Following a last briefing with Gen. Joseph Hooker on April 11, George Stoneman “issued orders for the whole Corps to be in readiness to move at daylight on…April 13, leaving by direction one brigade behind for duty with the Army.” Col. Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis, a meticulous planner, left little to chance. Knowing the pack trains were about to be tested for the first time on campaign he issued the following on April 12:
“The pack mules will be assigned as follows – one to each company for the use of company officers, one to each field officer, one to each two staff officers, one wagon will be turned over to the hospital and the other will carry the regimental and company records and the tents belonging to Regimental Head Quarters.” (One regiment in the brigade, the 3rd [West] Virginia had still not received any packmules, and continued to use wagons).
“Three days’ rations and three days’ forage will be carried on the horses and two days rations and a day and a half’s forage on the pack mules. Regimental commanders will hold their Quartermaster responsible that great care is used in packing. The Quartermasters will supervise the packing themselves…”
The cavalry expedition was a crucial component of Hooker’s ambitious plan. “Moments of delay will be hours and days,” Hooker warned as he sent Stoneman off with a rousing, though rather blood-thirsty, pep-talk. “Let your watchword be fight, and let all your orders be fight, fight, fight, bearing in mind that time is as valuable…as the rebel carcasses.” Hooker then closed with what might have been a subtle threat: “It devolves upon you, general, to take the initiative in the forward movement of this grand army, and on you and your noble command must depend in great measure the extent and brilliancy of our success. Bear in mind that celerity, audacity, and resolution are everything in war, and especially is it with the command you have and the enterprise upon which you are to embark.”
Hooker’s expectations, for a quick sprint by his cavalry across the Rappahannock and a decisive move against Lee’s supply lines, were dashed at the outset. Stoneman took two days to reach the river. Expecting to cross on the morning of April 15, the troopers gazed skyward as the heavens “suddenly became overcast, the darkness almost subterranean, and the rain began to fall, and, of course, our bright hopes and high expectations, than which no command ever started with brighter or higher, began to be dimmed and lowered.” The cavalry would remain penned along the river until April 29.
As Hooker watched his plans fall apart, he grew angrier and more frustrated by the day. He prodded, cajoled and goaded Stoneman, as he, in turn, was questioned by President Abraham Lincoln. “I greatly fear it is another failure already,” complained the President. Frustrated though he was, Hooker tried to run interference for his cavalry chief. Stoneman’s “failure to accomplish speedily the objects of his expedition is a source of deep regret to me,” Hooker told Lincoln, “but I can find nothing in his conduct of it requiring my animadversion or censure. We cannot control the elements.”
As the dreary, damp, days along the river grew into weeks, rations dwindled and re-supply became an issue. Stoneman had carried both wagons and packmules to the river. That he had taken as many as 275 supply wagons infuriated Hooker, but the contents of these wagons were to be consumed first, and the empty wagons sent back before crossing the river. The supplies carried by the mules were expected to ration the men for only a few days after crossing the river, at which time the mules were to be sent back and the men would forage off the land for the remainder of the raid. But now, hobbled as they were along the river, the men were rapidly consuming those supplies and going nowhere. Stoneman’s decision to take any wagons along became a point of contention with Hooker, if for no other reason than the time and expense invested in establishing the pack train experiment.
Yet, as Lincoln, Hooker and Stoneman traded increasingly angry missives, one foul-up went largely unreported. And, as the unremitting rains gave everyone a bit of cover, there may have been an effort to keep that foul-up buried from the record.
On April 17, Lt. William Redwood, Ordnance Officer for Averell’s 2nd Cavalry Division sent the following telegram to Capt. Daniel Flagler, Ordnance Officer, Army of the Potomac:
“The ammunition of this command was nearly all damaged by the rain. I was ordered by Gen. Stoneman to procure more with instructions to be back by [noon] tomorrow. Can’t you telegraph Lt. [John] Edie to send me by special train or first morning train 30,000 rounds Sharps carbine ammunition, cal. 52 and 30,000 rounds Colt’s Army Johnson & Don pistol cartridges, cal. 46 to Potomac Station…PS – 30,000 carbine caps”
Lieutenant Edie, at the Aquia Depot, then had the unpleasant task of wiring Col. George Ramsay, commanding the Washington Arsenal. But Edie minimized the extent of the loss in his message to Ramsay, as some of the lost ammunition could be replaced from stocks on hand at Aquia. “All the pistol ammunition with Gen Stoneman is damaged by rain,” Edie told Ramsay, ignoring the lost carbine ammunition. “Can you send me for his immediate use per mail or special boat 300,000 rounds at least of Colt’s Army pistol cartridges? I have received a telegram that it is required immediately and I have none fit to send on hand.”
Ramsay promised to send the revolver cartridges “by this morning’s mail boat.” Ramsay also made his superior, Gen. James Ripley, Chief of the Ordnance Department, aware of the problem. “I received at 2 A.M. this morning a telegram from Lt. Edie stating that all of Stoneman’s pistol cartridges for Colt’s had been destroyed by the rain and required 300,000 at once. These I sent to him… this morning. I am now without any…”
At the same time Captain Flagler, at Hooker’s headquarters, was demanding an explanation from Averell’s ordnance officer: “Write and explain to me how your ammunition was destroyed. Is it impracticable to protect it from the weather when packed on mules?” When questioned by General Ripley, Flagler responded, “The ammunition was packed on mules and not properly protected. I have sent for a report of circumstances but it has not yet arrived.”
While Stoneman needed more than just pistol cartridges, the officers may have focused their attention on the handgun ammunition due, at least in part, to another problem. On April 15, Edie had advised Flagler, “All the army’s pistol ammunition on hand is that manufactured by [A. V. Barkalow]. A large quantity of this has today been turned in, and all is reported unserviceable. The ordnance officer of the 1st Cavalry Division states that he is without a round in reserve. Will you telegraph to Washington for some to come by mail boat tomorrow?” Thus, the quartermaster at the massive depot at Aquia Landing, the nearest supply point for Stoneman’s command, was unable to send pistol ammunition to the Cavalry Corps. Captain Flagler notified Ripley the same day; “Please send 50,000 cartridges for Colt’s Army pistol to Lt Edie…by mail boat tomorrow morning. A considerable quantity of the [Barkalow] cartridges, which is the only kind on hand at the depot, has been condemned. The Commanding General will not receive them.” This shortage at the Aquia Depot may explain why Lieutenant Edie asked for 300,000 rounds, when Averell’s ordnance officer had only requested 30,000 rounds.
Another problem was discovered two days later – “Schenkl [percussion] shells not filled with powder.” From located records, this problem only applied to one battery, Lt. Joseph Martin’s 6th New York Light Artillery. Martin’s battery was not with Stoneman, but Flagler, with the army, needed to know if all of the Schenkl ammunition at the depot was possibly defective. “Have you a large supply that are not charged or was this a mistake at the arsenal,” he asked Edie. All of the ammunition had to be examined. Battery commanders also found some of the ammunition crates improperly marked. As Edie explained to Flagler, “I have examined a number of boxes of 3-inch percussion shells (Schenkls) and find all the shells filled. Some of the boxes are marked not filled but are filled never the less.”
Lieutenant Edie forwarded to Averell “300,000 Sharps carbine cartridges & 300,000 carbine caps,” on April 18. He also advised Flagler that “300,000 army pistol cartridges” were en route to Aquia, and “will be here by noon.” Still, much of the re-supply was not shipped until April 23 or later. “100,000 Sharp’s carbine and [10,000] Smith’s carbine cartridges were forwarded to Gen. Stoneman,” early on the twenty-third, but the cavalry was still awaiting 50,000 pistol cartridges the following day. When this ammunition was shipped, and if it reached Stoneman prior to his finally crossing the Rappahannock, is unrecorded. The quantities of ammunition shipped to Stoneman are much larger than those initially requested, and suggest the reserve ammunition supply for the entire Cavalry Corps may have been compromised.
To be clear, the continuing rain, not the loss of the ammunition, kept the cavalry corralled along the river. But the weather, which was beyond everyone’s control, also provided cover for the negligence that led to the loss of Averell’s entire stock of reserve ammunition. With a ready excuse at hand for his delays, Stoneman apparently thought it best to bury the matter. But for a few stray telegrams the matter may have stayed buried.
Following the campaign, Lt. Col. Charles Sawtelle, the quartermaster assigned to the Cavalry Corps wrote an extensive report, in which he explained in great detail why he thought the packmule experiment should be discontinued. At no point, however, does Sawtelle mention the loss of the ammunition. Likewise, Ingalls, who had specifically addressed the protection of ammunition in his order of March 19, and later vouched for the feasibility of carrying ammunition on packmules, was questioned by his superior, Montgomery Meigs. He also opted to let the matter rest.
Joseph Hooker and Alfred Pleasonton never mentioned the ammunition issue in writing either, but they must have had knowledge of the problem. When Hooker opted to pin much of the blame for the failure of his campaign on George Stoneman, the destruction of the ammunition may have lingered in his mind.
A week before departing on the raid, William Averell had written to his sister, expressing his belief that both his position and reputation in the army were secure. “In the course of some twenty years I have had some steep hills to climb. There is no man of my position in the army who has had so much to contend against – My youth, want of influential friends and wealth have conspired against me, but I believe I am now a few lengths ahead of all competitors – and am not at the end yet… notwithstanding the efforts of my rivals and enemies I manage to row my own boat.”
If Averell was confident of his position, Hooker was not. Averell’s cavalry had been badly surprised at Hartwood Church in November, and again in February. And, for all the praise heaped on the Union cavalry after Kelly’s Ford in March, Hooker had been less than enthralled with Averell’s efforts. Now, in the wake of the failed campaign, the cavalry took a large share of the blame. Averell’s lack of initiative on the raid infuriated Hooker, and he relieved the cavalryman on May 4. Hooker offered several reasons for his decision, but he did not cite the ammunition fiasco. Still, Averell’s division is the only command known for certain to have been affected by the negligence, and Hooker must have been aware of the problem, as Captain Flagler worked directly for Hooker. Thus, though Hooker never said so for the record, the loss of the ammunition may have been contributing factor in his decision to relieve Averell.
The pack train experiment was never entirely done away with. On May 30, 1863, eight days after Pleasonton replaced Stoneman, Colonel Sawtelle advised the cavalry division commanders, “The commanding general directs that you…retain with the Division two pack mules to each company. Send all the [surplus] pack mules to Falmouth to be put into wagons. All surplus pack saddles will be turned in at Falmouth Depot.” The use of packmules in the Army of the Potomac waxed and waned throughout the remainder of the war, but the animals never replaced the army wagon.
The Official Records
Edward Tobie, History of the First Maine Cavalry
Frederic Denison, Sabres and Spurs: The First Rhode Island Cavalry
Numerous unpublished documents and communications from the National Archives