In mid-December 1863, just as Jeb Stuart’s troopers thought they were heading into winter quarters, Union general William Averell launched a raid against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Another Union force targeted the town of Saunton, Virginia. The Southern troops in the Upper Shenandoah Valley were outnumbered, and in danger of being overwhelmed. In an effort to aid the beleaguered soldiers Gen. Robert E. Lee sent cavalry from the Army of Northern Virginia, to include the cavalry brigade led by Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser.
Rosser’s men, including the 7th and 11th Virginia Cavalry, departed from their camps at Hamilton’s Crossing, near Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 16, and headed north. His orders were to enter the Shenandoah Valley in Averell’s rear and prevent his escape. If Rosser wrote a report of his actions and those of his men over the next few days that account has been lost. He did, however, write an account for publication in 1884. “I received [Lee’s orders] about noon,” Rosser explained, “and as the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg could only be forded at low tide I assembled my command…and waited for the tide to run out.” By dark the water was still running high but Rosser led his men across with “only the smallest horses swimming.” With five days’ rations and but few encumbrances, the troopers moved quickly into Prince William County, enduring a driving rain and temperatures barely above freezing. Traversing ground that he had covered several times in the last year, Rosser reached the Wolf Run Shoals crossing of the Occoquan River near dark on December 17. The river was “rising rapidly,” and the rain was still falling in torrents.
Rosser was anxious to cross the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad “without delay and to hurry on to the Shenandoah [River] before it should be unfordable.” Striking north into Fairfax County, he “procured a guide” in an effort to travel across country in the dark and to avoid Union patrols. The guide is believed to have been William Simpson Kincheloe, who, along with his brother James Cornelius Kincheloe, was a member of the 15th Virginia Cavalry. Residents of Fairfax County, the Kincheloes were intimately familiar with the area and had harassed Union troops in the western part of the county for much of the war. The miserable conditions soon forced Rosser to abandon this plan, however, and to strike “for Sangster’s Station, where,” he reported, “I knew the enemy had a small force guarding the railroad bridges near that station.” Approaching the railroad in the dark he found his path blocked by Pope’s Head Creek, and no sign of an easy crossing point. Just across the raging stream was what Rosser described as a “stockade.”
The Orange & Alexandria Railroad was a vital Union supply line for much of the war. As such it was a natural target, and large sections of the track had been destroyed on more than one occasion by Southern troops. In an effort to prevent further destruction, the line was guarded by both infantry and cavalry throughout the first half of 1863, until the armies moved out of Virginia in June. By late July the battered armies had re-established their lines along the Rappahannock River, and the Federals again took measures to secure the line against enemy incursion.
Union troops and construction crews had begun building log blockhouses along the tracks, especially near vital bridge crossings, the previous year. On May 19, 1862, Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth, commanding the District of Washington, ordered Col. Richard Butler Price, 2nd Pennsylvania Cavalry, to begin construction. “You will guard the railroad from Sangster’s Station to Bristoe and the Manassas Gap road to Gainesville,” Wadsworth instructed. “On both roads you will erect block houses for protection against cavalry at bridges and points where you station squads of men.”
In late November 1862, Rebel cavalry was reported to have been seen near at least one of the bridges across Bull Run, prompting another directive. Brig. Gen. Carl Schurz believed the best means of securing the stream was “to block up the fords with trees, except one, and to build near the one to be left open a blockhouse for infantry.”
When the line was re-opened in the spring, the security forces were again ordered to erect blockhouses. On April 23, 1863 Brig. Gen. John Abercrombie, commanding an infantry division, with headquarters at Centreville, was told to construct “one or two Block Houses” at Bristoe Station. Just one week later Abercrombie reported one of the houses completed and the second one finished “with the exception of the roof.” In early May, Abercrombie was encouraged to erect additional blockhouses as far south as Rappahannock Station. Railroad flatcars were soon hauling logs and timbers, with which to build the structures, in addition to food, forage and ammunition for the army. By mid-month Abercrombie reported the blockhouses at Kettle Run were nearing completion and were already “properly pierced” with loopholes for rifleman. Additional structures were going up at Catlett’s Station, Warrenton Junction and Bealton. One month later, construction began on blockhouses near the railroad bridges on the outskirts of Alexandria.
Construction came to a halt within a matter of days, however, as the troops began marching north toward Pennsylvania. By October an emphasis was again placed on finishing the buildings, in part because of the increasing threat from guerrilla bands led by John Mosby and James Kincheloe. On October 29, a detail of ten carpenters was sent out from Alexandria to finish the blockhouses guarding Bull Run Bridge. Still, several of the structures remained unfinished in mid-December.
Tom Rosser must have known he was risking a fight, and delaying, if not endangering, his mission in the Shenandoah Valley, when he opted to cross the railroad at Sangster’s Station – a post he knew to be guarded. As he struggled to see the buildings in the “extreme dark,” and “in the midst of the terrible storm then raging,” he may have questioned his decision. But that is doubtful, for, if anything, Tom Rosser was a fighter. The alert Federals, infantry from Company I, 155th New York, immediately gave him all the fight he wanted. “The enemy had discovered us before we reached the stream,” he later explained, “and a challenge and a shot from a sentinel on duty at the stockade warned me that I had no time to examine the ford, but should act quickly.”
Col. Richard Henry Dulany’s 7th Virginia Cavalry had led Rosser’s column throughout the day, and Rosser now ordered Dulany to “attack the stockade.” Searching for a fording point in the dark bred confusion, however, and only Capt. Daniel Hatcher’s squadron actually crossed the “angry-looking stream.” J. L. Williams, 11th Virginia Cavalry, credited Dulany’s men with driving in the Union pickets, but then stated, “I cannot tell why or how the Seventh regiment was driven back, but back they came.” Dulany’s return left Hatcher’s men unsupported and still engaged on the other side of the stream.
Rosser then ordered the 11th Virginia, led by Lt. Col. Mottrom Ball, “to Hatcher’s assistance.” As Capt. William McDonald described in his history of the Laurel Brigade, the men in close column “moved steadily across the roaring creek, guided by the lightning flashes and bursts of flame that came from the foe’s receiving volleys.” Rosser also remembered the drama of the moment. “[Although] the enemy was…pouring sheet after sheet of fire into Ball’s column, the gallant old regiment went surging through the water and in a moment was up the hill on the other side and the stockade was ours.” This may have been a bit of postwar hyperbole on Rosser’s part, however.
Williams, also writing postwar, and speaking of the death of Capt. Mordecai Cartmell, referred to “the first charge” made by the 11th Virginia, implying the regiment assaulted the stockade more than once. Cartmell, who had three horses killed under him at Brandy Station in June and who had again earned the “admiration” of his men at Upperville later the same month, was killed instantly by a bullet in his chest. Williams, a member of Cartmell’s Company B, was shot at the same time, the bullet passing “just above the vest pocket on the right side.” As the Virginians neared the railroad tracks, which by one account lay beyond the blockhouse, a bullet struck and mortally wounded David Van Meter. Lt. James Daugherty and Joseph Heiskell were also wounded, as was Isaac Hulver, who had been wounded at Upperville on June 21. All of the casualties were from Company B.
“The intelligence, valor, and promptness displayed by Col. M. D. Ball and Captain Hatcher on this occasion saved me a great deal of trouble,” Rosser recalled, “and placed these two officers very high upon the roll of merit in my estimation.” Williams later described how Capt. Cartmell’s body was strapped to a horse and later “buried on the banks of the Shenandoah” River. Williams accompanied the column as far as the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he was left in the care of a family named Halsey. Daniel Van Meter was left with a family near Sangster’s Station, where he died the following day.
The Virginians captured as many as nine men from Company I, 155th New York Infantry, and wounded four. Eight of the prisoners died at Andersonville Prison. Trophies of the skirmish included a silver bugle, which Rosser presented to Captain Hatcher’s squadron, and the regimental standard of the 164th New York Infantry, given to Lt. Col. Ball and the 11th Virginia Cavalry.
With prisoners and property secured, the men, tired, cold and wet, mounted and headed west to Upperville, where Rosser allowed them a few hours rest, before continuing the march to the Shenandoah Valley. Rosser found the Shenandoah River spilling over its banks, and he was now consumed with insuring that his men did not soon become prisoners themselves. “I knew that my affair at Sangster’s had aroused the enemy at Culpeper and I expected him close upon my heels in pursuit, and here I halted on the banks of an impassable river, with my brigade hungry, bedrenched and weary.”
Those fears were long since relieved, however, when, on Christmas Eve, Rosser took a moment to write a letter to his wife, Betty. “It has been a long time since we parted and I have had a very disagreeable time, I passed around [Meade’s] Army, destroying the RR Bridge at Sangster’s Station, where I had quite a warm fight, captured a number of prisoners and a [regimental] flag, which is perfectly beautiful.”