And Sabers Were Used with Success – Meade Controls the Rappahannock

This day marks the 1000th post for the Civil War Daily Gazette. Only 600 (or so) to go!

August 1, 1863 (Saturday)

John Buford cuts through the fog of war.
John Buford cuts through the fog of war.

Just like the previous day, Federal Cavalry General, John Buford, attempted to ford the Rappahannock, but found the river “swimming” and could not cross. He had sent a brigade to Beverly Ford, a little upriver from Rappahannock Station, where the Orange & Alexandria Railroad once crossed.

“I can cross in boats and drive away the rebs,” he reported, “after which, if the engineers are instructed to lay a bridge, I can cross and hold the opposite bank.”

He was getting evermore disgruntled at the seemingly lackadaisical attitude toward this operation. “If I am to advance, I would like to see some disposition shown to aid me,” he concluded in a morning message to General George Meade, commanding the army. “Everything seems to be awaiting orders.”

A half-hour later, around 6:30am, General Gouverneur K. Warren, Meade’s Chief Engineer, received a message from Captain G.H. Mendell, the engineer at Rappahannock Station. Mendell informed Warren that Buford had procured some boats and crossed some dismounted cavalry. “Shall I build the bridge?” he inquired.

Warren’s reply showed that the general orders had been wildly misunderstood by Buford. “It is the design to put the bridge across the Rappahannock Bridge [Station] as soon as the enemy leave the opposite side,” Warren immediately replied, “which it is supposed they will do as soon as the cavalry are across at Kelly’s Ford.”

According to the original plan, which was apparently misunderstood by Buford, his cavalry was to cross at the newly-installed pontoon bridge at Kelly’s Ford the previous night, ride upstream and clear the Rebels away from the ford at Rappahannock Station. Instead, Buford left Kelly’s Ford before the bridge was built, and a brigade from the XII Corps crossed the bridge in his stead. Buford traveled upstream on the Federal side of the river and arrived at Rappahannock Station, where he tried to cross this morning.

To set matters straight, General Pleasonton, commanding all of the Federal Cavalry, informed Buford of his mistake: “Your orders intended you to cross at Kelly’s Ford; the bridge is all ready for you at that point. Lose no time in doing so.” Buford, however, still was unsure where to cross. “The command is halted,” he replied. “I will cross at Rappahannock Station as soon as the bridge is laid.”

Pleasonton tried again: “The order relative to crossing at Kelly’s Ford was misunderstood by you. The engineers at Rappahannock Station had orders not to throw the bridge across until you had crossed at Kelly’s Ford and uncovered the opposite side.”

Gouverneur K. Warren doesn't care how its done (mostly).
Gouverneur K. Warren doesn’t care how its done (mostly).

To Buford, this all must have seemed ridiculous. The whole object of this maneuver was for the Army of the Potomac to throw two bridges across the Rappahannock River and hold them against any Confederate attacks. Meade had five corps of infantry ready to defend the position, with the XII Corps holding Kelly’s Ford and the First Corps set to hold Rappahannock Station. If the Rebel pickets were cleared away from both crossings and the bridges able to be laid, what did it matter how it was accomplished?

Before noon the bridge at Rappahannock Station was constructed. Buford crossed an entire brigade and would soon cross more. Though the Rebel pickets to the immediate front were tossed back, more soon showed up. With the bridge and Buford both across, General John Newton, commanding the I Corps, crossed a brigade of infantry.

It was a kind enough gesture, but by the time Newton’s men made it across, Buford was nowhere to be seen. Only the firing of carbines and the booming of artillery could be heard in the direction of Brandy Station.

Buford was hotly engaged with not Rebel skirmishers, but the cavalry brigades under Wade Hampton and (perhaps) Grumble Jones. Stuart, it seems, was even there in person, “in the front with the brigade the whole day,” as General Lee reported. Buford pushed on, hoping to gain some information as to the disposition of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but Stuart’s Cavalry was making this task somewhat difficult.

Today's map. The last of the Gettysburg Campaign.
Today’s map. The last of the Gettysburg Campaign.

“By keeping my men well in hand,” reported Buford, “I managed to drive him back to within 1 1/2 miles of Culpeper, where I met a heavy force of infantry belonging to A.P. Hill’s corps.” With this new surprise, Buford ordered his division to fall back. From what he could tell, 5,000 Rebel infantrymen took up the pursuit, following him and pressing him, as three Confederate batteries made the return a hot one.

John Buford was known as a modern cavalry officer. He cared little for charges made upon horseback and saw little use for the sword. But still, he must have had some lingering love for the old gallantry of his chosen branch. “The fight was very handsomely executed,” he continued, “there were several charges, and sabers were used with success.”

Some cracks in the facade, Mr. Stuart?
Some cracks in the facade, Mr. Stuart?

Buford tried to gain some information from his typical sources: the citizenry and its slaves. Both, however, were snatched up by Jeb Stuart and carried back with his retreating forces. There were, however, a good number of Rebel prisoners. From them, Buford learned that all of A.P. Hill’s Corps was at Culpeper, but the bulk of Lee’s Army lay south, in the direction of Gordonsville.

The Rebels under Hill followed, but broke off their pursuit after Buford fell back beyond Brandy Station. He took up a defensive position between the old battlefield and the river. For the foreseeable future, Buford’s command would be untested.

For General Lee, this was cause enough to fall back: “It was now determined to place the army in a position to enable it more readily to oppose the enemy should he attempt to move southward.” By August 3rd, both James Longstreet and A.P. Hill were put in motion. Richard Ewell was already on the move. By August 4th, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would have taken up a new position to the south, along the Rapidan River. Meade would fortify the crossings and begin work on reconstructing the railroad bridge, but would be otherwise still for weeks.

And thus the Gettysburg Campaign ended nearly where it began.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p111, 932; Part 2, p312, 324; Part 3, p820-823. []
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And Sabers Were Used with Success – Meade Controls the Rappahannock by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “And Sabers Were Used with Success – Meade Controls the Rappahannock

  1. Sometimes I can’t believe that orders were so difficult to write, or to interpret. It seems chronic, fromb eginning to end of the war. You think there would be a class at good ol’ West Point on “How To Write Understandable Orders” or something. How frustrating–! If a few of those minié balls had been bullets in orders, maybe it would have been easier to understand.

  2. Congratulations on #1000. I have enjoyed every post and am gaining a much better understanding of the civil war. I look forward to the next 600 posts.
    One request (not a complaint) – could you use a darker/thicker font? The “Leave a Reply” font above is easier on the eyes.

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