150 years ago: Combined arms force “to disperse and destroy” enemy vicinity of Culpeper

Orders issued on this day (June 7) in 1863, from Major-General Joseph Hooker’s headquarters at Falmouth, Virginia, to Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac:

Camp near Falmouth, Va., June 7, 1863.
Commanding Officer Cavalry Corps:

I am directed by the major-general commanding to inform you as follows:
Brigadier-General Ames left here yesterday and Brigadier-General Russell marches to-day, and it is expected that their brigades, consisting of 1,500 men and a horse battery, will be in position to-morrow night. The latter marches with rations for three days, and will require to be replenished before they cross the river from Bealeton. As they march without wagons, it will be advisable to have them sent to Kelly’s Ford, in season to be distributed to-morrow night. Two boats have also been forwarded, to facilitate the passage of the last-named ford. As it is held by the enemy’s pickets it may be advisable to throw over a small party above or below the ford, to knock them away, without resorting to the use of artillery, as the first gun would be heard by the enemy at Culpeper and vicinity.

From the most reliable information at these headquarters, it is recommended that you cross the Rappahannock at Beverly and Kelly’s Fords, and march directly on Culpeper. For this you will divide your cavalry force as you think proper, to carry into execution the object in view, which is to disperse and destroy the rebel force assembled in the vicinity of Culpeper, and to destroy his trains and supplies of all description to the utmost of your ability.

Shortly after crossing the two fords, the routes you will be likely to take intersect, and the major-general commanding suggests that you keep your infantry force together, as in that condition it will afford you a moving point d’appui to rally on at all times, which no cavalry force can be able to shake. It is believed that the enemy has no infantry. Should you find this to be the case, by keeping your troops well in hand, you will be able to make head in any direction.

The general also recommends that you make use of the forest and the cavalry to mask the movements of the infantry from the enemy’s forces, and keep the enemy ignorant of their presence as long as possible, in order that at the proper time you may be able to cut off and destroy great numbers of them.

The general further suggests that you throw out strong pickets in the direction of the Ely and Germanna Fords, and that you hold Stevensburg with not less than a regiment and a section of artillery, with special instructions to look after Raccoon Ford. All the fords on the Rappahannock below Kelly’s, and including it, are held by our forces.

If you should succeed in routing the enemy, the general desires that you will follow him vigorously as far as it may be to our advantage to do so.

The officer in command holding Kelly’s Ford will be instructed to lend you such aid as may be in his power, and it is hoped will be able to throw out on to the Culpeper road a sufficient force, in conjunction with your cavalry at. Stevensburg, to secure your flank from any force in that direction.

Captain Dahlgren, aide-de-camp, will deliver this to you, and it is desired that he should remain until you recross the river, and that you communicate with headquarters as often as practicable. He will hand you some maps of the direction in which you are operating.

Having received no reply from Washington as to the force to be sent to your assistance from General Heintzelman’s command, you will not be able to count upon any assistance from there.

Very respectfully,
Major-General, Chief of Staff.

The forces put in motion by this order, just two days later, would engage in the largest cavalry battle of the war. And while not contesting the ranking as a cavalry battle, I must point out the Federal forces employed – a combined arms team. Yes, more cavalry than infantry or artillery. But all three arms would play a role, by design.

The orders, while somewhat discretionary, pinned the Union cavalry chief to certain decisions. Particularly were to cross the Rappahannock. The mission of the force was the nearly same as that thrown across the river on March 17, 1863 – disperse and destroy the Confederate cavalry in Culpeper.

Notice also the numerous fords mentioned. These were the swinging doors, particularly and frequently Kelly’s Ford, that both armies used in the back and forth of the Eastern Theater.

Once again, and not for the last time in 1863, blue clad troops were headed across “the dare mark line.” (h/t to Clark Hall)

(OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, pages 27-8.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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