On July 22, General Rufus King sent Lieut. Col. Judson Kilpatrick, with a mixed force of cavalry and infantry, including a detachment of the 14th Brooklyn, to investigate reports of a Southern force posted near Carmel Church, south of Fredericksburg. After skirmishing with the enemy for several hours on the 23rd, Kilpatrick destroyed the campsite and seven carloads of grain before returning to Fredericksburg.
But with Union attention increasingly focused on Orange, southwest of Fredericksburg, King sent Brig. Gen. John Gibbon with four infantry regiments, including the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin, and four companies of cavalry, from the 2nd New York and 3rd Indiana, to Orange on July 24. King instructed Gibbon to leave the main body of his command behind “as a supporting column,” and to push through Orange Court House, “if possible,” with only one of his infantry regiments, one squadron of cavalry and one section of artillery. After a long, hot march, Gibbon reached the outskirts of Orange Court House on the 26th, but after several skirmishes with enemy cavalry and with infantry reported to be in force nearby, Gibbon retired on July 27.
Aware of Gibbon’s advance, Gen. Samuel Crawford elected to send his own scouting force to Orange on the 26th. Capt. John Kester, 1st New Jersey, with 100 men, pushed enemy pickets aside at Barnett’s Ford and splashed across the Rapidan before proceeding to within two miles of Orange Court House. But rather than pushing farther south, Kester also retired, possibly to avoid a friendly fire incident with Gibbon’s column.
An early dispatch from Gibbon via King, combined with other reports, convinced Pope that Lee had begun to mass his infantry between Louisa Court House and Gordonsville. He hoped to move King’s division westward to reunite with McDowell, if he received timely reinforcements from the south. Troops from the Peninsula began reaching Washington by the 26th, including Col. Thomas Devin’s 6th New York Cavalry, and were shuttled to Warrenton as quickly as transport could be arranged.
With the Rapidan River now being the last natural barrier between the growing enemy force in Orange and Louisa and Pope’s troops in Culpeper, Union attention focused more closely on the river fords and the roads leading to and from the fords. On the 27th, Bayard, whose dispatches still bore the confusing originating point of Fairfax (an early name for Culpeper) instead of Culpeper, sent out at least two patrols to scout likely crossing points, including Raccoon Ford and Germanna Ford. The orders to both commanders, including Capt. Hugh Janeway, 1st New Jersey, who was to scout Germanna Ford, were similar; “cross the river, find the enemies pickets, capture some of them if possible and proceed as far as you can with safety, gathering all the information you can as to the position of the enemy.”
The officer sent to Raccoon Ford probably provided the following report upon his return that evening. Unfortunately, his name cannot be discerned with certainty which also prevents identifying his unit as well. Pope had begun demanding specificity in these reports regarding distances, quality of roads and the like and the officers had begun to respond, as evidenced here.
“The following facts I obtained …respecting roads, localities, distances [to &] from Culpeper [and] Stevensburg.
Three miles south from Culpeper the road branches – the road which turns directly to the left or east is called the Fredericksburg Road. Going [east] on the Fredericksburg Road ¾ of a mile is a road leading from it north to [Taliaferro’s] Mill & the [railroad] to the former place, the distance is one mile, to the latter [1/2 mile]. [Two and 1/4] miles east of this point is a road leading north to the railroad, Brandy Station…. From this point east is the town of Stevensburg. The distance is 2 miles. As you enter the town from the east is a [cross] road running north and south, south the road leads to Orange, Va, Raccoon Ford and is called the Raccoon Ford Road. The distance to the ford from Stevensburg is 7 miles & to Orange CH is 20. A good country road – has been but little used & in good condition. About 4 miles on this road from Stevensburg a road leads to the left to Morton’s Ford. Within [one and 1/2] miles (on this road) of Raccoon Ford a road turns to the right to [Somerville Ford]. This road runs into the Orange road. The road which runs past Morton’s Ford intersects with a road running from the Fredericksburg Road & that of Orange. From the Orange road leading to the Fredericksburg Road the distance is  miles. North from Stevensburg the road leads to Brandy Station distance 4 miles. East on the Fredericksburg Road the distance is 20 miles. Population of Stevensburg 60 or 70 [with] few men in the place.”
Also, on the 27th, an infantry officer led his own scouting foray through Culpeper County and submitted the following report.
“There are two principal roads leading from Culpeper to the fords, the first going to the west of Pony Mountain, is the most direct of the two, and the one usually traveled by the inhabitants. It is a very rough and in rainy weather a very muddy road. After a hard storm it would be impassable for artillery for some days. Near Pony Mountain there is a branch road, leading to Mitchell’s Ford, which is five miles above the Raccoon Ford. About 6 miles from Culpeper this road makes a turn to the right and after running in the new direction for about 3 miles turns to the left making an elbow around a …wood. Through this wood there is a more direct road, which comes out exactly opposite the ford, and forms the main road when the turn to the right is made. This road I have not been over. Seven miles from Culpeper, near the house of a Mr. Colvin, there are two branch roads – the one to the right, leading to Mitchell’s Station, distant 3.5 miles; the center one leading to Somerville, distant 3 miles. From this point to the ford would be the worst part of the road in wet weather. The distance to the ford by this road is 10 miles.
The other principal road is by the way of Stevensburg, around the east side of Pony Mountain. The road from Culpeper to Stevensburg is now very good, with the exception of two or three places, where for a short distance (20 or 30 yards) the mud is knee deep. The distance from Culpeper to Stevensburg is 7 miles. The road from Stevensburg to the ford is of the same character as the first described – very rough and in places muddy, but at present practicable for artillery. From Stevensburg to the ford the distance is 6 miles.
The ford is a very good one, hard, sand bottom, and when the river is settled, not over knee deep. To cross the ford if the water is high you go down the stream, keeping close to the bank till you come opposite a large stump in the stream, then face toward the opposite bank, keeping, if anything a little [upstream].”
The editors of the Official Records published the report above, making slight changes in the process, but chose not to publish a follow-up report from the same officer, of a second scout conducted on July 30.
“According to your directions I proceeded yesterday to make an investigation of the roads [to Somerville] Ford, from thence to Rapidan Station and from there to Culpeper.
The road to [Somerville] Ford commences at a point on the cross road which connects the road leading to [Colvin’s] Tavern, about 400 yards to left from where the road from Culpeper joins it and runs southerly for about three miles, when you take a road (or a lane) turning to your left, which runs nearly south easterly, crossing the railroad at Dr. [Jno Morton’s] plantation, and Cedar Run at the mill, and then continues across lots to the ford. The condition of this is good, it is exposed to [view] from Clark’s Mountain, as are all the roads in this neighborhood. The ford is good, at present not over knee deep, the bank on the other side is the higher, and commands the ford, distance of the ford from Culpeper 10 miles.
From [Somerville] Ford to Rapidan Station the road runs alongside of the river, following [old] turnings; at present the road is good with the exception of a few places which can easily be [repaired].
Both sides of the river are skirted by thick [wooded] growth, and on the other side the woods [come to] within ½ to ¾ of a mile. About three miles from [Somerville] Ford there is a place where the river can be crossed when the water is low –it is not a good ford, and but little used, no road leading to it, on the other side. The river can also be crossed about half a mile from the station, the water now not being more than waist deep. At Rapidan Station there is a good ford. The distance from [Somerville] to Rapidan is between six and seven miles.
From Rapidan Station to Culpeper, the first part of the way for three or four miles is quite bad. [One] mile from the station you come to a road on your left hand with a guide board, the left-hand road goes to Crooked Run, the straight road to Culpeper. The Culpeper road is a very poor one, the enemy employed it only for cavalry, and they went most of the way through the fields. This road joins the road leading from Culpeper to Madison about a mile and a half from Wayland’s Mill road. The best way to Culpeper from Rapidan is to take the Crooked Run road until it joins the road leading from Madison to Culpeper, and then follow that road. The distance to Culpeper from the Rapidan by the first mentioned road is 16 miles.
We found, yesterday, that the enemy had pickets at [Somerville] Ford and at Rapidan Station. At Mr. Clarks, situated about three miles back from the Rapidan (on the other side) the enemy had a signal station from which they can overlook the whole country to within a mile of Culpeper.”
On July 29, Lieut. Col. Joseph Karge took his 1st New Jersey, 600 men strong, southwest out of Culpeper toward the confluence of the Rapidan and Robertson (known as Robinson today) Rivers. Making his headquarters at the Elm Farm, near a bend of the Robertson and just across the river from Locust Dale, Karge sent out several parties to scout toward Orange. Major Beaumont led the larger of the two detachments as far as Madison Mills, near Barnett’s Ford on the Rapidan before Karge ordered him to withdraw back into Culpeper. Karge then established a strong picket at Barnett’s Ford “and all the roads” nearby. Feeling isolated and exposed along the Rapidan, with enemy pickets mere yards away, Karge and his men got little, if any, rest. “The reserve which amounted to about 160 men I kept in camp continually saddled and under arms. This state of affairs lasted for three days,” Karge explained. General Crawford sent a detachment from the 1st Michigan to bolster his force, but Karge still felt his position “very precarious,” believing his “right flank was entirely exposed and that the enemy could at any time pounce upon me from the direction of Cave’s Ford and Liberty Mills Bridge, where he was known to be in force. To sustain myself in my position under such circumstances was an utter impossibility and all I could do was to guard myself against a sudden surprise and the utter annihilation of my command and to avoid this catastrophe I had to tax both my men and horses with an extraordinary amount of labor.” Even the arrival of General Bayard and the 1st Pennsylvania, did not, in Karge’s mind, “lessen the burden of our labors. The line which the two regiments [plus the Michiganders] had to guard extended over 15 miles along the Rapidan and the consequence was that from the 28th of July till the 9th of August neither man nor beast had any rest. Few horses ever had their saddles removed from their backs, and the men themselves seldom experienced and sleep.”
While General Bayard’s troopers held the fords near Rapidan Station, other commands scouted the fords along the Rappahannock River. On July 31, pursuant to orders from McDowell and King, Colonel Devin, 6th New York, examined the crossing points along the Rappahannock River near the confluence with the Rapidan, including the area around Ellis’ Ford (also known as Barnett’s Ford but not to be confused with the ford of the same name on the Rapidan) and Richards’ Ford. He submitted the following report:
“We examined the country thoroughly on the north side of the Rappahannock to within 7 miles of Falmouth, thence down to the Gold Mines and U. S. Ford, thence across to Richard’s Ferry (where we crossed the ford on horses sinking in places to the shoulder), thence up the neck by the road leading to Culpepper CH to the road leading to Barnett’s Ford (where our advance picket was stationed), thence to the ford which we crossed and returned to camp at 6 P.M. having occupied about ten hours in the reconnaissance and gleaned some information in regard to the roads and the feelings of residents in the neighborhood.
There seems to be no Union feeling whatever exhibited on the north side of the Rappahannock within a radius of ten miles from this place except by two or three of the poorest residents.
On the Neck [of land near the junction of the two rivers] which is thinly inhabited the people seem to be wholly occupied in their farming avocations and express much less bitterness and treated us well.
Of the roads all that I can say is that they are impossible for artillery anywhere in the neighborhood of Richards or the US Fords. Richards does not deserve the name of Ford as it is only passable for cavalry and that in the present state of water, and the access to both Fords is very difficult even for cavalry having been obstructed by abatis. The road which commences on the top of the hill over Richard’s Ford and runs through the Neck towards Culpepper CH is the best road I have met in this section, a somewhat sandy soil, nearly a dead level to this point and passable for any and everything.
The Cross Road from thence to this ford (Barnett’s) is also excellent except about one hundred yards which is very rough rock bed and a descent of thirty degrees.
The Falmouth Road I presume has already been reported to you. I can only say I found it generally good and passable except being miry in spots. I could find no trace of pickets or scouting parties on the Neck and have no reason to believe it has been lately visited by such.
I have every reason, however, to believe that this section between Norman’s Ford and Richards has been and is one of the principal avenues of communication with Richmond. Many of the families around here have members in the rebel army and are frequently visited by them.
Two young ladies of the Smith family attempted to penetrate my camp yesterday in the guise of Pie dealers. They were mounted and had two servants mounted.
I am told they live about ten miles this side of Falmouth. I have formed a plan for the detection of some of the carrier pigeons. The ford here is now passable for almost anything. I saw a wagon load of hay pass across yesterday, drawn by oxen, which may give you some idea of its feasibility. The landing on both sides and the roads leading from it, are, I think, the best on the river…”
The following day, another detail from the 6th New York examined the crossing points along the Rapidan between Ely’s Ford and Germanna Ford and Devin submitted the following report:
“…I directed Major [James] B. Daily of this regiment accompanied by Lieut. [Charles Suter, Engineer Officer] and escorted by a squadron of cavalry to proceed by way of the cross roads leading from this ford [Barnett’s]across the neck to Ely’s Ford and after crossing the Rapidan around to Germanna Mills by Chancellorsville and the plank road through the neck. They returned at 9 P.M. and report as follows.
The crossroad on the neck from the Culpepper road to Ely’s Ford is very rough and nearly impassable for artillery. The ford itself is good, about two feet deep, but the approaches are bad with mud four feet in depth. The road on the other side to Chancellorsville is good after you reach the hill over the ford.
The plank road is excellent. The road to Germanna Mills is also excellent. The road at the mills is bad and impassable for artillery. The abutments of the bridge are all in good condition, except one and could easily be rebuilt as there is a steam sawmill and plenty of suitable timber within a mile of it on the Culpepper road. The mill is not in operation but seems to be in perfect order with all the machinery standing and new. The road up the neck from Germanna Mills to this point is very good, nearly level, and with the repair of a few hundred feet passable for anything.
They were unable to find any traces of the enemy, his pickets or scouts on the road by which they travelled. The people generally seemed well disposed, quiet and exhibited more anxiety of feeling than those on this side of the Rappahannock.
They met a scouting party of the Indiana cavalry from Fredericksburg and learned that a party from Culpepper had passed the day before, so that the front seems now to be well covered. I next propose to reconnoiter the country in front of and around Kelly’s Ford and to establish my pickets on the Rappahannock opposite this point and at Kelly’s.” Subsequent events may have prevented Devin from conducting the proposed scout to Kelly’s Ford.
After examining the bridge at Germanna Mills, Lieutenant Suter added a post-script to Devin’s report. “The distance between the abutments is about 200 feet. The piers are six in number and all are standing except the middle one. The piers and abutments are made of crib work filled with stone. The distance between the piers is 30 feet and their height above the river about the same. Pine timber is abundant in the vicinity and there is a steam sawmill in good order within a mile of the bridge. There is considerable lumber at the sawmill.”
The editors of the Official Records published the orders from McDowell to both Devin and King which precipitated Devin’s scouting forays but did not publish either of his post-mission reports. The editors did publish an extensive and rather comprehensive summary of multiple scouting expeditions prepared by Maj. D. C. Houston of McDowell’s staff on July 28. Houston refers to Major Beaumont’s July 19 expedition, but the editors cited Beaumont’s report as “Not found.”
On July 30, Banks told General Crawford at Culpeper, “I fear our troops do not press their reconnaissances beyond the Rapidan. That should be done at once…Preceded by scouts a reconnaissance will be safe and should be pressed.” Possibly fearing that his message had not reached Crawford, or made the proper impression, Banks told him the next day, “The Rapidan should be occupied by our pickets constantly. Vigorous and bold reconnaissances by our cavalry in small parties, moving in different directions without cessation, will best serve to harass our foe and develop his position and plans.” We must, Banks declared, “take some risks.” Banks also mentioned, that, in addition to the severe heat, “Our men are suffering here from typhoid fever very much.” The heat, combined with large numbers of men in the same camps for days, may have begun to foul the water supply.
Banks offered a similar opinion to an aide. “The Rapidan should be constantly guarded as a sort of scouting base of operations. Vigilance, activity and a precaution that has a considerable mixture of audacity in it will carry you through many difficulties. There is a splendid opportunity for well-mounted cavalry. Communicate with General Crawford on this subject.” With Banks having planted the seed, Pope, who had finally reached the front, told Maj. Gen. Halleck on August 2, “General Crawford, is advancing to-day upon Orange Court-House to reconnoiter.” Crawford’s probe precipitated what he termed, “quite a little affair,” as his 1st Vermont and 5th New York tangled with Confederate cavalry in the streets of Orange Court House. Skirmishing had also developed during the early morning hours along Bayard’s line on the Rapidan. The “brisk” firing ended when Crawford’s men reached Orange and the Southern pickets fell back to aid their comrades.
While Crawford’s troopers skirmished at Orange, Pope issued Special Orders 31 outlining the responsibilities of his cavalry commanders. Pope wanted Buford to establish his headquarters at Madison Court House, with a line of pickets running from Stanardsville, at the base of the Blue Ridge to the crossing of the Rapidan at Liberty Mills. Bayard would cover the river from Buford’s left flank to about Somerville Ford, though Clark’s Mountain blocked much of the view across the river near the ford.
To be continued
Unpublished documents from the National Archives
The Official Records