Another sesquicentennial event that fell on a day which does not exist in the 2014 calendar – the Battle of Rio Hill. While other Federal cavalry columns on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid raced towards Richmond, Brigadier-General George A. Custer led a column with the mission to perform a distraction to the west. Custer’s objective was the railroad bridge over the Rivanna River, outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
Custer’s force included a detachment from the Reserve Brigade, First Cavalry Division – 1st, 2nd, and 5th US Cavalry, along with the 6th Pennsylvania – and selected troopers from the 1st New Jersey and 6th Ohio Cavalry regiments. Two Parrott rifles from Battery E, 1st US Artillery under Lieutenant Essex Porter supported the column. In addition, Major-General John Sedgwick moved parts of his Sixth Corps along with First Division, Third Corps, to forward positions around Madison Court House to provide infantry support if needed.
Just north of Charlottesville, four batteries of the Confederate horse artillery camped at Rio Hill, overlooking the South Fork of the Rivanna River, about a mile south of Rio Mills. These batteries were and Captain Marcellus Moorman’s, Captain Robert Preston Chew’s, Captain James Breathed’s, and Captain William McGregory’s. Moorman was in over all command of the camp.
Custer’s column moved through Madison County on February 28. At 2 A.M. the next morning, the troopers moved south towards their objective. The map below has the waypoints annotated. The exact route, though one might offer conjecture, but was not reported in detail. So I’ll just offer the placenames on that march of nearly 30 miles.
They passed through Wolftown, drove off a small detail of Confederate pickets, and then crossed the Rapidan River. At Standardsville, the Federals encountered another picket around 8 A.M. But that too was quickly brushed aside. From there, the force continued south towards Earlysville without incident. From that point, the Federal column proceeded south towards their objective. But along the way, Custer heard from captured prisoners that a brigade of Confederate cavalry camped near Charlottesville. Crossing the South Fork of the Rivanna River at Rio Bridge, Custer sent detachments of the US Regulars upstream and downstream to scout the surrounding area. On the left side of the road, Captain Joseph P. Ash of the 5th US Cavalry advanced with a squadron’s worth of troopers.
Those US Regulars would encounter Moorman’s camp, where the artillery was just stirring. At that point, let me turn to Moorman’s account of the action that followed, recounted in a report to Major-General J.E.B. Stuart’s headquarters:
On Monday, the 29th February, about 12.30 p.m., Lieutenant Cunningham, of the First Virginia Cavalry, brought into camp the first intelligence of the approach of the enemy, stating that he had last seen them 2 miles south of Stanardsville, making in this direction. Camp was at once notified and pickets sent forward to Rio Bridge, 1¼ miles north, but before they arrived the enemy had crossed and held the bridge. At the same time a column was discovered effecting a crossing at Cook’s Ford, 1 ½ miles below. Finding it impossible to get out of camp unless some check could be given, I opened fire with a portion of the guns of each battery, while the drivers and remaining cannoneers caught up and hitched the horses, all of which were running loose. As fast as a carriage was horsed it was moved off. Thus were all of the pieces moved out and started to the rear, except four guns, which were opened from the hill commanding camp. The enemy by this time had pressed back through camp the line of skirmishers (unarmed except a few pistols) which I had deployed in my front. Having ordered all of my guns back except two sections, I drew up behind each a mounted support, placing the remainder of those mounted, under Captains Chew and Breathed, to guard my flank and maneuver in front, making a show of cavalry, in the execution of which they deserve great credit….
Moorman’s bluff worked, completely deceiving Custer, who later reported facing “a superior force of the enemy’s cavalry, supported by four batteries.” Moorman, however assumed the Federals were crossing the river at a ford downstream of the bridge in an effort to flank his position. As he continued in his report:
… Just at the moment when the enemy’s columns which had crossed at Cook’s Ford had reached and set fire to our camp, their right, which had crossed at Rio, made a charge just in time to receive and mistake the explosion of one of Captain Chew’s caissons for the reopening of our guns, for they had just ceased firing at that point. Each column mistaking the other for his enemy fired into each other and broke. Captains Chew and Breathed, seeing their mistake, charged with their squadrons and drove the enemy with such precipitancy that I presume they have never discovered their mistake, as they never ventured to return, but drew up in line upon the opposite bank waiting the advance of the Horse. They opened upon us two pieces of artillery, to which I made no reply.
Ash’s squadron overran the artillery camp then withdrew after destroying what they could. Though Federal accounts fail to mention any fratricide, the confusion as they went about the camp might explain that perception from the Confederate side. Custer withdrew his force back across the river, set fire to the bridge and mill.
Custer bivouacked about a dozen miles north of the river that night. The next morning he resumed the withdrawal towards Madison Court House. After a series of sharp actions with pursuing Confederates, including Brigadier-General William C. Wickham’s brigade, the Federals reached the safety of their infantry supports by the evening of March 1. Custer reported taking twenty prisoners during the actions along the withdrawal. Though unable to destroy the railroad bridge, Custer could report:
My command returned to its camp without having suffered the loss of a man. While on this expedition it marched upwards of 150 miles, destroyed the bridge over the Rivanna River, burned 3 large flouting mills filled with grain and flour, captured 6 caissons and 2 forges, with harness complete; captured 1 standard bearing the arms of Virginia, over 50 prisoners, and about 500 horses, besides bringing away over 100 contrabands. A large camp of the enemy was also captured and destroyed near Charlottesville.
Moorman would dispute the number of caissons captured, while justifiably lauding the performance of his men:
Much credit is due both to officers and men for their coolness, bravery, and self-sacrifice, leaving clothing, blankets, and all for their guns.
The loss sustained was as follows: Moorman’s battery, 2 men and 2 horses captured; Chew’s battery, 10 sets harness, 1 limber with canteens, 1 forge, 6 tents, 5 tent-flies, 4 tarpaulins, 60 pounds axle-grease, 15 curry-combs and brushes, 3 public horses, 40 Government bags; Breathed’s battery, 9 tents, 2 horses, 3 ½ sets harness; McGregor’s battery, 6 sets harness, 3 tent-flies, 12 bridles, 6 saddles and blankets, 4 halters, 2 mules, 4 skillets, 2 camp-kettles, 4 water-buckets. In addition to the losses enumerated I would state that the battalion suffered heavily in private effects, especially Chew’s and Breathed’s batteries.
The required distraction was accomplished, even if the railroad bridge was not touched. However, as with other “demonstrations” that winter, any potential gain was not realized as events along the main effort unraveled. I’m left to wonder what might have been gained had the main objective been a raid on Charlottesville instead of towards Richmond after little more than a wisp of an opportunity (and fleeting promise of glory).
The site of the Rio Hill skirmish is today, sadly, covered with a shopping center complex. The reminders of that action are a set of Civil War trails markers in a display case along with artifacts recovered from the field (and a state marker nearby). To my knowledge, no proper archeological survey was done of the artillery camp.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 162-3 and 167-8.)