Sherman’s March, May 14-17, 1865: Passing through old battlefields and crossing the Rappahannock

The last important river barrier for the armies of Major-General William T. Sherman in their march to Alexandria, Virgina was the Rappahannock River.  To gain crossing, the armies would cross through Spotsylvania and Stafford Counties, with one column traversing Orange and Culpeper Counties.  That area of Virginia was the stage for so much of the war in the east, with numerous battles fought.  For some members of Sherman’s command, this was a return to fields contested just a couple years earlier.  For most, however, this was a chance for the “Westerners” to see where the “Easterners” had fought.

The four corps fanned out in their march north, each taking a separate line for the most part:


The Right Wing used the direct route to Fredericksburg.  The Fifteenth Corps remained east of the Richmond & Potomac Railroad, generally using the Stage Road (the officers in Sherman’s command referred to this as the “Fredericksburg Road”).  Meanwhile, the Seventeenth Corps marched on the west side using the Telegraph Road.  Major-General Mortimer Leggett was in temporary command of the Seventeenth Corps, with Major-General Frank Blair at the time in Washington. Of these administrative marches, the commanders filed mundane reports of movement.  Typical was that of Major-General William B. Hazen, commanding Second Division, Fifteenth Corps, for May 16, 1865:

I have the honor to report that this division broke camp at 7 a.m., moving in the center of the column, the First Division being in advance and the Fourth Division in the rear, and went into camp about five miles from Fredericksburg at 4:30 p.m., having made a distance of twenty-two miles.

Yes, somewhat more distance than Sherman had preferred.  But the march was made over terrain familiar to military movements and where roads were well prepared.  While Hazen camped outside Fredericksburg that evening, Major-General Charles Woods’ First Division held a camp on the north bank of the Rappahannock River.   I believe the camp location used by Woods’ men was in proximity to the “Slaughter Pen” of the December 1862 battlefield.  But the records I have defy exact positioning.

The following day, Major-General John Logan officially assumed command of the Right Wing.  The Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps crossed the Rappahannock using a pontoon bridge left by the Army of the Potomac at Franklin’s Crossing… yet another place name harkening back three years.  But only wagon traffic delayed the progress of the men as the Army of the Tennessee bounded the Rappahannock with relative ease, compared to crossings by Federal forces earlier in the war.

The Left Wing had a wider line of march.  To avoid congesting the roads through the Wilderness, the Fourteenth Corps took a route through Orange County to Raccoon Ford and thence into Culpeper County.  This route took the Fourteenth Corps, under Major-General Jefferson C. Davis, through one of the most heavily contested areas of the Civil War.  But the soldiers were not sight-seeing.  For them, a camp outside Stevensburg on May 15 was just one of over a hundred camps they made during the long war.   But it was the last made during the war in Culpeper County…  which had also seen hundreds of such camps.

The following morning, the troops marched north to Kelly’s Ford to cross the Rappahannock.  Again, lost on the soldiers on the march was the significance of that point on the map.  Armies had fought over and crossed that ford repeatedly over the four previous years.  The Fourteenth Corps was the last military command to splash through.  Just another river crossing for the soldiers, but a significant mark in the passing of the war.  The corps continued its march through places named Bristoe Station, Manassas Junction, Centreville, and Fairfax Court-house.  All of which were simply waymarks of the march home for these men.

Either by design or by serendipity, the men of the Twentieth Corps – formerly the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps – marched through Spotsylvania.  Major-General Alpheus Williams, commanding First Division, Twentieth Corps, recorded the progress:

May 14, the division having the advance marched, the same hour as yesterday, crossed the North Anna on pontoon bridge, and took a circuitous route toward Spotsylvania Court-House.  The Mat, Ta, and Po, and several other smaller creeks were crossed during the day’s march; encamped south of Spotsylvania Court-House after a march of sixteen miles.  Many officers and men embraced the opportunity to visit the famous battle-fields in this vicinity.

Yes, the Twentieth Corps’ men had reason, by connection, to be sight-seeing.  The next day’s march traversed Chancellorsville. Williams, who’d commanded a division of Twelfth Corps during the fighting there in May 1863, noted more “sight-seeing.”

May 15, the division moved out at 5 a.m. toward Chancellorsville.  The route was a portion of the section known as the Wilderness.  At Chancellorsville the division was halted for three hours upon the battle-ground to enable the officers and men of the division to visit the scenes of that memorable contest in which most of the regiments took part.  The division encamped for the night at United States Ford; marched fifteen miles.

Sherman himself traveled over to visit the Twentieth Corps that day, with Major-General Henry Slocum providing some orientation.

The next day, the Twentieth Corps crossed the Rappahannock at United States Ford… in different circumstances from the last time those men had crossed at that point.  The remainder of the march toward Alexandria took the Twentieth Corps through places such as Hartwood Church, Brentsville, and Fairfax Station. In more ways than one, the Twentieth Corps was going home.

On May 19 the Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia reached their designated camps outside Alexandria.  There, near the banks of the Potomac, the Great March which had started in Atlanta came to its last pause.  The last short march required of these soldiers was a Grand Review in the nation’s capital – a formal closure to the march… and the war.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 605; Part III, Serial 100, page 509.)


Preserve what you can: Five Mile Fork earthworks

On Saturday, while returning from a terrific hike out on the Fredericksburg battlefield, I drove down the “Plank Road,” better known as Virginia Highway 3 now days. As the city began to turn into suburb, I made a stop in the Five Mile Fork area at the Harrison Crossing shopping complex… for what else? Markers.

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We’ve had these markers in HMDB for some time. And I’ve visited the location before. But I always like to check on the markers and any look for any new interpretation on site.

These are part of a set of five which interpret a string of trenches attributed to the Confederates in the opening phases of the Chancellorsville campaign. The works crown a spot of high ground just north of the highway. The works are inside the tall trees in the far center of this view:

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The trenches are access from a short hairpin trail up the rise in the left center of view. The earthworks themselves are not impressive. The sort of trenches constructed in haste, and often eroding rapidly with time.

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But they are there today, perhaps a figment of what was built in anticipation of a clash of arms. These would be easy to overlook, if you didn’t know to look for them.

While there, I turned around to look back down the trail towards the highway.

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I started thinking again about the back-and-forth between preservation and development. Some might substitute “progress” for development. But we can take that in several directions. Preservation is progress from one – my – perspective. From that of others, development is progress. Progress is subjective, so let’s opt for a neutral description.

I don’t know the full story of how this all worked out at Five Mile Fork’s Harrison Crossing shopping complex. But I can guess at the story line. With attention drawn to the earthworks at the site, a developer opted to set aside a portion of land – an easement – to preserve the works. Maybe the preservation was in the face of some pressure from preservationists. Or maybe the developer was simply sympathetic to the notion of preserving the works (UPDATE: Which was the case.  See John Hennessy’s comment below). Or maybe there were incentives, such as tax breaks, offered. Result is the same. A ribbon of ground left undeveloped with some interpretation and the ubiquitous snake rail fence.

But the ground around ends up disturbed. The lay of the land is cut through with the need to level out parking areas and building foundations.

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What artifacts not found by the metal detector armed “diggers” have long since departed for some fill pit. One wonders what earthwork remains might have extended beyond, either across what is now parking lot or to the other side on the grounds of Riverbend High School.

What happened at this site in 1863? If the interpretation is correct (no “if” involved – see comment below), Confederate troops constructed hasty works and then sat waiting for a fight. That fight would not occur here, but rather a few miles west. The big story line did not play out here, but rather there.

So what happened on this site in 2006 (guessing when the development took place)? Someone opted to set aside a small section of ground upon which a small, somewhat boring, portion of the Civil War occurred. The site was marked with interpretation to engage and educate visitors.

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A section, if not the whole, of the works are there for consideration. Few visitors to the nearby stores will venture up to the trenches. But how many would visit if there were no hard-packed trail, parking spots, and interpretive signage? How many of those are then drawn to consider the bigger story just a few miles down the road?

Can we call this a “preserve what you can” solution?