Federal Artillery at Morton’s Ford: Good tactical execution in support of poor decisions

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Federal crossing of the Rapidan, and the opening of the Battle of Morton’s Ford.  Although small compared to other major actions, Morton’s Ford was just as complex.  As alluded to in an earlier post, a “demonstration” is not an easy operation to pull off.  Though I’m no expert on Morton’s Ford, and cannot offer any great perspective of interpretation, I would like to call attention to the employment of Federal artillery during the battle.  Consider a passage from Brigadier-General John C. Caldwell’s (commanding First Division, Second Corps) report on the action:

Understanding as I did that the orders from army headquarters were not to precipitate an engagement, but to draw a large force of the enemy to our front, I determined not to advance farther, but to hold our position. To accomplish this I made the following disposition: The left of the Third Division rested near the river opposite Stringfellow’s house, but the right was on open ground at some distance from the river. To protect the right, which was much the weakest in infantry, the rifled batteries of Captains Thompson and Arnold were placed in position on the high ground near the river bank, so as to cover completely with their fire any approach of the enemy on our right. A section of Captain Ricketts’ battery, supported by a regiment of infantry, was placed in position near Stringfellow’s house, so as to enfilade any force advancing against our left. The other four guns of Captain Ricketts were placed behind the crest near Captain Arnold’s position, ready to come into battery at any moment if needed. At the same time the Second Division, Brigadier-General Webb commanding, was advanced to within a short distance of the river, while the First Division was in the edge of the woods.

Caldwell’s description of battery placement matches well with the map provided by his boss, Major-General Gouverneur K. Warren:


Rickett’s and Arnold’s batteries appear on the map on the lower right.  Thompson’s Battery is above the map legend to the far right.  A section of Rickett’s battery (two cannon symbols) is on the left, on bluffs near the river.

With those positions in mind, consider a section from Dennis Hart Mahan’s Outpost, in regards to river crossings:

The passage of a river in the face of an enemy is an operation of extreme difficulty… The point, selected to pass a river in the face of an enemy should combine several properties, as a position; to give the assailant a decided advantage over the assailed.  The river at this point should be narrow, so that the bridge may be rapidly constructed; the banks should form a bend towards the assailant [NOTE: I think he  intended to say “assailed” here], to enable [the assailant] to plant his batteries in a position to concentrate their fire on that part of ground, on the opposite bank, where the troops must form; care being taken that these batteries are not exposed to an enfilading fire from those assailed….

Let me emphasize again for the reader of that passage, Mahan’s wording is not easy to follow and mixes “assailant” where one would assume he meant “assailed.” Mahan included this section inside a chapter describing how outposts should defend, among other things, river crossing points, which may explain the miss-match of labels.

But you get the gist of this – Mahan taught the cadets at West Point to cross rivers at narrow points where a river bend allows for concentrated, converging fires upon the enemy.  Common sense stuff, right? And yes, clearly Major-General Ambrose Burnside skipped that day of instruction.  But Caldwell, with no pre-war military experience, grasped the concept.

But while offering a “textbook” example of employing artillery in support of a river crossing, Caldwell’s account demonstrates the biggest flaw in the Federal operation – and one that went right up to the very top in the chain of command.  As he understood his orders, Caldwell was not to advance beyond the river and “determined not to advance farther, but to hold our position.”  That’s it.  And the troops gained nothing of value standing at that position.

Again, turn back to the military definition of “demonstration.”  The attacker must consider what to do if the situation offers either an opportunity or a unassailable obstacle.  Caldwell, Warren, and others failed to do that at Morton’s Ford on February 6, 1864.  Instead, they stood still.  Perhaps the worst of the possible options.  And that decision was derived from a complete failure by those at higher echelons to layout objectives, assignments, and desired results.

The action at Morton’s Ford was designed to keep the Confederates focused on the Rapidan River front.  That it accomplished.  But I would ask if instead of leaving Brigadier-General Alexander Hays’ Division exposed for a night, cold the same “distraction” have been accomplished with a few dozen ammunition chests worth of firing from the guns Caldwell had in place?

The old Sergeant-Major is reminding me, “never send a man where a few well placed artillery rounds will serve the same purpose.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 120; Dennis Hart Mahan, An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-guard, Out-post, and Detachment Service of Troops, and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in Presence of an Enemy, New York: John Wiley, 1861, pages 81-2.)


2 thoughts on “Federal Artillery at Morton’s Ford: Good tactical execution in support of poor decisions

  1. Great post, Craig, and tomorrow (Saturday) the Friends of Cedar Mountain will visit Morton’s Ford–on both sides of the river–and those Union and Confederate artillery positions you mention will be pointed out.

    Morton’s Ford is an unusual battlefield in that the Union position–including the entire approach to the ford and the “killing zone” itself–is almost 100% the same as during the battle. Plus, the Confederate gun positions and trenches are largely the same as in February 1864. Some excellent trenches remain extant high up on the ridge overlooking Morton’s Ford, to the north. And the battlefield is in conservation easement, meaning of course it will be protected, in perpetuity.

    The deep ford road on both sides of the river remains highly evident, and the crossing is still “fordable,” today–assuming one wants to wade into a frigid, rapidly moving river.. It’s after all called the “Rapid Ann” River for a reason.

    Hope some of your readers can join us on our tour tomorrow and they can check out the Friends of Cedar Mountain website for details..

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