150 years ago: Evolution of a Picket Line and Signal Station

On New Year’s Day 1864, Major-General John Newton, commanding the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac, focused his attention on the picket lines and location of signal stations south of Culpeper Court House.  Orders posted late in December 1863 had 2nd Division, under Brigadier-General John Robinson, of Newton’s corps moving up to the vicinity of Cedar Mountain. Robinson was to concentrate around Cedar Mountain, where a signal station would be established.  A wartime map of the southern part of Culpeper County best illustrates the desirability of Cedar Mountain:


Please notice “Rapid Ann Station” to the bottom where the railroad crosses the Rapidan River.  At least one reader will smile at that.

Cedar Mountain (on the left, where the map folds join… gotta love scans of REAL maps) overlooked several Rapidan River crossing points.  A station on Cedar Mountain enabled rapid communications to and from Robinson’s advanced position.  It also opposed Clark’s Mountain, where the Confederates observed Federal movements.  During the Civil War, signal stations were more than just communication relays.  On such high ground, the stations served as observation posts and signal-intercept stations.  In short, occupation of Cedar Mountain made a lot of military sense.

Weather postponed that end-of-year march, but didn’t keep Newton from raising concerns about the security of the force, when they finally were in position.  On December 31st, Newton requested, by way of Major-General Andrew A. Humphreys, Army of the Potomac Chief of Staff,

… that the cavalry should so picket and scout the roads leading from Madison Court-House and running to the north of Cedar Mountain, and likewise the roads from Raccoon Ford, by which Cedar Mountain could be turned, as to give timely notice to commanding officer at the mountain of a movement of the enemy in force.

That request still lingered on January 1, when Newton wrote again to Humphreys:

There is as yet no signal station on Cedar Mountain. The detachment of 100 men to guard it have accordingly not been sent. The cavalry pickets are north of Cedar Mountain, and only one-fourth mile in front of the front brigade at Mitchell’s Station. I request you to specify when I shall advance the brigade now in rear to Cedar Mountain, because I think such movements should be simultaneous with the new arrangement of the cavalry pickets demanded by such change.

Humphreys referred this request to Major-General Alfred Pleasonton, with the endorsement:

The major-general commanding directs that the cavalry pickets be advanced beyond Cedar Mountain and that every precaution be taken to watch the approach to Cedar Mountain from the right and left, and that instructions be given that in the event of any party of the enemy advancing toward it the guard at the signal station of 100 infantry be immediately warned, as well as the commander of the infantry brigade and division at or near Cedar Mountain.

The task fell to Brigadier-General Wesley Merritt’s division of cavalry.  And Humphreys related orders firmly requiring communication between the infantry and cavalry, to the point “they should arrange between them every detail necessary to the execution of the duties assigned each.”

Newton, however, requested clarification.  Should the post on Cedar Mountain include all of Robinson’s division or just a lone brigade?  One might imagine Major-General George Meade’s irritation as he clarified, by way of more instructions through Humphreys:

The major-general commanding directs me to say that whether one or both brigades of Robinson’s division are posted near Cedar Mountain is left to you. It was thought to be your proposition to take both brigades there in the personal interview on Wednesday, because the brigade near Cedar Run had a wet camp-ground as well as the brigade near Mitchell’s Station. The exact posting of the brigades of the division is left to you, so that they accomplish the objects of the advanced position of the division. (Emphasis mine.)

So, the trigger for this movement is revealed at last.  Someone didn’t like their camp.  In addition to securing valuable high ground north of the Rapidan and getting a view into the Confederate positions south of that river, Robinson’s men wanted a better campsite!

But if Robinson were to occupy such an advanced post, according to conventional military wisdom, the cavalry should be farther forward with a tight picket line.  And on January 3, as Newton would complain, the picket line was not there.  Likewise, the signal station lacked the required guard force.  Specifically to that charge, Merritt responded:

The order was given and carried out (as far as possible) on the 2d and also on the 3d instant, details of the force required being sent both days. On the third day it was reported to me that there was no signal station on the mountain, when I authorized the commanding officer of the Reserve Brigade, who furnished the detail, not to send any more parties to the mountain until the signal party arrived, of which he was to keep himself well informed, when the detail would be resumed. This, I took it, would be carrying out the spirit of the order, and saving men and horses for other duty.

In addition to these duties, Merritt’s men were busy setting up a line of vedettes, posts, and reserves.  So saving men and horses was desirable.  The picket line was established around the 5th of January.  The signal station was finally established sometime after January 7.

Cedar Mountain 22 Dec 038

And from there, the Federals would stare at the equally inquisitive Confederates across the Rapidan for the remainder of the winter.  (NOTE: The photo above shows the north end of Cedar Mountain.  The signal station was placed on the south end.)

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 29, Part II, Serial 49, page 593;Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 317-8, 350-1.)


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