“The Second Corps… will move to the vicinity of Morton’s Ford” – orders posted 150 years ago

Thus far discussing the 1864 Winter Encampment, I’ve offered examples of camp building, reenlistment drives, training, and other comparatively “quiet” activities.  But let us turn to a noisy military operation.  On this day (February 5) in 1864, acting commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major-General John Sedgwick, issued (reluctantly I might add) these orders:

Headquarters Army of the Potomac,
February 5, 1864.

The following movements will be made to-morrow, the 6th instant:

1. Brigadier-General Gregg will direct Merritt’s division of cavalry to move, with at least one battery of artillery, to Barnett’s Ford on the Rapidan, and make demonstrations to cross and attack the enemy there and on the upper Rapidan. General Gregg will also direct General Kilpatrick to move with his division and at least one battery of artillery to the Rapidan, at Culpeper Ford, cross that river, and make demonstrations upon the enemy’s right. The artillery of this division will not cross the Rapidan, but will be left on this side with a strong guard. The cavalry picket-lines and patrols will be left as usual. Strong camp and train guards will be left. The demonstration will be continued through Sunday, the 7th, and Monday morning. The cavalry will return to its former position by Monday evening, unless otherwise ordered.

2. The First Corps, Major-General Newton commanding, will move to the vicinity of Raccoon Ford, with at least three batteries of artillery, and make demonstrations to cross the river at that point or in that vicinity, through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, returning to its present camp Monday evening, unless otherwise ordered. The brigade at Mitchell’s Station will remain as now posted.

3. The Second Corps, Major-General Warren commanding, will move to the vicinity of Morton’s Ford, with at least three batteries of artillery, and make demonstrations to cross the river at that point or in that vicinity, through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, returning to its present camp Monday evening, unless otherwise ordered.

4. The troops will take with them three days’ rations, such ambulances as may be absolutely required for the troops, and such light wagons as may be necessary for headquarters.

5. The artillery left in camp and the ammunition and ambulance trains, medical and hospital wagons, will be held ready to move at a moment’s notice.

6. The picket-lines will be left as usual, and strong guards will be left to take care of the camp and trains.

7. The Third and Sixth Corps will be ready to move at a moment’s notice, provided in the same manner as the First and Second Corps, with the same preparations as these corps in respect to artillery, ammunition trains, &c.

8. The commanders of the First and Second Corps and the cavalry divisions will keep the commanding general constantly and promptly advised of their progress, of the dispositions of the enemy, and of everything of importance that takes place.

9. The movements ordered will be commenced to-morrow at 7 a.m., or as soon thereafter as practicable.

By command of Major-General Sedgwick:
S. WILLIAMS, Assistant Adjutant-General.

The operation was not designed to open a new offensive.  Rather a demonstration.  Back in my days in uniform, we defined a “demonstration” as special type of offensive action, considering them a “shaping operation.”  From the modern day FM 3-0:

They seek to mislead the enemy concerning the attacker’s true intentions. They facilitate decisive operations by fixing the enemy or diverting his attention from the decisive operation. Commanders allow the enemy to detect a demonstration. However, doing this without revealing the demonstration’s true purpose requires skill. If a demonstration reveals an enemy weakness, commanders may follow it with another form of attack.

Above all a demonstration requires flexibility in the execution, as alluded to in the last line.  In many ways a demonstration is harder to pull off than a real attack.  And happened later at Morton’s Ford, demonstrations can be bloody affairs just like any other form of offensive operation.

The operations specified in this order had elements of the Army of the Potomac surging towards several points on the Rapidan River.  I should will post a map to better describe those points.

UPDATE: And here it is…

Morton'sFordMovement1

Notice the distance between these points along the Rapidan.  And the nature of the terrain.

(Sources: OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 515-6; FM 3-0, Chapter 7, Department of the Army, June 2001.)

3 thoughts on ““The Second Corps… will move to the vicinity of Morton’s Ford” – orders posted 150 years ago

  1. Craig, the Battle of Morton’s Ford illustrates the time-honored military axiom that soldiers, commanders and entire armies can be dispatched to utter, deadly foolishness as a result of decisions made by civilian leaders who have no comprehension of the lay-of-the-land (literally) whereupon the attack was to take place..

    One only need walk down to Morton’s Ford in 1864 (and today) and gaze straight south across the Rapidan River. The ground over which a charge was ordered on February 6 by the Secretary of War rises gently but inexorably up (and up) on the south side to a point where Confederate trenches and gun positions looks straight down on the attack plateau, far beneath. There is absolutely no way that any corps of infantry–much less part of a division–could take the stout position then held by Dick Ewell’s Corps.

    And if the truth be known, there was no intent by Federal officers on the scene to take the trenches a mile to their front, as Union leaders right away saw this debacle for what it was: A complete disaster.–and one ordered by a desk-bound official seated in a warm office in Washington, D.C.

    I never go down to Morton’s Ford without shaking my head at the needless loss of life in this battle… And a loss of life engineered by one who did not care enough for the individual soldier to consider the awful consequences of his loopy decision.

    And since February 6, 1864, that same political and military dynamic has tragically played out over and over in our country’s foreign policy machinations, has it not?

    Peace to those brave Blue and Gray soldiers who died at Morton’s Ford.

    But please hear this: These courageous men indeed gave their all–but for nothing.

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