Picket Duty on the Rappahannock River

Writing after the war, Bvt. Col. Benjamin Crowninshield, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, explained the vital importance of outpost, vidette or picket duty.  “On the skill and fidelity of cavalry depends the safety of the army.”  Cavalry, Crowninshield continued, “is constantly employed…in the hardest and most inglorious service in the world, outpost and vidette duty, – where the youngest officer acts alone, and requires qualities almost unknown, and seldom required in infantry commands.”  Crowninshield spoke a hard truth.  Still, outpost duty, however vital to the security of the army, was a most disagreeable assignment.  Well into the war, too many officers and men focused on the unpleasant aspects of the task and allowed their quest for personal comfort to undermine the security of friends and comrades.

In an effort to combat the problems of negligence and ignorance on the part of officers and men tasked with outpost duty, the War Department published Instructions for Officers on Outpost and Patrol Duty in March 1862.  Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered copies of the booklet be distributed to each regiment in the service.  He further directed all officers to review Article 36, Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861, as the entire “article is replete with the most valuable instruction, and the safety and efficiency of all commands depend very much upon knowledge of the duties therein detailed.”  Fifty-five paragraphs of the Army Regulations cover the duties of grand guards and pickets.  Sadly, Stanton’s words either fell on deaf ears or were quickly forgotten by too many soldiers.

The winter of 1862-63 was especially long, wet and cold.  Picket duty was never more miserable or lonely.  On February 28, 1863, in the very heart of the winter, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, commander of the recently organized Cavalry Corps, issued a four-page circular stressing the importance of picket duty and detailing the manner in which the duty was to be performed.  The timing was not accidental.  Just three days earlier, Confederate horsemen had overrun the Union outposts at Hartwood Church.  After a battle lasting several hours the Southerners retired, but only after they had accomplished their mission, shredded the precarious reputation of the Union cavalry and left Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, seething in their wake.  Stoneman’s relationship with Hooker, already tenuous, never recovered.

Outpost service, (which I habitually refer to as picket duty) as defined by Stoneman, was a defensive screen in four layers.  Working outward from the army toward the enemy, the first line, the Grand Guard, was the strongest in number and served as the “main reserve for the entire detail.”  The second line, or Main Guards, provided immediate support to the third line, and was deployed in company strength.  The third line, designated as Pickets, was deployed in platoon strength to support the most advanced sentinels, termed Videttes.  Officers deployed the men on each line in such a manner as to allow them to move “rapidly” to the support of the line to their immediate front, while pickets, were to be deployed so as to “be able to move at a gallop to any part of the chain of Videttes.”  Videttes, the men at greatest risk, deployed “in pairs; the interval between consecutive pairs varying with the character of the country…. In perfectly open country, where the field of view is unobstructed, this interval may be made 350 or 400 yards; never greater.”  Stoneman’s guidelines, namely the strength of each line, strikes me as an ideal deployment seldom achieved in the field, especially as the war progressed and attrition reduced regiments to little more than battalion strength.

Officers were always expected to be attentive to the country through which they passed, noting terrain where they might make a stand if necessary.  Likewise, “upon arriving at the spot chosen for the Grand Guard,” officers posted a temporary line of sentries, and then “[proceeded] to ascertain, by observation of the hills and roads in front, the number of videttes and small posts [pickets and main guards] necessary.”  With these lines established, the “officer then carefully reconnoiters the country.  Every one ambitious of doing his duty well,” Stoneman continued, “will make a little sketch in which…roads, rivers, bridges and fords, morasses, cavities, hollow roads and mountains, woods, towns, villages and their distances” are mapped.  Upon being relieved an officer was expected to accompany the relieving officer along the line as he posted his men.  The officer being relieved was also expected to pass along all written and verbal orders, and familiarize the relieving officer with the country and road network.  Any maps the officer may have drawn were also to be conveyed or copied for the benefit of the relieving officer.  Finally, according to Instructions for Officers on Outpost and Patrol Duty, the senior officer was to make a written report “of everything which occurs.”  The most diligent officers provided their superiors with a written report each morning.

I offer the preceding paragraphs as the most basic outline of outpost, picket or vidette duty.  The following documents are offered as model illustrations of several of the points explained above.  The 1st New Jersey Cavalry assumed responsibility for a portion of the picket line along the Rappahannock River, in lower Stafford County and upper King George County, about December 14, 1862.  In the absence of Col. Percy Wyndham, then attached to the Defenses of Washington, Lt. Col. Joseph Karge led the regiment, until he resigned on December 22, 1862.  In his stead, Maj. Myron Beaumont took command, as the senior officer with the regiment.

Lt. Colonel Karge established, as did Beaumont, his headquarters at Snowden, the home of Maj. John Seddon, brother of James A. Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War.  Seddon had, prior to the war, enlarged the Colonial Era home “until it rivaled Chatham (now the National Park Service Battlefield Headquarters) in grandeur.”  The men knew the Seddon property well, having bivouacked there for several weeks in late-April and early-May 1862.


Major Myron Beaumont, 1st New Jersey Cavalry – Army Heritage and Education Center

On Christmas Day, Major Beaumont advised Brig. Gen. David Gregg, commanding the brigade, “All is quiet along the line of my pickets.  There was a great deal of desultory firing all night and there appeared to be a general jubilee in the camps of the enemy, there were no signs of any intention to cross, no boats or bateaux were to be seen except a few opposite Widow [Dade’s] farm.  There was a log which the pickets kept constantly moving about in the water as I suppose for the purpose of accustoming my pickets to the splashing, that if occasion offered it would be [easier] for a boat to cross without attracting attention.  There is about two miles [from] Mr. Seddon’s farm a gully where it would be well to have an infantry picket.  It is concealed from observation by woods and a bend in the river and cannot be reached by a mounted man.  There has been no want of vigilance or neglect of duty noticed.”

Major Beaumont’s mention of the Widow Dade probably brings to mind an older woman.  In fact, Fannie Dade was a very young woman, probably only twenty-two years of age, according to the 1860 Census.  She had married the late Lucien Dade, and was living, with her siblings, at Spring Hill, just south of Muddy Creek, the border between Stafford and King George Counties.  Fannie Dade’s neighbors suspected her of being a Yankee spy, and Federal authorities suspected her of sheltering Union deserters, and guiding them across King George County to the Potomac River.

On January 1, 1863, Maj. Ivins Jones, commanding the regimental picket line in King George County, explained and diagramed for Major Beaumont the manner in which he had deployed his men along the river.

“I have the honor to report that nothing of special importance transpired on the picket line last night or during today.  I give however a detailed report of observations as taken.

First Post under Lt. [Joseph] Brooks [Company K], the position of which you can see by enclosed sketch consists of five videttes on the bank.  Rebel posts opposite nine averaging 4 men each.  Reserve post in sight (three) composed entirely of infantry.  No movements were seen.

Second Post, Lt. [William] Hick [Company L or K], has nine videttes.  Rebel posts opposite (which were strengthened during night) eight, as follows, 4 men, 12, 6, 6, 3, 15, 6, 6, all infantry.  There is evidently cavalry in rear as squads come continually to water.

Third Post, Capt. [James] Hart [Company M], has four videttes and the Rebels have also four but averaging about 6 men each.  The rebel picket at the old ferry is of cavalry and evidently [fifty] strong.

Fourth Post, Lt. [Garrett] Beekman [Company M], has four videttes.  The enemy’s pickets are hidden by woods & cannot be counted but are very strong.  They have had large parties at work all day on their fortifications; one party I think numbered at least four hundred men, who appeared to be digging rifle pits to the right of the forts.  They have also had strong parties at work at the fort.

There was no firing.  I kept up hourly communication with the 8th Illinois on my left and the 10th NY on my right.  With the pickets so placed I do not think it possible for a small boat to cross at any time or any place along the line without being seen.”

Highlighted 1st NJ Picket map.jpg

This map, which accompanied the above report, covers an area of about five miles, from Muddy Creek, the border between Stafford County and King George County, on the right to Pop Castle Creek on the left.  It also shows the old alignment of Route 3, when the road ran past the front of Lamb’s Creek Church.  Near the church are both Birchwood Creek and Lamb’s Creek.  The Dade home, Spring Hill, is just to the left of Muddy Creek.


Captain William Hick, 1st New Jersey, at the end of the war, wearing a mourning ribbon.  Courtesy of Andrew German


Captain James Hart, 1st New Jersey.  Hart was killed at Dinwiddie C.H. Courtesy of Andrew German

The next report from Jones is dated January 16.  The 1st New Jersey had relieved the 10th New York Cavalry in lower Stafford County the previous day.  The 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry had replaced the 1st New Jersey in upper King George County, allowing the 8th Illinois to concentrate in lower King George.

With his headquarters now at Snowden, Jones reported to Major Beaumont:  “I have the honor to report that no alarm occurred along my picket line during the night.  My lower post connected with the 1st [Pennsylvania] Cav and my upper post was within three hundred yards of the infantry.  Patrols were constantly going from one end of my line to the other.  The enemy picket the river very [emphasis in original]strongly along my entire line especially so opposite the Seddon’s Farm.  Nothing whatever occurred on my three upper posts worthy of mention except that the enemy [was] unusually watchful.  On my 4th post (the Seddon Farm) the enemy yesterday discovered our intention of crossing at the point where the corduroy road is being built.  Their attention was first called to the fact by seeing some newly cut poles lying on the hillside, which had been left there from inexcusable carelessness or real design, for no one would have left them there who had any judgment except he wished the attention of the enemy called to it.

They immediately began throwing up rifle pits marked on the sketch (pit thrown up 15th) [sketch not found].  Between twelve and one o’clock last night two rockets were sent up from this point and thrown directly over the corduroy with the evident design of discovering whether we were at work at it.  Nothing however was discovered.  The enemy marched a strong force to this point last night which lay there all night, and threw up fifteen small rifle pits marked on the sketch ‘pits thrown up last night.’  The posts opposite the Seddon’s Farm were very considerably lessened at [noon] today.  Several (apparently) general officers visited this post and examined the road with glasses yesterday & today.  (I judged that they were general officers from their staffs)  I know that the poles on the hill side were first noticed, for one of their pickets called over to know what they were doing there.  He received no answer.  The enemy [is] undoubtedly fully aware of our intentions to cross and great activity prevails there to prevent it.  They were also engaged yesterday in entrenching the heights beyond, to what extent I could not see.  On my lower post marked (post 5) great activity prevailed on the part of the rebels.  From here I can discern a second line of Rebel pickets about one half mile back who were at work vigorously yesterday throwing up pits and had wagons assisting.  The night was so very stormy that but few sounds could be heard from the opposite shore.  Not a single shot has yet been fired.  A volley was heard about twelve o’clock last night but not in our line.  All my posts were exceedingly vigilant.  Two men who professed to have been “blown across” were taken by our pickets yesterday; at what time they came over I don’t know. They were lying hid under the bank.  It shows a want of vigilance on the part of the videttes we relieved.”

Major Jones, with his headquarters still at Snowden, reported to Major Beaumont again on the eighteenth.  “I have the honor to report that no alarm occurred along my pickets last night. A strong working party was engaged on their rifle pits all night and left about 4 o’clock this morning.  At dark last night their pickets were pushed up to the river bank and withdrawn to a line of hills about four hundred yards distant at daybreak this morning.  A large camp (apparently a brigade) which was visible plainly in the night of the 16th was not seen last night. It was opposite my upper post.  A regular chain of signals could be distinguished last night, and they were constantly communicating.  They showed no disposition to cross, & should they have done so I fear that I could not have prevented it, so small is the number on my reserve post. A general impression prevails among my pickets that there is no very strong force opposite us, and I can see but few camp fires, but their picket line consists of at least a brigade of infantry.  A large pit has been dug on the bank of the river about one hundred yards long and great pain has been taken in constructing it. It is about one hundred yards in front of their line of pits.”

On January 24, Major Beaumont, at Snowden, communicated with David Gregg at least twice.  The first message, copied from the Official Records, reads as follows:  “I find many changes in the enemy’s fortifications; there are many more earthworks.  In front of a row of small buildings on the summit of a hill, about a mile from the river, are several redoubts, with three embrasures each for guns.  From what I can see with my glass, I imagine them to be made for very heavy guns.  This is nearly opposite the Seddon house.  A little to the right of these works, and nearer the river, on the slope of the same range of hills, is a range of square earthworks; they seem to be at the corners of an [entrenched] artillery camp.  The stables are in plain view, but no guns are visible.  Earthworks are thrown up around some buildings and barns, in an open field to the right of the Seddon house.  The number of camps of the enemy is greatly increased, and there seems to be a much larger force massed opposite here than ever before.  There are bodies of infantry moving up and down the river bank continually, and a picket opposite the mouth of the ravine where our corduroy road is built, consisting of about 50 cavalry.  Small squads of cavalry are moving up and down the banks at intervals.  I image them to be general officers.”

Major Beaumont sent an update later in the day.  “Since making my report of this morning, I have received a report from Major Jones (field officer of picket) of work going on in a ravine which runs down to the river opposite the Seddon House. The mouth of this ravine is hidden from observation by a dense growth of trees and underbrush. There is a great deal of chopping in the ravine, and the noise of quite a large body of men.  Wagons are seen in the vicinity, and are heard moving in the ravine.  I suspect them to be either making a corduroy road, or chopping logs for their entrenchments.  This ravine is laid down on the last map I forwarded [not found].  This afternoon about 3 o’clock a long line of battle was formed on the range of hills about a mile back from the river, consisting, I should think, of a division of cavalry.  After passing through a review, inspected by an officer with a very large staff, or else a squadron of cavalry as an escort, they moved away up the river.”

Major Beaumont, still at Snowden, gave Gregg updates on each of the following three days.  On the twenty-fifth he explained, “The enemy [has] bodies of troops, infantry and cavalry, moving about on the river road, also several trains of wagons have passed up the river this morning and the majority of the troops seem to be going in the same direction.  A white flag, probably a signal flag, is to be seen waving at intervals, on one of the square fortifications, I noticed in my report of yesterday.  A large body of infantry is to be seen in and about the same range of fortifications, evidently at work.  A large fire is burning in one of the forts, emitting a thick smoke, as though pitch was burning.  At ten minutes before 12 o’clock m. two long trains of cars, moved off down the river.”

On the twenty-sixth Beaumont reported:  “There was no noise noticeable on the opposite side of the river last night.  The rebels evidently know of our movement, and subsequent return.  About an hour before sundown yesterday afternoon, great cheering was heard opposite our upper reserve post, and shortly afterwards a board was shown to our pickets with “Burnside stuck in the mud” painted on it in large letters.  The cars commenced running about 10 o’clock in the evening, and continued all night.  There seemed to be trains continually going away, and few if any, coming in.  Some cheering was also heard in the direction of the depot.  I received a communication from Lt. Col. C Ross Smith, Provost Marshal of the Left Grand Division which I enclose to you.  I cannot consent to remove the post from Mrs. [Gray’s] ford unless ordered to do so as I think it would ‘interfere materially’ with the picket line.  The safe guard has permitted communication with the enemy’s pickets at various times, allowing one morning, as I informed you in my report [this report has not been located], as many as 9 rebels to come over at a time.  I am satisfied that the utmost vigilance is necessary to prevent the family at Mrs. [Gray’s] communicating either by signal or otherwise with the enemy.  I have ordered that no lights be shown in the windows of the house during the night, in as much as the movements made by the lights in the windows seemed to me to be at least suspicious.”

The Confederate sign, mentioned by Beaumont, mocked Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s abortive ‘Mud March,’ begun on January 20.  Mild weather and an easy march on the twentieth led Burnside to believe he had caught the enemy napping, but his confidence was dashed that evening as the skies opened and a torrent of rain soon made the roads impassable.  Burnside canceled the short-lived offense on the twenty-third.  Major Jones’s message of January 16, which mentions a Union crossing point near Snowden, refers to Burnside’s original plan, which included an infantry attack across the Rappahannock at Muddy Creek.

Mrs. Jane M. Gray resided at Traveler’s Rest, another Colonial Era home, along the Rappahannock River in lower Stafford County.  Her husband, John Gray, inherited the property in 1854, and soon renovated and expanded the home into a stately mansion.  Unlike Fannie Dade, no one doubted Mrs. Gray’s strong allegiance to the Southern cause.  Brig. Gen. Marsena Patrick, Provost Marshal General, Army of the Potomac, visited Mrs. Gray several times, noting on November 29, 1862, “The night is cold, but pleasant & there is a moon that will, I hope, enable me to catch some spies that have crossed the River, & which, I think, are Mrs. Gray’s Protégés.”

Highlighted OR Map.jpg

This map, shows, roughly, the area covered by the picket map, as well as showing both Snowden and Traveler’s Rest to the left.

Major Beaumont’s final report is dated January 27.  Still at Snowden, the major advised, “There was a great deal of moving, either of trains or artillery, on the opposite side of the river during the night, seemingly up the river.  At about 2 o’clock am the picket in front reported that a light was shown in the round window of the gable of Seddon’s house, facing the river, and moved twice up and down, and twice across the window.  There was no reply to this signal from the opposite side.  This morning the small boat, which I send by the orderly, was sent across by the pickets opposite Mrs. [Gray’s] house.  To it was attached a bottle, in which was enclosed the enclosed piece of pasteboard.  Upon the boat were two newspapers, the writing upon which I am unable to decipher.  Yesterday afternoon a new rifle pit was opened opposite the center of the long row of hedges on the road.  This pit is a few hundred yards above the old rebel entrenchments.  Cavalry bugles were heard about 2 o’clock opposite the lower post – “Boots & Saddles” was plainly heard.”

In July 1864, ‘Falkland,’ and ‘Silver Spring,’ the homes of Montgomery Blair and his brother Francis Blair, were destroyed during Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington.  Though Early denied responsibility, Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s Postmaster General, was, understandably, incensed.  The following month, Union general Benjamin Butler responded by sending Brig. Gen. Charles Graham with several gunboats up the Rappahannock River to destroy Snowden.  Butler may have ordered the arson in the erroneous belief that James Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War, owned the home.  Rather, his brother John had owned the home, but he had died the previous December.  The troops gave John’s widow and her children, as well as an elderly parent, just minutes to gather what belongings they could before applying the torch. An enraged James Seddon termed the act “one of the very meanest, pettiest, and most malignant atrocities committed by our miscreant invaders during the war.”

The editors of the Richmond Examiner sought to insure the “outrage” was not forgotten.  “The Rappahannock, the river of vengeance, has been lighted with the flames of another Southern home, as its waters have, ere this, run red with the blood of the base invader…. Think of it, Confederates, and remember it.  Your brave, chivalrous enemy, in overwhelming numbers, under cover of rain and darkness, attack a peaceful household, turn out of their own home a widow and five helpless little children…and before their eyes, burn to ashes their cherished home….  How is this diabolical wickedness to be stopped,” the editors asked, “if you do not desolate their land with fire and sword, and make a Sodom of the soil that sends such foes to your own…. Raise the black flag, in Heaven’s name – The time has finally come.”  Indeed, the time had come as events in the Shenandoah Valley soon confirmed.

Traveler’s Rest survived the war, but eventually succumbed to time and the elements.  Built upon sandy soil, the foundation began to deteriorate in the 1930s and the home was deemed uninhabitable.  A sand and aggregate company purchased the property, and all that remains today of the once elegant home is the Gray family cemetery.

With thanks to my wife for her Census work, Elizabeth Lee and Jean Graham with the King George Historical Society, John Hennessy, Bob Krick, the staff at the Virginia Room, Central Rappahannock Regional Library, and to Andrew German.


Documents from the National Archives

T. M. Moncure, The Destruction of Snowden

Fredericksburg Free Lance Star

Richmond Examiner

The Official Records

Instructions for Officers on Outpost and Patrol Duty

Benjamin Crowninshield, A History of the First Regiment Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers

Francis Kajencki, Star on Many a Battlefield

Elizabeth Lee and Jean Graham, King George County, A Pictorial History

Edward Longacre, Jersey Cavaliers

Homer Musselman, Stafford County in the Civil War

Henry Pyne, Ride to War, The History of the First New Jersey Cavalry

David Sparks, Inside Lincoln’s Army

2 thoughts on “Picket Duty on the Rappahannock River

  1. Bob,

    Awesome post. Probably more indicative of cavalry ‘work’ than the glorious charge. A hearty thank you to the Majors and their detailed reports that form the basis for the article. I will be retreading this.



  2. Bob,

    Really enjoyed this article. Sent it on to my Lieutenant son as an example of army reporting.

    I’m sure this will fuel Bud’s imagination of all the action along the rivers of Culpeper.




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