Signal stations, patrols, pickets, and videttes in the winter of 1864

In yesterday’s post on the signal stations in Culpeper County during the winter of 1864, we saw the dual role of those stations in the southern half of the county.  The stations provided communication links and performed as observation posts, on high points, overlooking the Confederate lines.  The observations from those stations provided valuable intelligence to the army throughout the winter.

But that is not to say the army’s traditional information gathering source – the cavalry – was inactive.  Much as Captain Lemuel Norton’s Signal Corps detachment spread across the vast army camp, the three cavalry divisions likewise divided up responsibilities to cover the perimeter.  One map from the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records depicts the portions of the line manned by the First and Third Cavalry Divisions:


Feel free to click through and view this map in Flickr, selecting the higher resolution modes.  That’s what is needed to pick up the small annotations.  But let me describe this “onion” one layer at a time.

First start with the infantry picket lines, in particular noted to the west and southwest of Culpeper.  There were three advanced brigades in winter camps which provided most of the men for those lines.  East of Stevensburg, at a locality known as Shepard’s Grove, Colonel John Brooks’ Fourth Brigade, Third Division, Second Corps covered the turnpike leading to a couple of valuable river crossing points – Germanna’s and Ely’s Ford.   Then just south of Stevensburg, in the vicinity of Stony Point, was Second Brigade, Third Division, Second Corps (Colonel Charles J. Powers, commanding, in January 1864).  Power’s men covered any advance from Morton’s Ford.  Lastly First Brigade, Second Division, First Corps occupied Michell’s Station in early January 1864 to support the signal stations and cavalry in that sector.  However, the infantry’s presence, and absence, was a point of contention during the winter.

The next level of this “onion” was the cavalry.  First Division of the Cavalry Corps, headquartered in Culpeper under Brigadier-General Wesley Merritt, covered to the south and southwest of the courthouse city.  Second Brigade of the division provided patrols, pickets and videttes for the western approaches to Culpeper.  Their sector was the roads to Griffinsburg and James City.  The Reserve Brigade picked up coverage to the south around Cedar Mountain and to the south where the Orange & Alexandria Railroad cut through the Federal lines.  At least two batteries of horse artillery were assigned to support the First Division’s troopers.

Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick (what’s that hissing?) maintained the headquarters of his Third Cavalry Division at Rose Hill, in Stevensburg.  The two brigades of his division, when not out raiding, had the responsibility of picketing the Rapidan River from the railroad line on their left then downstream to Blind Ford – a section of river about twenty miles long.  They also maintained a picket line to the east between the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers.

The Second Division, not depicted on the map, was headquartered in Warrenton, across the Rappahannock in Fauquier County, providing rear area security.  And before you think that was a simple, easy task, consider all the partisans and guerrillas that Brigadier-General David M. Gregg had to deal with that winter.

To say the cavalry was spread thin around this perimeter would be an understatement.  During the ill-advised Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, in order to keep the line maintained portions of the Second Division moved down to Stevensburg.  That of course decreased the security in rear areas.  Just a factor to consider when assessing the effectiveness of Confederate partisans and guerrillas during those winter months.

Now to the last layer of the “onion.”  Or better yet, illustrate what this looked like when overlaid against the signal stations:


On this map are the signal stations mentioned in earlier posts, with heavy dark blue dashed lines depicting the communication network.   Dark blue squares denote cavalry posts, with the number of men assigned indicated.  Dark blue dots are the videttes posted (mostly to the west in First Division’s sector).  Light blue lines, with double arrows, show the routes routinely patrolled by the cavalry.  And in red are the names of river crossing sites which the Federals had to observe.

I’ve added the location of the cavalry brigades to the map, but left off the advanced infantry brigades.  The map becomes a bit cluttered, but I think you’ll see the point.  The “feelers” of the Army of the Potomac that reached out to the Rapidan River included cavalry, some infantry, a few batteries of artillery, and signal stations.  This mix provided senior commanders with the dispositions of the Confederates and tracked any activity to the south of the river.  At the start of the Overland Campaign, that information served the commanders well.

In conclusion, I don’t think one can speak about operations conducted in the winter of 1864 – in particular the intelligence used by the Army of the Potomac – without mentioning the Signal Corps.  Nor, I think, can one discuss the opening phases of the Overland Campaign without considering how that network helped develop the operational picture for the Federal commanders.


2 thoughts on “Signal stations, patrols, pickets, and videttes in the winter of 1864

  1. Craig, wonderful job in minutely describing the overlapping layers on this 1863 map. And as we discussed previously, the original “base map” here of Culpeper County was created by Capt. William Paine, U.S. Topographical engineers, and not Capt. Vincent E. Von Koerber who somehow affixed his name to the map. As far as I can tell after years of analyzing Culpeper County Civil War maps, the only items Von Koerber added to Paine’s map were the positions of cavalry pickets. But that minor inclusion doesn’t make it the Austrian’s map, and he had no business taking credit for Paine’s superb cartography skills. And if the truth be known, Von Koerber could not draw any better than most of us–I have his so-called, “maps”–whereas Captain William H. Paine was every bit the equal mapmaker of one Jed Hotchkiss.

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