Along the Rapidan
The first significant action of the campaign occurred at the Rapidan River as Meade attempted to gauge the strength and disposition of Lee’s forces. On the morning of 10 October Buford moved his men to Germanna Ford. The enemies pickets there, comprised of 110 men from the 1st Maryland Battalion stretched from “Mitchell’s to Germanna Fords”, were easily overpowered by the lead regiment of Buford’s advance, the 8th New York Cavalry. He was in possession of the ford by 1300 and moved his division, two brigades of cavalry and two batteries, across the river. As he turned west toward Morton’s Ford he encountered the 5th Virginia cavalry who conducted a delaying action while the rest of the brigade could be brought up by BG Lunsford Lomax. The Confederate cavalry dismounted and manned some old entrenchments guarding Morton’s Ford along with two infantry regiments. With darkness the two sides bivouacked for the night. The following morning Buford opened on the Confederate position with two pieces of artillery. Lomax was reinforced by the arrival of Colonel Chambliss and an artillery piece from Chew’s Battery. Gunner George Neese recalled a “spirited fight” as they swapped fire with the Union pieces at about 1000 yards. Lomax then “advanced the whole line” against Buford’s men.
While battling the Confederate troopers for the ford Buford reports that he received “…instructions, of old date, for me not to cross the Rapidan at all, but to return and recross the Rappahannock at the station, or Kelly’s”.* With these new orders in hand and no sign of I Corps Buford abandoned the fight and began recrossing the river. This operation became a race against an aggressive enemy movement. As the fight at Morton’s Ford was developing MG Fitzhugh Lee crossed the river upstream at Raccoon Ford with Wickham’s brigade (commanded by Col H.T. Owen) in an effort to cut off the Federal escape route. Buford became aware of the effort and his lead brigade (Chapman) , that had already completed the crossing, was “sent to check them.”
Chapman dismounted his men and awaited the arrival of Owen’s column. The 8th Illinois reported that it “held their fire until the head of the column was almost upon them, when they opened a fire the column seemed to melt away.” Colonel Owen reports that the order to attack was rescinded at the last moment but in executing the maneuver in the face of the enemy “some disorder ensued.” Owen dismounted a portion of the 1st and 3rd Virginia to support the artillery (Breathed’s Battery) while the rest remained in the saddle “with drawn sabers.”The Federal troopers attempted an effort at the Confederate artillery but were driven off by canister delivered at “short range”. They reformed in an open field where they were attacked by the saber wielding 4th Virginia. They “emptied many a rebel saddle” including those of the regimental commander, Captain William Newton and company commander Captain Williams. The Confederates regrouped and by combined attacks of three regiments (2nd VA, 3rd VA, and 4th VA) finally forced Chapman to retire. Their delaying action here allowed Devin’s Brigade to complete their crossing.
The extrication of Devin’s Brigade was no simple matter. He was also trying to conduct one of the most difficult military actions, retrograde while in contact with a natural obstacle in his path. Being “sorely pressed” he finally accomplished the crossing by “frequent dashing and telling charges” and strong artillery support from the far side of the river. Captain Seymour Conger, in command of two companies (A and C) of the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry “by his courage and hard fighting won the admiration of all.” Buford’s command was saved and protected the retreating trains at Stevensburg before beginning the long withdraw to the Rappahannock River. It was also very clear that Lee was not retreating. The campaign began to identify itself.
* Early actions by Lee removed the Richmond move as a probable course of action so Meade countermanded the order for MG John Newton’s I Corps. Buford’s orders did not arrive until his move across the river was complete. The change in plan left him alone south of the Rapidan.
The primary Confederate move began on the morning of 10 October when the Lee’s infantry moved off in parallel columns to the northeast with Funsten’s (Jones’) Brigade of cavalry in the lead. In an effort to “occupy the enemy’s attention” away from that movement MG J.E.B. Stuart crossed the Robertson River at Russell Ford and moved on James City with BG James Gordon’s brigade and COL Pierce Young, commanding Butler’s Brigade. The Union pickets at the crossing were pushed back by the advance guard from the 4th North Carolina Cavalry and fell back on their support at Bethsaida Church. To challenge the new position Stuart dismounted Gordon’s brigade and pressed through the forest while Young’s mounted men maneuvered around to strike the Union right flank.
Colonel J.D. Twiggs, commanding the 1st South Carolina Cavalry (Young’s Brigade), eventually gained an advantageous position and charged down on the flank and rear of the Federal line. The shock of the attack broke the Union line with “nearly every man being either killed or captured.” With the advance gone the Confederate troopers moved forward against the main enemy position. At James City BG Judson Kilpatrick with two brigades of cavalry and BG Henry Prince’s infantry division in support drew up a line at Bethel Church. Also on hand were six artillery pieces “judiciously posted.” Stuart evaluated the Union position and decided an attack would be unwise. He called up two pieces of artillery and formed a line and began an artillery duel with the Union guns.
At about 1600 Kilpatrick grew impatient with the stand-off and made an effort at the enemy artillery. This attack was conducted by one battalion of the 5th Michigan Cavalry of BG George Custer’s brigade. Custer described the effort as “daring in the extreme.” It was beaten back by the 150 members of the 1st South Carolina Cavalry who had been posted behind a stone wall to support the guns. Custer reported that the assault “failed for want of sufficient support” but caused the guns to be moved to “a more retired point.” The artillery and pickets continued to exchange fire until nightfall. Stuart noted that he felt “regret” that the village of James City, which was caught between the opposing forces, should be subjected to “sufferings” but the “peculiarity of the ground” made it unavoidable. Gradually the two sides settled into bivouac for the night.
Stuart’s diversionary operation here, intended to disguise the main column movements, actually had the opposite effect. The movement across the river confirmed in Meade’s mind that Lee was advancing. By eliminating the possibility of a move toward Richmond Meade was now free to react to what he supposed to be a repeat of the 1862 move against Pope. Operating under the edict that Washington and Baltimore should not be uncovered he immediately began to issue orders for the movement of his forces. Late on the 10th Meade issued a Circular Order for the retreat behind the Rappahannock River. This would allow him to satisfy the defensive edict and protect the railroad. The order included the following instructions;
1. III Corps move to ford of Hazel River and then to the Rappahannock to cover Freeman’s Ford.
2. II Corps to Rappahannock Station and then extend the line from Freeman’s Ford to cover Beverly Ford.
3. VI Corps to Rappahannock Station and then cover Kelly’s Ford
4. V Corps to Rappahannock Station and then extend to connect with II Corps at Beverly Ford.
5. I Corps to Kelly’s Ford cross the Rappahannock and connect with VI Corps.
Coordinating instructions would commence the movements of II, VI, and I corps at 0300. V and III corps along with the cavalry would provide the covering force and would not move until the roads were clear behind them. The race for position between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia had begun.Bristoe Station (Campaign Series)