The Affair at Morton’s Ford Conclusion

by Dan O'Connell on May 15, 2012 · 0 comments

Butler’s Raid

BG Isaac Wistar was ordered to advance to Bottom’s Bridge by 0300 on the 7th. Although he was given command of 6200 troops (4,000 infantry and 2.200 cavalry) he elected to begin his movement cautiously. An advanced “picked company”, under the command of CPT Hill, 1st New York Mounted Rifles, was assigned to subdue the Confederate pickets at New Kent, Baltimore Cross-Roads, and Bottom’s Bridge. The telegraph wires between Meadow Station and Richmond were also to be cut. Wistar held no illusions about the difficulty of the mission. He stated

“…of course the success of the enterprise was based on the sudden and noiseless approach”

to the defense at Bottom’s Bridge.

Unfortunately an intelligence leak about the plan had warned the Confederates of the impending raid. PVT William Boyle, 1st New York Mounted Rifles, had been convicted of the murder of one of his officers and was awaiting execution. President Lincoln, however, suspended all executions in Butler’s department. While waiting for suspension of the boycott Boyle had befriended one of his guards who allowed him to escape. Boyle made his way to Richmond and to secure good will told officials in the capital that “large numbers of cavalry and infantry were being concentrated….to take Richmond.”

When COL S. P. Spear, leading detachments from 5 separate regiments failed to capture the Confederate pickets at the second way point any hope of surprise was lost. Although they reached Bottom’s Bridge according to schedule they found the crossing to be defended beyond their expectations. Wistar described the situation at the bridge as follows;

“The bridge planks had been taken up, the fords both above and below effectually obstructed, extensive earth works and rifle pits, and strong force of troops brought down..”

After gathering his forces Wistar determined to test the defenses at the bridge. On the morning of the 7th Major Whelan “made a gallant but unsuccessful charge” down the causeway leading to the bridge. Whelan’s attackers were stopped by canister fired from the south side of the river. The episode claimed 9 casualties and 10 horses.

For the infantry the raid amounted to little more than four days of fruitless marching. After arriving about seven miles from the bridge they met the retreating cavalry column and were turned around. A total of 104 miles were marched in the four days of their involvement. A rear guard of 300 members of the 3rd New York Cavalry was overtaken and attacked at Baltimore Store. The effort was beaten back and the raid was ended before it even got started.

Butler immediately sought out scapegoats for the failure of his grandiose plan. He blamed the moratorium on executions for the intelligence that caused the defeat of Wistar’s column. Writing to the president he stated “that your clemency has been misplaced.”

Conclusion and Assessment

The demonstration at the Rapidan River fords was well done and accomplished the goal of grabbing the attention of the Confederate leadership there. It is fairly clear that the operation did little to change the status of the defense in Richmond as Butler supposed it would. Warren commenting on the affair in a letter to his wife bitterly claimed that he had “sacrificed 200 men to aid that fool (Butler).” An interesting and possibly unintended consequence of the demonstration was to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the Confederate defense of the Rapidan crossings. The information gathered here was put to good use at the start of the Overland Campaign three months later. The Federal offensive side stepped the most heavily defended portions of the Confederate line and gained fairly easy passage over the Rapidan River at Germanna and Ely’s Ford.

The concept behind Butler’s raid lacked credibility from the very beginning. He based his decision to attempt the raid on scanty intelligence. Why he thought a city that had been the target of tens of thousands of troops could suddenly be taken with 6,200 is difficult to understand. Beside depending too heavily on unverified intelligence Butler also made several errors when planning his raid.

– He failed to account for the possibility that his plan might be revealed by intelligence turned by the enemy. Secrecy should be a primary concern, especially when operating in enemy territory.

– He over estimated the possibility of a large column travelling through the same enemy territory advancing to the objective in a “sudden and noiseless approach.”

– The mix of troops was not a good match for a raid. The difference in the rate of advance between cavalry and infantry left a wide gap between the two forces. When the cavalry met entrenched enemy at Bottom’s Bridge the bulk of the combat power (infantry) was miles behind. It mattered little, however, since once resistance appeared the raid was effectively over.

The real issue here was acceptance of the plan in the first place. It certainly said more about Butler’s ability to use his political influence to gain sponsors for the idea than it did for his military acumen. As Stephen Starr commented about Butler in his history of Union cavalry operations;

“Benjamin Butler, whose ability to think up such schemes was exceeded only by his inability to execute them.”

The idea should have squashed at first mention but was not.

Morton's Ford (Campaign Series)

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