeping well out of view, and masking his movement with numerous small detachments,— alleging a chase of Jones’s guerillas in the Shenandoah valley, as his objective. The river was to be crossed west of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. At Culpeper he was to destroy or disperse Fitz Lee’s brigade of some two thousand cavalry, and at Gordonsville the infantry provost-guard; thence to push down the Virginia Central to the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad, destroying every thing along the road. As the enemy would probably retreat by the latter route, he was to select strong points on the roads parallel to it, intrench, and hold his ground as obstinately as possible. If Lee retreated towards Gordonsville, he was to harass him day and night. The Confederates had but five thousand sabres to oppose him. “Let your watchword be, Fight! and let all your orders be, Fight, Fight, fight!” exclaimed enthusiastic Joe Hooker in this order. The primary object was to keep the Confederates from retreating to Richmond; and Stoneman was to rely on Hooker’s being up with him in six days, or before his supplies were exhausted. If possible, he was to detach at the most available points parties to destroy every thing in the direction of Charlottesville, and of the Pamunkey.
The Cavalry Corps, except Pleasonton’s brigade, which accompanied Hooker’s headquarters during this movement, left on the 13th. On the 15th Stoneman threw a division across the river at Rappahannock station, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad crosses the river. But a sudden rise in consequence of heavy rains obliged this division to return by swimming the horses. Gen. Lee says, referring to this check, that “their efforts to establish themselves on the south side of the river were successfully resisted by Stuart.” But the rise in the river was the actual cause. There was no crossing of swords.
At the time the cavalry marched, an infantry brigade and a battery were sent to Kelley’s Ford, and a regiment to United-States Ford, to hold these crossings against scouting parties, or any counter-demonstration on the part of the enemy.
The river did not fall so that Stoneman could pass at that point until the 27th, when it was too late to accomplish valuable results under the orders of the 12th; for the whole army was now on the march. Between the 15th and 27th the cavalry, under instructions from Hooker, remained in camp along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
It has, however, never been satisfactorily explained why it might not have crossed higher up, and have utilized these precious two weeks. It could not have been of less use than it was, and might possibly have been able to call Stuart’s entire force away from Lee’s army. Nor was it impossible, in part at least, to do the work cut out for it. Even to threaten Lee’s communications would have seriously affected the singleness of purpose he displayed in this campaign.