The Affair at Morton’s Ford Part 1

by Dan O'Connell on May 10, 2012 · 0 comments


In the introduction of the opening volume of his fabulous set of works on the Overland Campaign, Gordon Rhea mentions the fight at Morton’s Ford. The brief description of the fight there sparked my curiosity and I thought it would be interesting to look into it further. This short post will describe the action at Morton’s Ford and the other crossings of the Rapidan River during the month of February 1864 and their relevance to a simultaneous operation planned by MG Benjamin Butler against the Confederate capital.

On February 2, 1864 BG Innis Palmer reported to MG Benjamin Butler that his forces in the vicinity of New Berne, North Carolina were being attacked along his outer defense by 15,000 Confederate soldiers (Butler lowered the estimate to 8,000 in his correspondence) from Hoke’s Brigade and Pickett’s Division. Butler saw an opportunity in the problems of his subordinate. The next day he telegraphed MG Henry Halleck with a proposal to attack Richmond. Butler believed that the high operational tempo of the enemy forces and demands for their dwindling forces everywhere left the city vulnerable to such an attempt. Butler wanted a coordinated attack along the Rapidan defenses to alleviate pressure on Palmer and further deplete the defenses in the Confederate capital. He stated in a wire to Secretary of War Henry Stanton that;

“Now is the time, if ever, for Meade to move; the roads are practicable. This will relieve North Carolina at once and leave a movement for me which I spoke to you.”

Earlier discussions concerning a raid into Richmond had resulted in nothing but Butler was now armed with more intelligence. Claiming information contained in “a cipher letter to me from a lady in Richmond” exposed weakness in the capital defenses he demanded support for a move that would include 2,000 cavalry, 4,000 infantry, and two batteries of artillery. Stanton delayed the proposed action by responding that Meade was sick and the matter had to be referred to MG Halleck for consideration. After a brief consideration Halleck sent a telegram to MG John Sedgwick, stepping in for the ill Meade, on February 5th ordering him to give Butler:

“…such cooperation as you can and communicate directly with him.”

Sedgwick reluctantly acknowledged the order but warned that a flanking maneuver was out of the question due to the “present condition of the roads and the state of the weather.” He also forewarned the General in Chief that a demonstration in his front would hinder future operations there by causing a higher state of alert among the Confederate defenders. Nevertheless, Sedgwick issued a nine part circular order for the movement. Summarized the order required the following:

1. Cavalry
Merritt’s Division, with at least one battery, to move to Barrett’s Ford on the Rapidan.
Kilpatrick’s Division, with at least one battery, to move to Culpeper Ford.
Both would make demonstrations through February 7th and into the morning of the 8th, The artillery was not to cross the river.

2. I Corps
Newton’s Corps to move to Raccoon Ford, with three batteries, to make demonstrations through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Return to their former position Monday night.

3. II Corps
Warren’s Corps to move to Morton’s Ford and conduct operations similar to I Corps.

4. Three Days rations to be carried and only such ambulances and light wagons as absolutely necessary be brought along.

5. All remaining artillery, ammunition wagons and ambulances ready to move at a moments notice.

6, No change would be made to existing picket lines and strong guards to be posted on camps and trains.

7. III Corps and VI Corps to be prepared to lend support as required.

8. Corps and cavalry commanders to maintain prompt communication with headquarters.

9.Operations to begin at 0700 on February 6th.

At Fortress Monroe, Butler was also formulating his plan. A new wrinkle developed when the “cipher letter” revealed that Federal prisoners in Richmond were to be transferred to Georgia. He declared that “now, or never, is the time to strike”. Included in his dash for Richmond would be an effort to “rescue our friends.” BG Isaac Wistar’s cavalry was ordered to lead the way.

Wistar also issued a detailed set of instructions;
– Co F 1st New York Mounted rifles to form the advance and seize Bottom’s Bridge “without firing, if possible.”
– 100 men from the 1st District of Columbia cavalry to secure the bridge for the follow o0n infantry force.
– The column was to bypass 250 men of Holcombe’s Legion (CSA) and Battery No. 2 without engagement.
– 3rd New York Cavalry to attend to Libby Prison and liberate the prisoners and then burn Mayo’s Bridge.
– 250 members of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry, under Major Stratton, to destroy the Navy Yard.
– 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry to destroy Tredegar Iron Works.
– The remainder of the 1st New York Mounted Rifles to move to the Jefferson Davis residence at 12th and Marshall Streets in an effort to capture the Confederate president.
– It was an incredibly ambitious and somewhat unrealistic plan but the orders were issued and the simultaneous operations were set to begin.

Morton's Ford (Campaign Series)

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