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 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.)