At Ease: Shall We Rally at the River
"Let Us Cross Over The River"
"Stonewall" Jackson's final words are usually associated with peace. Many of us find peaceful moments sitting by rivers or strolling within sound of moving water. However, most Civil War accounts involving rivers are less tranquil. Rivers offered an opportunity to control a transportation or supply route in some cases or simply an obstacle to moving troops in other situations. The later was the situation in Central Virginia, and rivers played a role in all major campaigns in the region. From the Rappahannock to the Rapidan, Po, Ni, Massaponax Creek, and other lesser streams, these bodies of water had to be bridged or forded for military operations to go forward. This week we've collected a little history and we're digging beyond "Burnside's infamous pontoon bridges" at Fredericksburg!
This week we collected 22 votes — one of the highest "turnout" ever in the history of the "At Ease" program. Thank you for sharing about your favorite river crossings in Central Virginia. In a surprising sweep, Kelly's Ford took first place. Germanna Ford came in second! And we've got more information below since your answers influence the week's feature.
U.S. Ford - New Video
It's one crossing point that didn't even make the voting list, so we've done some research and prepared a video about U.S. Ford and the Chancellorsville Campaign.
Though used as a crossing point in several military operations, Kelly's Ford might be most famous for the battle fought there on March 17, 1863. Early in March 1863, Confederate General Fitz Lee’s cavalry harassed Union outposts and camps along the Rappahanock River. This prompted Union General William Averell to strike back, taking approximately 2,100 troopers to attack Lee’s cavalry near Culpeper Court House. On March 17, the Union horsemen plunged into the chilly waters at Kelly’s Ford and made a difficult crossing through the fast-flowing river. Once across, Averell pushed his units inland from the ford into the open ground. He used a stonewall – sometimes called a “stone fence” – to anchor his line and provide a defensive position for some of his units while others poised to fight in the open ground beyond. Fitz Lee scrambled his troopers to the area and was soon joined by General J.E.B. Stuart who happened to be in Culpeper and rode out to observe and help direct the fight. Confederate horsemen discovered that the Union cavalry was fighting back, actually repulsing attacking units at the stonewall, making stands and counter-charges in the open ground, and eventually forcing the Southerners from the field in a counterattack. Though Fitz Lee and his cavalry “lived to fight another day,” Averell expressed satisfaction, declaring that one of his primary objectives had been accomplished. His troopers had stood and fought back – breaking the reputation that Union cavalry in the east always ran when confronted by Confederates. He correctly believed that this episode would boost the Union cavalry’s morale and battle-tested his own soldiers. (Excerpt from Sarah Bierle's article on Emerging Civil War. Used with permission)
One of the most historic moments in the Civil War connected to Germanna Ford on the Rapidan River occurred at the opening of the Overland Campaign in 1864. The majority of the Union army crossed here on May 4-5, and part of the crossing was photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.
Library of Congress
Theodore Lyman, who served on General Meade's staff, wrote about the crossing scene on May 4, 1864:
"By 8 A.M. we drew near the Ford, and halted at a familiar spot, where we had our camp on the Mine Run campaign. How bitterly cold it was then! And now there was green grass all about, and wild flowers. Griffin's division was already over, and the others were following steadily on. At 9:30 we went over ourselves, and, fro a long time, I sat on the high bank, some seventy feet above the river, watching the steady stream of men and cannon and trains pouring over the pontoons. It was towards six in the evening before the last were across; and then one bridge was left for Burnside to cross by...."
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.