“Reconnaissances by our cavalry…without cessation” Part 1

I do not usually offer an introduction to the stories I post on this site, but in this case, I feel an explanation is necessary.

I seldom know when I start where each story will end. Rarely does the final version resemble in any sense what I set out to put on paper. Due to time constraints I often set out to take one unpublished document and post a very short story based around that document. Invariably, however, something piques my interest while doing some last-minute research and the story snowballs. This story has followed a similar path.

I originally intended to post two or three unpublished scouting reports, place them in a little context and move on. Instead, my one short story morphed into one very long account concerning the Union cavalry in the Second Manassas Campaign – a topic which has long intrigued me.

Two points to consider:

First, most of the work the Union cavalry performed happened weeks before the culmination of the campaign and is thus, largely, ignored in campaign studies. Second, historians, writers and critics of all stripes tend to sum up the contribution of the Union cavalry by quoting one of several comments offered by Brig. Gen. George Bayard, late in the campaign, such as, “Quite a large number [of my horses] were condemned just after the battle of Cedar Mountain but the arduous and continued service of the past few days have completely broken down the horses we have.” The critic then usually asks just what the cavalry had done which was so arduous. This question has long intrigued me and so I thought I would seek a satisfactory answer.

What follows is by no means a deeply researched or thorough examination of the contribution of the Union cavalry in the campaign but rather an outline of their service. As I compiled the outline, which is by no means complete, I have tried to rely upon as many unpublished documents as possible. I have also tried to highlight lesser known events, while only briefly discussing larger events which have received more attention in the past.

The outline begins with Maj. Gen. John Pope’s taking command of the newly organized Army of Virginia on June 27, 1862 and continues, in two or three parts, through August 27, 1862, when Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, condemned the mounted arm, telling Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, “I can get no satisfactory information of the enemy’s position or movements. His cavalry go all around our army, destroying baggage and trains, while ours does nothing at all. This must be changed; and if the cavalry officers continue so inefficient report them for discharge.” To go much beyond this point is to enter ground already well-examined by historians of the campaign, many of whom are much more well-versed on the topic than I am.

These two quotes from Bayard and Halleck frame the main question – just what had the cavalry done which broke down its horses in such numbers as to render the arm almost completely ineffective by late-August.

Finally, I will examine, in either one or two additional posts, the logistical challenges of the campaign – namely, the ability of the Quartermaster Department to provide fresh horses when needed and to adequately provide for the horses on duty with the army. Then I will look for any correlation between the deterioration of the cavalry and the ability of the army to sustain the mounted arm in the field.


When President Abraham Lincoln appointed Maj. Gen. John Pope to command the newly formed Army of Virginia in late-June 1862, he tasked Pope with assisting Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s efforts against Richmond by interdicting the Virginia Central Railroad between Gordonsville and Charlottesville. He also charged Pope with protecting Washington and the Shenandoah Valley. Pope could accomplish these tasks by placing his army in and around Culpeper County. Within days, however, the military situation had changed following General Robert E. Lee’s success in driving McClellan away from the Southern capital. The change of fortune convinced Pope to assume a defensive, rather than an offensive posture, though he would continue to concentrate his army in and around Culpeper County. A stalemate ensued through the month of July, before the administration ordered McClellan to withdraw from the Peninsula and move his Army of the Potomac north to assist Pope, who had remained in Washington as the campaign against Richmond concluded and as his scattered command moved toward Culpeper County.

The Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers form a rather narrow lazy V, with the base just northwest of Fredericksburg and the forks, each representing one of the rivers, running from the Blue Ridge Mountains south and east to the point where they converge. The rivers frame Culpeper County and, over the next couple of years, guaranteed the county a place in the nation’s history as, arguably, the most fought over real estate in Virginia. Rivers presented obstacles, and accurate intelligence regarding fords, roads and terrain, as well as enemy activity, all became vital pieces of a commander’s planning process. If large enough, rivers also served as vital links in an army’s logistical chain, providing avenues by which supplies could be moved. But rivers could also, temporarily, sever the chain due to either high or low water conditions.

In time, men from both sides would know every foot of Culpeper County like the back of their hand, but such was not the case in the early summer of 1862. However, as Chaplain Henry Pyne, historian of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry remarked after the war, by early-August, “The frequent scouting that we had made now repaid the labor that they had occasioned, for there was not a foot of the ground with which we had not become familiar. By circuitous lanes, through sequestered valleys, and beneath shadowing woods,” the men had made themselves familiar with Culpeper County, as well as parts of Madison, Orange and Louisa Counties. What had changed? This ‘quiet’ period of late-June, July and early-August is not well documented by historians, as the campaign does not really heat up until the fight at Cedar Mountain on August 9. Likewise, editors of the Official Records elected to leave most surviving scouting reports out of the campaign volumes, especially if the patrols failed to provoke a significant clash with the enemy. Still, a rather solid body of evidence confirms Chaplain Pyne’s assertion.

Initially, the commanders of Pope’s three corps took responsibility for their own security and dispatched their cavalry (each corps had an attached cavalry brigade) on near continuous scouting patrols and reconnaissance expeditions. By July 3, intelligence reports suggested that General Lee had his army on the move, but Union commanders needed to know in which direction Lee was moving. From Washington, Pope ordered Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, commanding the Third Corps at Warrenton, to send “strong pickets as far as the Rappahannock,” after Pope instructed one of his officers “to arm our whole front for at least 20 miles with strong cavalry pickets.” McDowell had left Brig. Gen. Rufus King’s division at Falmouth and Pope worried that he had not heard from King. “How much cavalry has he and where is it,” he asked McDowell. Pope wanted King “to keep his cavalry well to the front on the other side of the Rappahannock.”

Brig. Gen. George Bayard commanded the five cavalry regiments attached to McDowell’s Corps. A few days earlier, Bayard had counted 1,583 men for duty, but with many of them in desperate need of “shoe, boots, haversacks, canteens” and more, the general deemed his brigade “in no condition to move at present.” But Pope’s orders kicked off a grueling two-month campaign in the heat of summer which nearly destroyed his mounted force.

Unable to wait while Bayard’s men refitted, McDowell sent the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry into Culpeper County to begin scouting the crossings of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. Likewise, King began sending daily mounted patrols south toward Richmond and west toward Culpeper in search of the enemy. Having learned that a body of enemy cavalry posted near Culpeper intended to make a dash against Catlett Station and Warrenton, King, with but 300 troopers attached to his division, made a plea for “more cavalry here as we have a large front to watch.”

Bayard appreciated the convenience of his position along the railhead at Warrenton, in Fauquier County, but he also knew he was too far from the rivers he needed to scout and picket. Seeking a viable solution, he tried to adjust the size of his scouting parties in order to rest as many of his horses as possible, while still providing for the safety of his men and seeking the intelligence Pope required. “It is so far to the mouth of the Rapidan I sent today one battalion of [the 1st New Jersey Cavalry], Capt. [Virgil] Broderick commanding to … move up the Rappahannock to the railroad and return. If he sees anything tonight he will send me word. Capt. [David] Gardner, [1st Pennsylvania Cavalry] with three companies I sent to go through Bealeton and [Fayetteville] to the river and return.

Upon their return, Bayard told Pope, “Capt. Gardner… went within two miles of the Rappahannock four miles below [Fayetteville]. Saw nothing and could hear of nothing being on this side of the river for some time past…Very bad roads.” Captain Broderick traveled to the “mouth of the Rapidan where he met General King’s pickets. He came up the Rappahannock today to [Rappahannock Station] and then returned seeing nothing.” Another patrol, led by Capt. Hampton Thomas, 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, scouted the Rappahannock River closer to Warrenton. “He also returned seeing nothing. There is no one on this side of the river,” Bayard reported with confidence on July 6.

The following day, Capt. William Litzenberg, scouted the Rappahannock with his company, 1st Pennsylvania, and found no sign of the enemy. On the 8th, Capt. Hugh Janeway, 1st New Jersey returned from a scout to Fayetteville with a similar report.   On the 9th, Capt. James Gaston, 1st Pennsylvania, made another scout along the river to Sulphur Springs and saw nothing of the enemy. But with the constant activity beginning to exhaust his horses, Bayard asked, “Must I send out a scouting party every day?”

At Falmouth, King received reports that Stonewall Jackson had begun moving toward Gordonsville and Orange Court House. Seeking to confirm the reports, he “sent a spy to Gordonsville” and “a heavy cavalry patrol” to the west.  On July 11, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, commanding the Second Corps, reported “that a considerable force of [enemy] cavalry and infantry may be at Orange Court House,” and he told Pope he intended to send “a cavalry reconnaissance in force to Culpeper” the next day. At the same time, Brig. Gen. Robert Schenck, then commanding the First Corps at Sperryville, northwest of Culpeper, reported increased enemy activity. He asked that his cavalry force be reinforced immediately and then inquired “if a rebel force is at Culpeper Court House?”

These reports convinced Pope of the need to occupy Culpeper. “General Pope does not desire a simple cavalry reconnaissance toward Culpeper,” an aide told Banks on July 12. “He wants [Culpeper] to be occupied in force.” Pope ordered Brig. Gen. John Hatch, commanding the cavalry brigade attached to the Second Corps, to occupy the town and post “strong cavalry pickets for at least 20 miles in the direction of Gordonsville and Richmond.” Hatch may have already moved into Culpeper by July 13, when Pope told him “to picket the country carefully on the east side of the Blue Ridge towards Gordonsville and Stanardsville,” connecting with the First Corps cavalry to the west and Bayard’s cavalry to the east. Pope now had cavalry picketing much of the area between Winchester and Falmouth, a straight-line distance stretching more than 70 miles.

On July 14, Pope, still in Washington, instructed Banks to send Hatch “to seize Gordonsville, and, if possible, Charlottesville.” Exhorting Banks to, “Keep your cavalry going,” Pope urged the troopers to destroy the rail lines between the two towns, while protecting the bridges and improving the roads where possible. General McDowell then sent Bayard to Culpeper on July 16 to assist Hatch. With two cavalry brigades and a small force of infantry and artillery, Pope expected Hatch to push “forward boldly” and destroy the Virginia Central Railroad from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, as well as the James River Canal. If Hatch succeeded, Pope felt certain that Richmond must be evacuated. Dangling a promotion in front of Hatch, Pope urged him to move with “all energy.”

Setting out in a terrible thunderstorm, in which five men were seriously injured and their horses killed by a lightning strike, Hatch’s expedition never seemed to gain momentum, as large hail pelted the men and animals and roads and fields turned into rivers and bogs. One officer lost his horse in a mudhole which engulfed the animal. The advance guard encountered Southern pickets shortly after crossing the Rapidan and drove a reserve force from near Orange Court House. Against stiffening resistance, Hatch reportedly moved to with three miles of Gordonsville, while the 1st [West] Virginia advanced “within 4 miles of Louisa Court-House.” Two other regiments scouted toward Madison Court House but upon learning of large enemy infantry concentrations around Gordonsville and Louisa Court House, Hatch opted to retire rather than pushing boldly forward. Chaplain Pyne thought Hatch “paid too much attention to the vague reports” from civilians. “Their random guesses sounded like positive intelligence to his ears, until he was convinced that the rebel cavalry was actually in our rear,” Pyne concluded. Marching through “torrents” of rain the entire trip and going four days without food took a toll on the men and horses but Pope fumed about Hatch’s failure for days.

Inexplicably, however, Bayard, had, on or about July 10, received a seven day leave of absence to visit West Point, a fact which Pope appears to have been unaware of for several days as the leave had been granted by the Adjutant General in Washington. Several messages sent by Bayard after he rejoined his command, bear the return address of Fairfax, further confusing his actions. (Culpeper Court House, as I learned after first posting this story, had previously been called Fairfax and may still have appeared as such on Bayard’s map.)  In Bayard’s absence, Col. Owen Jones, 1st Pennsylvania, led the brigade. On July 18, Pope sent a dispatch to Jones, instructing him to send either the 1st Pennsylvania or the 1st New Jersey to protect Hatch’s column from surprise. He also wanted the troopers to obtain a map of the area, including the roads between the Rapidan and Gordonsville. Exactly if, or when, Jones received the order is unknown as high water prevented the courier from reaching him in a timely manner.

Pope also instructed King at Falmouth “to send a strong force of cavalry” to destroy a rail bridge south of Fredericksburg. Pope urged the troopers to move with celerity, but recent rains had the Rappahannock River nearing flood stage. Unable to cross the river quickly or safely, the commander lost a day before he was able to commandeer “a small ferry boat” and cross his men “thirty or forty at a time.” Once across the river the column moved quickly and burned a Virginia Central Railroad Bridge near Beaver Dam Station. By one estimate the men had traveled 80 miles in 30 hours. Taking a shot at Hatch, Pope touted the effort as an example of “what cavalry can do when led boldly, vigorously and rapidly,” but the damage may have been repaired in as little as a day.

Still furious with Hatch, Pope began inquiring as to the condition of the roads through Culpeper and asking for exact information as to the distance between the roads. A week after returning from the failed Hatch expedition, Maj. Myron Beaumont, 1st New Jersey, provided the kind of intelligence Pope was looking for.

“In obedience to your order I have the honor to submit the following report of a scout made by my battalion on the 19th.

We marched from camp two miles from Madison Court House, northeast at six o’clock a.m. passing through the village proceeded southwest, or nearly so, to the village of Rochelle, or as it is more commonly known, Jack’s Shop, a distance of six miles. The road from Madison Court House is a Macadamized turnpike, crossed at various places by small streams, at two of which are bridges, the first, one mile from Madison and the second about three to three [and a half miles] from Madison. The destruction of these bridges would not impede the advance of cavalry or infantry but might retard a little, artillery or wagon trains. The country is hilly and covered at different points with dense woods. The road winds mostly around the edge of the woods, though at some points passes through them.

A short distance beyond Madison is a road leading about due west to Wolf Town as I was informed, and thence to [Stanardsville]. This intersects the pike at an acute angle and passes over a high hill surmounted by a dense wood. About two miles further on is a road leading eastwardly to a mill, about half a mile from the pike. At this mill was found some corn and several barrels of corn meal.

A mile and a half or two miles beyond this a road intersects the pike at an acute angle leading nearly northwest to Wolf Town and thence to the river. At Rochelle is a road leading westwardly as I was told to the river, which was two or two and a half miles distant, where there was said to be a ford.

Upon inquiring I was told at the mill that there had been no Confederate soldiers thereabouts for two or three days. At Rochelle my advance guard discovered the picket of the enemy, consisting of three cavalrymen, who retreated rapidly at our approach and we were unable to secure them. We followed to a mill about one mile beyond Rochelle when we were told by a colored man there had been soldiers there the Thursday before, but not a great many.

At Rochelle I was told by several persons whom I questioned at different times that Generals Jackson, Ewell and Hill were at [Charlottesville], with a large body of infantry and [Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson] with from three to four hundred cavalry, late Ashby’s Cavalry. There had been reports of artillery heard the day before and that morning in the direction of Orange Court House. The general impression seemed to be that the C. S. Army was rapidly surrounding the U.S. troops, and they evidently expected to see us all cut off. Two colored men whom I questioned apart, both told me that at the ford of the river were a great many “foot soldiers,” but no “horse soldiers,” and there were “twenty big brass cannons” to protect the ford. Another colored man said that the ford was obstructed by poles and logs laid crosswise, and that the C.S. soldiers had many cannon pointing to the river. He had crossed above the ford, where the water was up to his neck, after trying the ford and hurting his horse’s leg. He showed me a bruise on his horse’s leg, which he said he got there. There was a great discrepancy between these stories regarding the direction of and the distance to the ford, but they all agree as to its being obstructed and there being many soldiers there.”

Beaumont included a sketch map marked to coincide with locations noted in his report, but the map has not been found. Assuming he saw Beaumont’s report, Pope might have taken some satisfaction from the information the major gathered during Hatch’s otherwise disappointing mission.

Mounting evidence of an enemy presence around Louisa Court House and Gordonsville meant, not only additional Union patrols to the area but also longer patrols which took an ever increasing toll on the horses. General Hatch had a chance to redeem himself on the 22nd, when, accompanied by Bayard, he led another expedition from Culpeper against the Virginia Central and the James River Canal near Charlottesville. But reports of enemy troops in his path convinced Hatch to turn west, away from Charlottesville, and cross into the Shenandoah Valley at Swift Run Gap. After spending the night at Conrad’s Store (Elkton), Hatch headed north to Luray before turning east and passing out of the valley at Thornton’s Gap and returning to Culpeper by way of Sperryville. The long march, in near constant rain and in a direction completely contrary to Pope’s orders, left many of his horses disabled. Banks described Hatch as “much disappointed,” but Pope had little sympathy and replaced him with Brig. Gen. John Buford.

General Hatch had especially angered Pope, when he encumbered himself with infantry and wagons on his first foray. When he set out the second time, he left his infantry, led by Col. Dudley Donnelly, 28th New York, behind. But Donnelly, either on his own accord or under orders from Hatch or Banks, sent out scouting parties of his own on July 22. He told Banks the next day, “A reconnaissance was made yesterday to the Rapidan River and found the enemy’s pickets posted on the opposite side. No force of the enemy was found between here & the Rapidan. Our pickets are posted near Colvin’s Tavern on the Orange road, also on the road leading to Stevensburg and on the road from Georgetown [a home/farm near Pony Mountain between Culpeper and Stevensburg] to [Summerduck Run] [a small tributary of the Rapidan just south of Stevensburg]. Also, on the James City road at the crossing of the Hungry River [probably Mountain Run], and some small pickets on the roads leading into our rear. The infantry pickets are thrown out from 3 to 4 miles with cavalry videttes from 4 to 5 miles in front of the infantry. All precautions are being taken against surprise, and another reconnaissance will be made today on the different roads.”

With Hatch still out with his cavalry, Banks ordered Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford to Culpeper with his infantry brigade. Arriving at noon on the 24th, Crawford spoke with Donnelly and then offered the following information to his superiors. “About noon yesterday, information was brought by a contraband that Jackson with a force of about 15,000 men was in the neighborhood of Mt. Pisgah Meeting House. A cavalry scout was immediately sent on the direct road to Raccoon Ford, on the Rapidan River, [six] miles from which is Mt. Pisgah Church. The party crossed the ford, drove in the enemy’s pickets and returned by the Stevensburg road. The result of the scout was that from all the information that could be gathered from contrabands, Jackson’s pickets had been at the ford four days; that his main force was at Mt. Pisgah Church and Louisa Court House, and that the rumored intention was that he intended to concentrate his forces somewhere in the neighborhood of Orange Court House.” Banks then sent a summary of this report to Pope, adding that he had already ordered his cavalry to conduct a follow-up probe and noting, “All roads leading from enemy’s position are very bad.” In fact, Jackson had reached Gordonsville on July 19 and may have had some pickets near Mt. Pisgah Church, but his main body was not that close to the Rapidan.


With thanks to Bud Hall


Unpublished documents from the National Archives

The Official Records

Rollin Maranville Letters, University of Vermont

Alfred Ryder Letters, University of Michigan

Detroit Free Press

John Hennessy, Return to Bull Run, The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas

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

2 thoughts on ““Reconnaissances by our cavalry…without cessation” Part 1

  1. Great job as usual, Bob. The heat during that campaign was just unbearable! Somewhere in my haystack of Second Bull Run cavalry research I have a quote from a New Yorker–I thought it was Augustus Porter Green 5th NY Cav but a quick look says no–“it was hot enough to split stones.” The weather had to take its toll on horses and men.

    I’m looking forward to the next installment.


  2. Thanks for another great post. As you note, the history of the war around Fredericksburg from April to August 1862 is sadly neglected by historians.

    In July and early August 1862, King’s infantry and cavalry (2nd NY & 3rd Indiana) stationed at Falmouth participated in numerous raids south of the Rappahannock and destroyed a great deal of property. The regiment I am researching, the 14th N.Y.S.M., accompanied a few of those outings. One raid even captured John Mosby. The blistering sun during this especially hot summer usually thinned the infantry columns as men fell prostrated with heat-related ailments. These ventures not only wore out the horses, as you mentioned, but also took a toll on the foot soldiers.

    I anxiously await the next post.


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