Tag Archives: Rappahannock River

150 year ago: Bridges over the Rappahannock

I’m often inclined to put emphasis on the activities of the supporting arms in campaigns such as Chancellorsville. Not that I want to reach past the activities of the combat arms (particularly the artillery!). But the activities of signalers, engineers, and quartermasters are some of the “parts,” and in many cases valuable parts, that add up to that sum total of effort.

Henry W. Benham

 

I’ve mentioned – just mentioned a part of – the signal troops in the Chancellorsville campaign. Another branch that played a critical and often overlooked role were the engineers. Specifically those involved with bridging operations to support the advance over the Rappahannock… and then the retreat back. The official reports from Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade, provide a table detailing bridging operations during the campaign. Here’s a reproduction of that table:

 

CvilleCpgBridges

 

Benham listed fifteen bridge operations. One of these, number nine, did not have a bridge laid but rather noted the movement of bridging equipment to Bank’s Ford. The Engineer Brigade used nine bridges, relaying five of them twice, for a total of fourteen bridge placements. And fourteen bridges pulled up when the army no longer needed them. All within the span of nine days. These bridges spanned the Rappahannock at points over thirty (river) miles apart.

 

Completion times – which I think were “weighted” to the short side – are not excessive. Benham’s table indicates most of the Fredericksburg bridges required less than an hour and a half from start to finish. That is, of course, not to say the time from initial movement to finish. Or for that matter does not address the “ordered” time for completion. Regardless, the times reported for some of these operations, such as 45 minutes at Kelly’s Ford or 1 ½ hours at United States Ford, speak to the efficiency of the engineer bridging troops.

 

 

Several of the bridging operations were conducted under Confederate guns. At Fredericksburg the engineers didn’t face as stiff resistance as the previous December, but were certainly not unopposed. Bank’s Ford crossing also saw Confederate resistance. In all the Engineer brigade casualties were one killed and three wounded. (I’d rather suffer the sore back of an engineer over the lot of some infantryman at Chancellorsville. How about you?)

In his reports, Benham relates problems, lots of problems. What part of those problems came from the friction within the army, and what part came from Benham’s flask, is hard to decide. But each of these bridges had great operational importance. Even being late and delayed, the bridges in place at Fredericksburg caused the Confederates pause. And those placed at United States Ford were “golden” when the Army of the Potomac retreated.

Looking at the number of bridges built, the times in which those were completed, the units involved, and some of the responsible officers, I cannot help but consider what those same men, officers, and equipments would be doing a little short of two months later on the Potomac.

 

(Benham’s report and the table are in OR, Series I, Volume 25, Part I, Serial 39, pages 204-216.)

 

150 Years Ago: “…the consequence of getting astride of a river…”

On this day (November 17) in 1862, elements from the Right Grand Division of the Army of The Potomac arrived at Falmouth, Virginia and looked across the Rappahannock River on Fredericksburg.  General Edwin V. Sumner commanded those Federal troops.  Later, in sworn testimony to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Sumner recalled:

On my arrival here, on the 17th of November, a battery of artillery on the other side of the river opened upon us the moment a portion of my troops appeared on the ridge back of Falmouth. I immediately put a battery into position, and, I think, in not to exceed fifteen minutes, they drove every man on the other side from the guns, and they ran off and left four guns on the field.  My orders were to advance and hold Falmouth, not to cross.  But the temptation was so strong to go over and take those guns the enemy had left at one time I actually gave the order to cross the fort at all events and seize the guns and occupy the city.  But on reflection I concluded I was rather too old a soldier to disobey a direct order; and there was another reason too: I had had little too much experience on the peninsula of the consequence of getting astride of a river to risk it here.  For these two reasons I revoked my order that night.

That night I sent a note to General Burnside, who was some eight or ten miles distant, asking him if I should take Fredericksburg in the morning should I be able to find a practicable ford, which, by the way, I knew when I wrote the note that I could find.  The General replied, through his chief of staff, that he did not think it advisable to occupy Fredericksburg until his communications were established, and, on reflection, I myself thought that he was right; that it was prudent and proper to have bridges ready before we occupied Fredericksburg.  I think I could have taken that city and the heights on the other side of it any time within three days after my arrival here if the pontoons had been here, for I do not think there was much force of the enemy here up to that time.

Sumner continues to detail the delays moving supplies and pontoons from Acquia Landing (he mentions “creek” but is referring to the facilities at the landing) up to the positions at Falmouth, and the need to rebuild railroad lines.  Those words – “temptation”, “practicable”, “prudent”, and “proper” – are the sounds of a campaign reaching an unexpected pause.

Considering the actions of November 17, 1862, a lot of armchair generals will mention the need for momentum.  Some will conjure up the scene from the Patton movie where the general with his shiny helmet and riding crop berates a subordinate from across a river.  Yes, there’s a lot to be said about getting over the river.  But there’s also a lot to be said about STAYING over the river.

150 Years Ago: J.E.B. Stuart at Freeman’s Ford

After their retreat from the Culpeper County, elements of General John Pope’s Army of Virginia occupied crossing points on the Rappahannock River astride the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Several crossing points existed in the vicinity of Rappahannock Station (today’s Remington). One of those was Freeman’s Ford. Still smarting from the embarrassment from the Verdiersville raid, Confederate cavalryman General J.E.B. Stuart probed Freeman’s Ford some 150 years ago today:

On August 22 I moved early to Freeman’s Ford, on Rappahanock River, where I had a picket the night previous, to carry out instructions by effecting a crossing if possible. The ford was commanded by the enemy’s artillery and infantry, and four pieces of the Stuart Horse Artillery, under Captain Pelham, tried in vain to silence the enemy’s guns. Having advantage in position, he handled the enemy severely, though suffering casualties in his own battery. While this cannonading was going on General Jackson’s column passed just in my rear, going higher up….(OR, Series I, Volume 12, Part II, Serial 16, page 730).

Although he does not mention them by name, Stuart’s toopers and artillerists sparred with the independent brigade of General Robert Milroy at Freeman’s Ford. The action was inconsequential, but, as Stuart notes, did cover Jackson’s movements. More importantly, Stuart received additional instructions while engaged at Freeman’s Ford:

… I received a note from the commanding general that my proposition to strike with cavalry the enemy’s rear was approved, and at 10 a.m. I started to the execution of the plan with the main portion of Robertson’s brigade, except Seventh Virginia Cavalry (Jones’), and Lee’s brigade, except Third Virginia Cavalry–say about 1,500 men–and two pieces of artillery….

Stuart goes on to outline his route as he moved from the ford to through the town of Jefferson to Waterloo Bridge and Hart’s Mill; and then to Warrenton. Stuart’s map objective was the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, specifically Catlett’s Station. Of course another objective Stuart had in mind was revenge – for losing his hat and being surprised days earlier at Verdiersville.