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.)


150 year ago: Bridges over the Rappahannock

I’m often inclined to put emphasis on the activities of the supporting arms in campaigns such as Chancellorsville. Not that I want to reach past the activities of the combat arms (particularly the artillery!). But the activities of signalers, engineers, and quartermasters are some of the “parts,” and in many cases valuable parts, that add up to that sum total of effort.

Henry W. Benham


I’ve mentioned – just mentioned a part of – the signal troops in the Chancellorsville campaign. Another branch that played a critical and often overlooked role were the engineers. Specifically those involved with bridging operations to support the advance over the Rappahannock… and then the retreat back. The official reports from Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade, provide a table detailing bridging operations during the campaign. Here’s a reproduction of that table:




Benham listed fifteen bridge operations. One of these, number nine, did not have a bridge laid but rather noted the movement of bridging equipment to Bank’s Ford. The Engineer Brigade used nine bridges, relaying five of them twice, for a total of fourteen bridge placements. And fourteen bridges pulled up when the army no longer needed them. All within the span of nine days. These bridges spanned the Rappahannock at points over thirty (river) miles apart.


Completion times – which I think were “weighted” to the short side – are not excessive. Benham’s table indicates most of the Fredericksburg bridges required less than an hour and a half from start to finish. That is, of course, not to say the time from initial movement to finish. Or for that matter does not address the “ordered” time for completion. Regardless, the times reported for some of these operations, such as 45 minutes at Kelly’s Ford or 1 ½ hours at United States Ford, speak to the efficiency of the engineer bridging troops.



Several of the bridging operations were conducted under Confederate guns. At Fredericksburg the engineers didn’t face as stiff resistance as the previous December, but were certainly not unopposed. Bank’s Ford crossing also saw Confederate resistance. In all the Engineer brigade casualties were one killed and three wounded. (I’d rather suffer the sore back of an engineer over the lot of some infantryman at Chancellorsville. How about you?)

In his reports, Benham relates problems, lots of problems. What part of those problems came from the friction within the army, and what part came from Benham’s flask, is hard to decide. But each of these bridges had great operational importance. Even being late and delayed, the bridges in place at Fredericksburg caused the Confederates pause. And those placed at United States Ford were “golden” when the Army of the Potomac retreated.

Looking at the number of bridges built, the times in which those were completed, the units involved, and some of the responsible officers, I cannot help but consider what those same men, officers, and equipments would be doing a little short of two months later on the Potomac.


(Benham’s report and the table are in OR, Series I, Volume 25, Part I, Serial 39, pages 204-216.)


150 Years Ago: “…the consequence of getting astride of a river…”

On this day (November 17) in 1862, elements from the Right Grand Division of the Army of The Potomac arrived at Falmouth, Virginia and looked across the Rappahannock River on Fredericksburg.  General Edwin V. Sumner commanded those Federal troops.  Later, in sworn testimony to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Sumner recalled:

On my arrival here, on the 17th of November, a battery of artillery on the other side of the river opened upon us the moment a portion of my troops appeared on the ridge back of Falmouth. I immediately put a battery into position, and, I think, in not to exceed fifteen minutes, they drove every man on the other side from the guns, and they ran off and left four guns on the field.  My orders were to advance and hold Falmouth, not to cross.  But the temptation was so strong to go over and take those guns the enemy had left at one time I actually gave the order to cross the fort at all events and seize the guns and occupy the city.  But on reflection I concluded I was rather too old a soldier to disobey a direct order; and there was another reason too: I had had little too much experience on the peninsula of the consequence of getting astride of a river to risk it here.  For these two reasons I revoked my order that night.

That night I sent a note to General Burnside, who was some eight or ten miles distant, asking him if I should take Fredericksburg in the morning should I be able to find a practicable ford, which, by the way, I knew when I wrote the note that I could find.  The General replied, through his chief of staff, that he did not think it advisable to occupy Fredericksburg until his communications were established, and, on reflection, I myself thought that he was right; that it was prudent and proper to have bridges ready before we occupied Fredericksburg.  I think I could have taken that city and the heights on the other side of it any time within three days after my arrival here if the pontoons had been here, for I do not think there was much force of the enemy here up to that time.

Sumner continues to detail the delays moving supplies and pontoons from Acquia Landing (he mentions “creek” but is referring to the facilities at the landing) up to the positions at Falmouth, and the need to rebuild railroad lines.  Those words – “temptation”, “practicable”, “prudent”, and “proper” – are the sounds of a campaign reaching an unexpected pause.

Considering the actions of November 17, 1862, a lot of armchair generals will mention the need for momentum.  Some will conjure up the scene from the Patton movie where the general with his shiny helmet and riding crop berates a subordinate from across a river.  Yes, there’s a lot to be said about getting over the river.  But there’s also a lot to be said about STAYING over the river.

150 Years Ago: J.E.B. Stuart at Freeman’s Ford

After their retreat from the Culpeper County, elements of General John Pope’s Army of Virginia occupied crossing points on the Rappahannock River astride the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Several crossing points existed in the vicinity of Rappahannock Station (today’s Remington). One of those was Freeman’s Ford. Still smarting from the embarrassment from the Verdiersville raid, Confederate cavalryman General J.E.B. Stuart probed Freeman’s Ford some 150 years ago today:

On August 22 I moved early to Freeman’s Ford, on Rappahanock River, where I had a picket the night previous, to carry out instructions by effecting a crossing if possible. The ford was commanded by the enemy’s artillery and infantry, and four pieces of the Stuart Horse Artillery, under Captain Pelham, tried in vain to silence the enemy’s guns. Having advantage in position, he handled the enemy severely, though suffering casualties in his own battery. While this cannonading was going on General Jackson’s column passed just in my rear, going higher up….(OR, Series I, Volume 12, Part II, Serial 16, page 730).

Although he does not mention them by name, Stuart’s toopers and artillerists sparred with the independent brigade of General Robert Milroy at Freeman’s Ford. The action was inconsequential, but, as Stuart notes, did cover Jackson’s movements. More importantly, Stuart received additional instructions while engaged at Freeman’s Ford:

… I received a note from the commanding general that my proposition to strike with cavalry the enemy’s rear was approved, and at 10 a.m. I started to the execution of the plan with the main portion of Robertson’s brigade, except Seventh Virginia Cavalry (Jones’), and Lee’s brigade, except Third Virginia Cavalry–say about 1,500 men–and two pieces of artillery….

Stuart goes on to outline his route as he moved from the ford to through the town of Jefferson to Waterloo Bridge and Hart’s Mill; and then to Warrenton. Stuart’s map objective was the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, specifically Catlett’s Station. Of course another objective Stuart had in mind was revenge – for losing his hat and being surprised days earlier at Verdiersville.

Culpeper biosolids hearing today: Another threat to Brandy Station (and other battlefields)

UPDATE:  The Culpeper BOS voted down the biosolids facility, 5-1.

This issue has been on my radar for some time. From the looks of it, things will come to a head today. From the Culpeper Star-Exponent:

BOS to discuss biosolids, roads

The Culpeper County Board of Supervisors will hear remarks concerning a biosolids storage facility and will host a public hearing on the six-year secondary road plan during April’s meeting Tuesday.

At last month’s meeting, the BOS accepted a request by applicant Recyc Systems Inc. & Padlands LLC to delay voting on a permit to construct a storage yard for biosolids on 220 acres just West of the Rappahannock River in eastern Culpeper County.

The proposed storage facility has been met with rancor from the public and preservation groups, who point out the land proposed by Recyc Systems is where four core battlefields intersect.

Community members have circulated a petition asking the BOS to deny the permit.

“Everybody is really concerned about the quality of life,” local developer Bob Courier said recently. “This is so close to the river, this is so involved with the environment there. It’s the only place in the state of Virginia where four core battlefields overlap each other.”

The battles of Kelly’s Ford, Rappahannock Station one and two and Brandy Station took place on the land.

March marked the second time the BOS delayed a decision on the facility. In February they approved a motion by Recyc Systems to move a hearing on the biosolids facility until March.

Recyc Systems president Steve Foushee explained during a meeting in February that the facility will be properly contained and any odor would not permeate the air and that the facility was safe.

“Everything will be contained on the inside of the building,” said Foushee. He said that breathable screens on the open ends of the structure would help to mitigate the smell and prevent water or snow entering the facility. He conceded odors are strongest when the material is wet. Vice president, Susan Trumbo, emphasized that they followed stringent Department of Environmental Quality regulations, when designing…. (Read More)

In past months, the Culpeper BOS has, while tabling the issue, indicated reluctance to grant the permit. Most of the locals have come out against the facility. This should be a done deal and the threat to the battlefields… plural … averted. But until the votes are tallied, don’t assume anything. Thus far opponents of the biosolids facility have led with concerns about the smell and environmental hazards. But as seen from the article, those concerns may be easily dismissed. That leaves concerns for the historical integrity of the land as the main defense.

Troubling, but predictable, is the silence of Brandy Station Foundation (BSF) on this issue. Once again, if you browse the BSF website, there are all sorts of announcements about Graffiti House. Oh, and there is the annual dinner that several people you might know were un-invited from. Yet nothing on this threat to the battlefield (sorry… battlefields) which the foundation was organized to preserve. BSF’s president has attended the BOS meetings, and made a statement or two. But nothing bold enough to inspire closure to the issue. Then again, this is the same BSF board which believes “it is generally not productive to officially oppose common property improvements, particularly when those improvements are reversible.” In the past, BSF would be at the fore of issues like this. However in the wake of last year’s controversy at Fleetwood Hill, BSF’s reputation is tarnished.

A quick look at the ABPP study map shows why the area is so important, and sensitive.

Culpeper county Battlefields (Click to Enlarge)

Indeed, if Virginia was the “seat of the war” then Culpeper was right in the middle of that seat. The whole or parts of eight battles spanning from the summer of 1862 through the spring of 1864. Armies on five major campaigns traversed the county. The portions of the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac camped on that ground – for prolonged periods of time. There are soldiers still buried on those fields.

Over the last two or three decades, preservationists have fought to prevent the construction of a race track, major office complexes, and several smaller developments from destroying that ground. Although potentially not as damaging compared to the race track, the biosolids facility is a threat to battlefield preservation. At some point, sooner or later, one of these development threats will slip through. Unless….

Well unless those battlefields are formally protected. Although several small parts, mostly structures, inside those study areas are on state or national historic registers, none of the battlefields are officially designated today. In the past, political resistance and other roadblocks have prevented official recognition. Brandy Station was actually accepted on the list for a short time in the 1990s, but political pressure forced its removal. Portions of these battlefields are considered “eligible” for the National Register, due to the ABPP studies and pending applications. But that legal status is tenuous at best.

So why don’t we change that? Let’s put those battlefields on the National Register.  Call it a sesquicentennial initiative! And one that would ensure no future biosolids facility or office complex or race track is built over the sites of those eight battlefields.