As I prepared my last post describing Union attempts to burn the Waterloo Bridge, I was also reading Seizing Destiny, The Army of the Potomac’s “Valley Forge” and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union, by Albert Conner Jr., and Chris Mackowski. One of the first offensive operations described by the authors is the Union attempt to destroy the railroad bridge at Rappahannock Station in early February 1863. As Conner and Mackowski concluded, “Full details of the expedition remain a mystery,” but several intriguing documents rest in the National Archives which help to peel away a bit of that mystery.
The genesis of the operation lay in a faulty intelligence report, in which a Union patrol reported a pontoon bridge under construction near the Orange and Alexandria Railroad Bridge at Rappahannock Station (modern Remington). Brig. Gen. Julius Stahel, commanding the Eleventh Corps, passed the information on to army headquarters on February 3. Stahel provided specifics as to the identity of the Confederate units along the river, but little information as to the identity of the Union scouting party, beyond naming “a good scout” named Hogan. Authors Conner and Mackowski believe this man may have been Pvt. Thomas Hogan, 9th New York Cavalry, but I believe Pvt. Martin Hogan, 1st Indiana Cavalry, to be a more likely choice. Martin Hogan, as historian Edwin Fishel has noted, was a favorite scout of Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, commander of the Grand Reserve Division, which included Stahel’s Eleventh Corps.
Though Stahel does not identify the troops who accompanied Hogan, he does mention they “left Allcock’s.” The Alcock property (the name was often misspelled), above Hartwood Church, was, briefly, the headquarters of Col. Louis Di Cesnola. Colonel Di Cesnola commanded a cavalry brigade of five regiments, the 1st Maryland, 4th and 9th New York, 6th Ohio and 17th Pennsylvania. The February 2 patrol could have included men from any of these regiments, though the most likely candidates are the 4th and 9th New York; the least likely being the 17th Pennsylvania as it was detached well to the north and east.
The presence of a pontoon bridge constructed by the enemy at Rappahannock Station represented a threat to the Army of the Potomac that Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker could not ignore. Reacting quickly, Hooker ordered, on February 4, a strong cavalry force of three regiments and a battery of artillery, led by Col. John McIntosh, to destroy both the pontoon bridge and the railroad bridge, as well as track on both sides of the river. Hooker also directed Maj. Gen. George Meade, commander of the Fifth Corps, to take overall command of the expedition, and to provide strong infantry support to the horse soldiers.
Colonel Di Cesnola had his own concerns, and he ordered a follow-up reconnaissance, on the third, to confirm the report from the previous day. This patrol, led by Capt. Timothy Hanley, 9th New York Cavalry, determined the Confederates had not and were not constructing a pontoon bridge. Hanley believed the activity observed the previous day to have been a construction crew repairing the railroad bridge. General Stahel, Di Cesnola’s immediate superior, forwarded the colonel’s report to Sigel the following day, February 4.
Colonel Di Cesnola had, almost certainly, taken the initiative to send out the second patrol on his own accord. The colonel was a Sardinian, and his unpublished report of February 3 to Stahel, including his broken English, reads as follows:
“I…report that this morning at daybreak Capt. [Timothy] Hanley 9th N.Y. was sent with 100 men to Rappahannock Station via Morrisville P.O. in order to ascertain more positively the rebel’s intentions at that point. He crossed the Orange & Alexandria Railroad between Rappahannock Station & Bealton Station and pushed further up about two miles. The pontoon bridge so distinctly seen by the other reconnoitering party it seems was nothing but some working parties probably repairing the railroad bridge which crosses the river there, they had probably some large boat working on it & [this] was taken for a pontoon bridge. I am sorry to see always exaggeration even in those officers whom I consider here among the best. Capt. Hanley fired at the pickets on the other side of the river & as soon as they saw our troops approaching they went into their rifle pits & began to fire at us.
He brought in two men (a Negro & an Irishman) the latter although with a certificate of having taken the oath of allegiance is wearing pantaloons, shirt, boots & even hat belonging to our men. I questioned him closely and as he is living between Rappahannock [Station] & Bealton [Station] and could give information to the enemy I concluded best to send them both to your headquarters. Now the roads begin to be better & if I had one thousand of good horses I could make a splendid raid and successful too beginning from Catlett [Station] down to Richard’s Ford crossing at Rappahannock Station & recrossing at Richard or Kelly’s Ford. But my horses are plaid out most of them. Six horses died on the road today but five were captured near the river this morning so makes [us] nearly even.”
Stahel copied most of the colonel’s first paragraph nearly word for word and then forwarded the report to his superiors. Stahel’s report was published in the Official Records, while the colonel’s report was not printed. By including the sentence, “I am sorry to see exaggerations sometimes even by those officers whom I consider among the best,” Stahel may give the reader the impression he was denigrating Di Cesnola. But as can be seen Stahel merely parroted that comment from Di Cesnola, who was referring to the unnamed officer who led the February 2 reconnaissance.
Neither Hooker’s mission orders to General Meade, on February 4, nor Stahel’s follow-up report to General Sigel, of the same day, indicate the time they were written or received. As printed in the Official Records, it is impossible, therefore, to determine if Hooker’s orders to Meade preceded or followed receipt of Stahel’s second report. In other words, did Hooker know the Confederates were not, in fact, constructing a pontoon bridge at the time he sent his orders to Meade? If so, is it fair to assume that he was simply looking to test his cavalry?
Several other unpublished pieces of the puzzle, regarding the planning of the operation against the bridge, are copied below. All four pieces of correspondence are dated February 4, but as none of them bears a time, I have listed them in a likely order of issue.
“Meade to Sigel
Let the officer and scout be at Hartwood early tomorrow to report to Col. [John] McIntosh who will command the reconnoitering party.” This message suggests to me that Hooker, and therefore Meade, had not yet received Stahel’s report of the same day, as it appears to refer to Stahel’s first message.
“Stahel to Col. [Di Cesnola] at Stafford
You will order Capt. [Hanley] & the Scout Hogan to report at once to me in person.” If my assumption above is correct, then this message confuses the issue. Did Stahel assume that his latest report had already arrived, and thus thought to send Hanley, rather than the officer who led the initial reconnaissance or had Hanley led both patrols? The wording of Di Cesnola’s account of Hanley’s patrol suggests to me that Hanley did not lead the first patrol.
“Meade to Sigel
I am going to send a cavalry force tomorrow to Rappahannock Station and to have infantry on the road from Hartwood Church to a point two miles beyond Deep Run crossing. Have you any troops out in the direction or will you have any about there tomorrow?”
“Meade to Sigel
Please let the officers in charge of your cavalry pickets on the river remain tomorrow until they can be relieved by the cavalry under Gen. [Joseph] Carr, who commands my infantry supports and who will be greatly indebted for information about the fords and roads. Gen. Carr will be found at the Hartwood Church or on the Warrenton Road between that point and Grove Church.”
It is not my intention to duplicate Conner’s and Mackowski’s account of the Union effort to destroy the bridge at Rappahannock Station. Rather, I am merely seeking to flesh out their account with some material they may not have seen. Thus I refer you to their work for an account of the expedition, while I look at the question of whether or not the bridge was actually destroyed.
General Meade concluded his after action report of the expedition, which is printed in the Official Records, thusly: “I submit herewith the reports of Colonel McIntosh and General Carr, giving the details of the expedition, and have to express my sense of the energy and promptitude of these officers and their commands, who, notwithstanding the very severe storm and the exposure consequent thereon, cheerfully performed the duty assigned them, in a manner most satisfactory to me and creditable to them.” As the editors of the Official Records note, McIntosh’s and Carr’s reports were not found and therefore not published in the Official Records.
The absence of these two reports, especially Colonel McIntosh’s, leaves readers and historians in a quandary, because Meade’s conclusion that McIntosh’s cavalry succeeded in destroying the bridge, is at sharp odds with Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s published report. The Confederate cavalry commander reported McIntosh’s efforts “to destroy the bridge… were foiled.” Hampton further explained, “Just at dark a party got under the bridge on the opposite side of the river, behind the abutments, and cut a few of the posts, attempting to fire the timbers at the same time. In the meantime a vigorous attack was made on my pickets, who got into the rifle-pits, and held their ground resolutely. The enemy [was] driven off after some hours’ fighting…”
Thus the question lingers, was the bridge destroyed? In fact, it was not, though the Federals clearly tried to destroy the span, as attested to by Hampton. Like Buford the previous August at Waterloo (see previous post), McIntosh may have observed flames take hold along his end of the bridge. But rather than remaining on site until the burning span crashed into the river, McIntosh ordered his men to retire and, apparently, assumed the bridge was consumed. Meade, who may have heard the skirmishing, took McIntosh at this word and termed the mission a success.
In short, the Union effort was not only futile, but embarrassingly so, and left General Hooker in a rage. As confirmed by the following two documents, McIntosh submitted a report in which he must have admitted to a costly oversight on his part. This oversight appears to have doomed the efforts to destroy the bridge and left both McIntosh and Meade in Hooker’s doghouse.
On February 26, one day after the embarrassing Union cavalry performance at Hartwood Church, Brig. Gen. Seth Williams, Hooker’s assistant adjutant general, informed McIntosh, “Your detailed report dated the 8th of the expedition recently made under your command to destroy the Rail Road bridge at Rappahannock Station, has been laid before the Major General Commanding by whom I am instructed to say that the same is unsatisfactory – no reason assigned by you for not having provided yourself before leaving camp with the necessary tools to execute your orders.” Thus McIntosh’s report was returned for further explanation.
That very day, another Union scout submitted a report claiming that he had seen “the bridge in good order” just a few days earlier.
Meade was also called upon to explain the discrepancies between what he and McIntosh had reported. In an undated communication, Meade responded to Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Hooker’s Chief of Staff. “Col. McIntosh at midnight prior to starting informed me he was provided only with axes & other tools for destroying the bridge. I informed him that the bridge ought to be burned and as Gen. Averell I presumed had collected combustibles & other means for destroying bridges for his recently planned raid… He went provided with all the means at hand that could be collected in the time given for preparation.” (Averell’s planned raid, of late December, was canceled at the last minute, and he was sent off in a futile attempt to corner Jeb Stuart, returning from his Christmas Raid. Details can be found in Volume 21 of the Official Records, pages 895-896 and 902.)
Destroying infrastructure, such as railroads and bridges, was almost always a goal of cavalry raiders. The challenge was being able to move rapidly, while carrying enough of the tools and equipment necessary to create lasting, rather than cursory, damage.
In late 1862, Herman Haupt, the Union’s railroad genius, wrote a memorandum titled “Suggestions as to the most expeditious mode of destroying bridges and locomotive engines.” The degree to which this document was disseminated within the army, especially the cavalry, is impossible to discern. Those who did receive a copy may not have read past Haupt’s first sentence, however. “A simple and expeditious mode of destroying bridges and rendering locomotive engines useless to an enemy is often a desideratum.” The last word, meaning something lacked or wanted, certainly sent me scrambling for a dictionary, but dictionaries were probably scarce at the front. Haupt focused on the destruction of bridges and locomotives because, as he wrote, “Cars are readily destroyed by burning. On this subject no instructions are necessary. The destruction of more than 400 cars by our own troops within the last six months proves that in the work of destroying such property perfection has been attained, and no room left for winning fresh laurels in this field.”
Haupt spent most of the memorandum explaining in detail how troops, especially cavalry, could most effectively destroy a bridge. As he explained, “time may not be sufficient to gather combustibles, or they may not be accessible, or the fire may be extinguished, or the damage may be so slight as to be easily repaired. What is required,” he continued, “is the means of certainly and effectually throwing down a bridge in a period of time not exceeding five minutes, and with an apparatus so simple and portable that it can be carried in the pocket or in saddle-bags.”
Haupt then outlined, in detail, exactly how a bridge could be destroyed, using a simple torpedo, or pipe-bomb. “The time required is only that which is necessary to bore a hole with an auger.” Cavalry commanders would, eventually, insure their men carried a sufficient supply of torpedoes before setting out on a raid, but Colonel McIntosh apparently did not. Instead, he carried only “axes & other tools.”
There had been small pioneer units in the cavalry for some time prior to the Rappahannock Bridge Expedition. In early 1862, Col. Jared M. Davies, 2nd New York Cavalry, instructed his company commanders to “immediately draw for axes.” Again, in May 1862, Davies reminded his captains “to detail a sufficient number of men to carry the company allowance of axes. The axes will be charged to the men to whom they are issued, and if lost by them they will be required to pay their value, besides being punished for their neglect.” Davies further instructed, “In addition to the above, a pioneer party for the regiment composed of two men from each company to carry picks and shovels will be formed at once.” Days later Davies again brought up the subject, ordering his captains to “make requisition for the number of axes necessary to complete company allowance of twelve, and draw the same from the Quarter Master Department.” The officers were also tasked with inspecting the axes in their respective companies each morning and insuring “the axes are at all [times] kept sharp.” In January 1863, just weeks before the Rappahannock Bridge Expedition, Maj. Myron Beaumont, 1st New Jersey Cavalry, ordered his company commanders to insure their men sharpened their sabers “and the Pioneer Corps their axes.”
But orders to form a pioneer corps within each regiment were either loosely enforced, or issued at the prerogative of the regimental commanders, rather than higher authority. McIntosh’s failure to carry an adequate supply of the tools necessary to complete the destruction of the bridge at Rappahannock Station may have been the impetus behind the following order, issued on February 23, 1863, encompassing the entire Cavalry Corps.
“In compliance with orders from Corps Headquarters each regimental commander of the brigade will at once organize a Pioneer Party to consist of a sergeant, a corporal & 20 men, 15 of the men to carry axes and the remaining 5 spades. The axes and spades will be carried slung across the shoulder in leather pouches. Regimental quartermasters will put in requisitions for the necessary tools and material. The pioneers will remain with their companies, but will be exempt from all details. In all formations of the regiment for parade or the march the pioneer party will form thirty paces from the right flank of the regiment. Regimental commanders will report when the organization of their parties is complete.”
Issuing axes, in sufficient quantity to meet the numbers established by Gen. George Stoneman’s directive, would seem like it might have been a simple task but little was easy that winter. On March 20, 1863, Col. John Irvin Gregg, looking to cut trees as obstructions to provide additional protection for his pickets, wrote to his division commander, “In my last report I asked that one hundred axes be sent out immediately to complete the obstruction. I repeat the request.”
Seizing Destiny, The Army of the Potomac’s “Valley Forge” and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union by Albert Z. Conner, Jr., and Chris Mackowski
The Official Records
Numerous Unpublished Documents from the National Archives