Raccoon Ford Solar Farm update: Victory along the Rapidan, but follow through needed to complete win

Let me pass along an update on the threat to the Rapidan Fords, mentioned earlier this month.

Cricket Solar, the project aimed at placing a large-scale solar farm in southern Culpeper County, formally withdrew their conditional use permit on August 26. Spokesperson for the project indicated Cricket Solar was taking the action in order to “ensure that any project proposed represents Cricket’s best effort to address community concerns.” Which in essence means the project could not reconcile their plan with valid concerns and objections. A sizable number of those concerns were the impact on historical resources. The irony in the case of this solar farm project is the main “pro” argument in its favor was to create renewable energy alternatives in order to preserve natural resources… yet the cost of developing that renewable energy option was the destruction of natural and historical resources!

Yes, this is a win for preservation. However, I think we need to apply some lessons learned from our study of the Civil War in this situation. A battle is won, to be sure. But that victory is but a fleeting moment in the campaign to reach an objective. How many Civil War generals won significant victories on the field, only to see that victory ring hollow due to delayed pursuit and failure to follow through toward the strategic goals?

The goal here, for me as a preservationist (and I trust you too, reader) is to ensure places like Raccoon Ford are not perpetually under threat of development. We should not need to queue up, year after year, the same discussion about preserving these places – Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, Morton’s Ford, Hansbrough Ridge, and Raccoon Ford. These places should instead be recognized for the intrinsic value possessed … and thus preserved and entrusted to future generations.

But how to do that?

I submit that preservation efforts are much like those wartime campaigns we study. Each effort must have stages and phases leading ultimately that goal of preservation. And in that light, our next step forward should renewed calls to establish a state park in Culpeper County that covers, at minimum, the Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain battlefields.

Consider – the discussion of the Cricket Solar project brought the area’s Civil War history back to the fore. Specifically, we’ve seen localized discussion about what did happen “in my back yard.” Call it “renewed” interest… or in many cases a “newfound” interest (which is rewarding, for those of us engaged in the discussion). With that rise in interest, there is now a ready made foundation for follow on public discussion. Poll after poll taken indicated the citizenry of the county preferred to preserve these sites, be that motivated by interest in history or concern for the environmental impact. Those sentiments logically lead to renewed efforts for a state park. Then, ultimately, a seed for further preservation of the county’s important historic sites.

No, I’m not advocating for the entire county to be placed “under glass” or some other starry-eyed notion. Rather that attention be paid to those sites deserving preservation. We should, in this age, be able to recognize good stewardship techniques that balance and moderate development while protecting what needs to be preserved. In the case of Culpeper County, the best stewardship technique, in my opinion, takes the form of a state park.

We should follow up our victory this week with decisive action. Now is the time for the American Battlefield Trust and allies to renew the push for a Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain Battlefields state park. It is time to move this campaign forward!

A threat to the Rapidan Fords

Over the last five years a new threat to the Culpeper County battlefields emerged. While there are similarities to earlier threats to preservation, it’s the place names that some readers may find new in the discussion. Preservationists have long heard the names Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain, and, mostly in the last decade, Hansbrough Ridge, in relation to efforts to preserve and protect the Civil War battlefields. Morton’s Ford is another we see mention on occasion. And with Morton’s we must also mention several other adjacent fords on the Rapidan River. The most important of those is Raccoon Ford. In addition to pressing across the Rapidan at Morton’s Ford, Federals also demonstrated at Raccoon Ford on February 6-7, 1864. And for that reason, Raccoon Ford is included within the “Core Battlefield Area” and the potential area for “National Registry Boundary” of the battlefield, as defined by the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP):

That in yellow is the potential National Registry Boundary, matching to the battlefield study area, more or less. It’s the area enclosed within red that we need to focus upon here – that’s the defined Battlefield Core Area. As in, “this is where fighting took place”… a key distinction of note, as many will try to “tell” us where a battle was or was not fought. This is the “official” designation of the battlefield, the product of accurate and detailed study. Morton’s Ford is within the “bulge” to the right. Raccoon Ford is on the left, covering both banks of the Rapidan… because its a FORD. The designation as “core area” is sound. If one wishes to dispute that, then evidence is required…. lots and lots of evidence… and that cannot be prefaced with “I think….”

Now beyond just the established fact that Raccoon Ford is within a core battlefield, we can go on to mention how often that site was used during the Civil War by the belligerents as they maneuvered through central Virginia. Every major campaign from 1862 on to 1864 passed by or through Raccoon Ford. One runs out of fingers and toes counting the number of skirmishes or other actions that took place there. If one wishes to tally the generals who crossed there, it would look like a “Who’s Who” of the Civil War. And we might go on to mention the significance this ford played in other chapters of American history – Colonial, Revolutionary, and right up to the present.

Again, more “established” facts that point to the historical pedigree of this site. There’s no way one can dispute or deny Raccoon Ford has a place in the history books.

But… as happens all too often in the discussion of historical sites… there are those who discount those facts and thus devalue our history. Raccoon Ford is now at the center of a planned solar farm development project. The project has not yet been approved, but has been the subject of long running discussions. Consider this map drawn to indicate the areas considered for solar farm development:

Highlighted in blue hashes and outlined in light blue is the “Core Battlefield Area. The actual “Raccoon Ford Area of Historic Interest” is in purple hashed highlight. And the designated “Battlefield Study Area” is in light green. It is the areas outlined in red that we preservationists need to be concerned about. That is the area on where the solar facilities would go. Not only would the area be dominated by solar panels, facilities, buildings, and power lines, but the ACTUAL battlefield itself would be covered.

There are certainly dozens of other considerations to think about here – environmental being perhaps the one that should weigh even more than the historical aspects. However, this is “to the Sound of the Guns” blog, and not the “Engineering Disasters Where People Build in a Flood Plain” blog…. so we shall focus on the history here.

What happens to a battlefield when it is covered with solar panels? This:

Averasboro 1A 112

This is just outside Godwin, North Carolina, and within the study area for the Averasboro battlefield. Students of Sherman’s March know that battle well. It is upon these fields that Hardee’s command delayed the Federal Left Wing to set up the battle of Bentonville. Was “that” battle fought right there? I can make the case that skirmishing occurred there. Depending on the “jury,” I believe a good lawyer could make that case. At a minimum, the ABPP indicated there were tactical troop movements here worthy of study.

And study? Yes. You will hear me often contend that the land – the actual physical ground itself – is a primary source for historians studying a battlefield. Quite often it is our only tangible link between the present and the past, from which we can properly understand the accounts and recollections of those who fought.

Up until the last decade, here’s what that field looked like:


To the uninitiated, this is but your standard North Carolina farm field. But to a trained eye, there are nuances in the ground that need be considered and examined. (A lesson that struck home for me many years ago when studying the Belmont battlefield, where a slight rise of less than a foot – inches, mind you – indicated the location of a “ridge” which commanders mentioned and veterans later recalled. Inches high, it was just slightly above the wet, muddy bottom lands, and worth fighting over that day in November 1861.) Sadly, historians will no longer be able to study those nuances. Today history is blockaded by a locked gate:

Averasboro 1A 111

Raccoon Ford should not suffer this fate.

Later this month, the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors will renew discussion on this solar farm proposal. Local citizens have already brought up their concerns and expressed opposition. And YOU can help by signing their petition to stop this development. I ask you to consider signing that petition, helping those who are at the front line of this preservation battle.

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.)

“The Second Corps… will move to the vicinity of Morton’s Ford” – orders posted 150 years ago

Thus far discussing the 1864 Winter Encampment, I’ve offered examples of camp building, reenlistment drives, training, and other comparatively “quiet” activities.  But let us turn to a noisy military operation.  On this day (February 5) in 1864, acting commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major-General John Sedgwick, issued (reluctantly I might add) these orders:

Headquarters Army of the Potomac,
February 5, 1864.

The following movements will be made to-morrow, the 6th instant:

1. Brigadier-General Gregg will direct Merritt’s division of cavalry to move, with at least one battery of artillery, to Barnett’s Ford on the Rapidan, and make demonstrations to cross and attack the enemy there and on the upper Rapidan. General Gregg will also direct General Kilpatrick to move with his division and at least one battery of artillery to the Rapidan, at Culpeper Ford, cross that river, and make demonstrations upon the enemy’s right. The artillery of this division will not cross the Rapidan, but will be left on this side with a strong guard. The cavalry picket-lines and patrols will be left as usual. Strong camp and train guards will be left. The demonstration will be continued through Sunday, the 7th, and Monday morning. The cavalry will return to its former position by Monday evening, unless otherwise ordered.

2. The First Corps, Major-General Newton commanding, will move to the vicinity of Raccoon Ford, with at least three batteries of artillery, and make demonstrations to cross the river at that point or in that vicinity, through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, returning to its present camp Monday evening, unless otherwise ordered. The brigade at Mitchell’s Station will remain as now posted.

3. The Second Corps, Major-General Warren commanding, will move to the vicinity of Morton’s Ford, with at least three batteries of artillery, and make demonstrations to cross the river at that point or in that vicinity, through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, returning to its present camp Monday evening, unless otherwise ordered.

4. The troops will take with them three days’ rations, such ambulances as may be absolutely required for the troops, and such light wagons as may be necessary for headquarters.

5. The artillery left in camp and the ammunition and ambulance trains, medical and hospital wagons, will be held ready to move at a moment’s notice.

6. The picket-lines will be left as usual, and strong guards will be left to take care of the camp and trains.

7. The Third and Sixth Corps will be ready to move at a moment’s notice, provided in the same manner as the First and Second Corps, with the same preparations as these corps in respect to artillery, ammunition trains, &c.

8. The commanders of the First and Second Corps and the cavalry divisions will keep the commanding general constantly and promptly advised of their progress, of the dispositions of the enemy, and of everything of importance that takes place.

9. The movements ordered will be commenced to-morrow at 7 a.m., or as soon thereafter as practicable.

By command of Major-General Sedgwick:
S. WILLIAMS, Assistant Adjutant-General.

The operation was not designed to open a new offensive.  Rather a demonstration.  Back in my days in uniform, we defined a “demonstration” as special type of offensive action, considering them a “shaping operation.”  From the modern day FM 3-0:

They seek to mislead the enemy concerning the attacker’s true intentions. They facilitate decisive operations by fixing the enemy or diverting his attention from the decisive operation. Commanders allow the enemy to detect a demonstration. However, doing this without revealing the demonstration’s true purpose requires skill. If a demonstration reveals an enemy weakness, commanders may follow it with another form of attack.

Above all a demonstration requires flexibility in the execution, as alluded to in the last line.  In many ways a demonstration is harder to pull off than a real attack.  And happened later at Morton’s Ford, demonstrations can be bloody affairs just like any other form of offensive operation.

The operations specified in this order had elements of the Army of the Potomac surging towards several points on the Rapidan River.  I should will post a map to better describe those points.

UPDATE: And here it is…


Notice the distance between these points along the Rapidan.  And the nature of the terrain.

(Sources: OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 515-6; FM 3-0, Chapter 7, Department of the Army, June 2001.)

150 years ago: Combined arms force “to disperse and destroy” enemy vicinity of Culpeper

Orders issued on this day (June 7) in 1863, from Major-General Joseph Hooker’s headquarters at Falmouth, Virginia, to Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac:

Camp near Falmouth, Va., June 7, 1863.
Commanding Officer Cavalry Corps:

I am directed by the major-general commanding to inform you as follows:
Brigadier-General Ames left here yesterday and Brigadier-General Russell marches to-day, and it is expected that their brigades, consisting of 1,500 men and a horse battery, will be in position to-morrow night. The latter marches with rations for three days, and will require to be replenished before they cross the river from Bealeton. As they march without wagons, it will be advisable to have them sent to Kelly’s Ford, in season to be distributed to-morrow night. Two boats have also been forwarded, to facilitate the passage of the last-named ford. As it is held by the enemy’s pickets it may be advisable to throw over a small party above or below the ford, to knock them away, without resorting to the use of artillery, as the first gun would be heard by the enemy at Culpeper and vicinity.

From the most reliable information at these headquarters, it is recommended that you cross the Rappahannock at Beverly and Kelly’s Fords, and march directly on Culpeper. For this you will divide your cavalry force as you think proper, to carry into execution the object in view, which is to disperse and destroy the rebel force assembled in the vicinity of Culpeper, and to destroy his trains and supplies of all description to the utmost of your ability.

Shortly after crossing the two fords, the routes you will be likely to take intersect, and the major-general commanding suggests that you keep your infantry force together, as in that condition it will afford you a moving point d’appui to rally on at all times, which no cavalry force can be able to shake. It is believed that the enemy has no infantry. Should you find this to be the case, by keeping your troops well in hand, you will be able to make head in any direction.

The general also recommends that you make use of the forest and the cavalry to mask the movements of the infantry from the enemy’s forces, and keep the enemy ignorant of their presence as long as possible, in order that at the proper time you may be able to cut off and destroy great numbers of them.

The general further suggests that you throw out strong pickets in the direction of the Ely and Germanna Fords, and that you hold Stevensburg with not less than a regiment and a section of artillery, with special instructions to look after Raccoon Ford. All the fords on the Rappahannock below Kelly’s, and including it, are held by our forces.

If you should succeed in routing the enemy, the general desires that you will follow him vigorously as far as it may be to our advantage to do so.

The officer in command holding Kelly’s Ford will be instructed to lend you such aid as may be in his power, and it is hoped will be able to throw out on to the Culpeper road a sufficient force, in conjunction with your cavalry at. Stevensburg, to secure your flank from any force in that direction.

Captain Dahlgren, aide-de-camp, will deliver this to you, and it is desired that he should remain until you recross the river, and that you communicate with headquarters as often as practicable. He will hand you some maps of the direction in which you are operating.

Having received no reply from Washington as to the force to be sent to your assistance from General Heintzelman’s command, you will not be able to count upon any assistance from there.

Very respectfully,
Major-General, Chief of Staff.

The forces put in motion by this order, just two days later, would engage in the largest cavalry battle of the war. And while not contesting the ranking as a cavalry battle, I must point out the Federal forces employed – a combined arms team. Yes, more cavalry than infantry or artillery. But all three arms would play a role, by design.

The orders, while somewhat discretionary, pinned the Union cavalry chief to certain decisions. Particularly were to cross the Rappahannock. The mission of the force was the nearly same as that thrown across the river on March 17, 1863 – disperse and destroy the Confederate cavalry in Culpeper.

Notice also the numerous fords mentioned. These were the swinging doors, particularly and frequently Kelly’s Ford, that both armies used in the back and forth of the Eastern Theater.

Once again, and not for the last time in 1863, blue clad troops were headed across “the dare mark line.” (h/t to Clark Hall)

(OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part III, Serial 45, pages 27-8.)