150 Years Ago: Buford Across the Rapidan

On the morning of October 10, 1863, Brigadier-General John Buford received these orders for the First Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac:

General: You will force a passage at Germanna Ford as soon as possible, pursue the enemy, and endeavor to uncover Morton’s Ford, communicating with General Newton, commanding First Corps, who is instructed to force a passage there also. This being effected, you will continue to follow the enemy, reporting your progress frequently.

But Buford faced one problem from the start – logistics.  Most of Buford’s wagons were at Culpeper Courthouse waiting for delivery forage and other supplies.  None-the-less, Buford moved as instructed, ordering his trains to catch up at Morton’s Ford.

At 8.30 a.m. the command, composed of Colonel Chapman’s (First) brigade, with Williston’s battery, and Colonel Devin’s (Second) brigade, with Lieutenant Heaton’s battery, with three days’ rations, without a particle of grain, was in motion, and reached Germanna Ford about noon, where preparations were  made to force a crossing. At 1 p.m. this was most handsomely effected, in the face of a small force of the enemy, by the Eighth New York Cavalry, and followed in haste by the whole division.

Buford’s troopers then moved on, as ordered, to Morton’s Ford.

The command next marched over the rough country near the river until it reached the enemy’s intrenchments in rear of Morton’s, capturing the different pickets at the fords from Germanna to Morton’s, arriving at Morton’s after night, and having driven the enemy out of his exterior intrenchments. The command bivouacked for the night, leaving the enemy in considerable force to hold his interior works and the ford.

Buford had secured one valuable ford and invested another.  These fords would facilitate forward movement, should the Army of the Potomac proceed south.  And at the same time shield against Confederate attack against the Federal left.  But there was one big problem – the Confederates weren’t there.  They were further west, moving across the Robinson River with columns heading towards Slate Mills and Griffinsburg northwest of Culpeper Courthouse.  Buford was not only out of position, but also stood to be cutoff.

The next morning about 7 a.m. I learned that the First Corps had retired during the night, and that the commanding general had changed the programme.  Being without instructions, and my train having been ordered to recross the Rappahannock, I was at a loss to know what course to pursue. At this point a messenger arrived with instructions, of old date, for me not to cross the Rapidan at all, but to return and recross the Rappahannock at the station or Kelly’s. I immediately started to recross the Rapidan at Morton’s, driving with ease the enemy from his inner works.

I’m going to hold the story right there for the moment.  The division that  was at the right place, at the right time earlier that year on July 1… now was in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time.

(Citations from Buford’s report of the Bristoe Campaign, OR, Series I, Volume 29, Part I, Serial 48, pages 347-8.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “150 Years Ago: Buford Across the Rapidan

  1. Right place – right time. wrong place – wrong time. Excellent narrative symmetry. Well-written and compelling to the reader.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: