November 15, 1863 (Sunday)
It had grown to a relative quiet along the Rapidan River, with the silence punctuated only by Confederate artillery, sporadically, almost randomly, hurling a shot or shell toward the camps of General George Meade. And also, there was stirring. Slaves who had escaped bondage from General Lee’s Army spoke the words of their former masters, indicating that the entire force was falling back farther south – perhaps to Orange Court House, perhaps to Spotsylvania. Deserters, too, brought likewise.
On this day, General Meade had traveled to Washington to meet with General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. While away, his chief of staff, General Andrew Humphreys, kept the commander informed by telegraph of every development.
Union Cavalry patrolled the fords throughout the morning, trying to learn something definite. If the Rebels were withdrawing, their presence along the river had not changed. The Federal horse soldiers drew fire at both Rapidan Station, and downriver at Raccoon Ford. It was at this latter place that a brigade of enemy infantry was spotted marching down a hill on the southern side of the river. They were moving toward the Union right.
Downriver farther, at Morton’s Ford, the Rebels had constructed redoubts and filled them with even more infantry. George Armstrong Custer reported it to be a division. With the current they traveled, finding still more Confederates at Mitchell’s Ford.
But what could not be espied were the enemy camps. From atop Pony Mountain, Union signal officers tried to decipher columns of smoke, but no meaning could be divined. There were none in the direction of Madison. Neither were there toward Orange. Toward United States Ford and beyond, the same was true.
As the day progressed, more scouts reported their findings. In the early afternoon, both Confederate infantry and wagons were seen moving in double columns near Raccoon Ford, still moving toward the Union right.
And on the Union right, John Buford’s Cavalry found Rebel infantry on the north side of the river at Rapidan Station, and more at Somerville Ford. He also reported that a brigade of enemy cavalry had passed through James City, just west of Culpeper, the previous day.
When General Meade heard this, it raised an alarm. It was clear that General Lee had not retreated farther south than the Rapidan River, but the movements on the right spoke of machinations he did not care to see. “I do not like the reported passing through James City of a brigade of cavalry and the reported movements of infantry from Raccoon Ford,” wrote Meade toward evening. “This has the appearance of an advance.” Meade then offered to leave Washington at once if General Humphreys believed it necessary. He had originally planned to return the following day.
But by the late evening, the haze had lifted and things could be now more clearly seen and explained away. The movement toward the Union right from Raccoon Ford, for instance, was a mere reaction to Buford’s Cavalry. They had since halted and encamped. The enemy brigade at James City was but a reconnoitering party of their own. On this day it was apparently picketing the southern banks of Robertson’s River.
From atop Pony Mountain, smoke could been seen between Raccoon Ford and Orange Court House. There, they concluded, were the Rebel camps. The only enemy troops on the Federal side of the Rapidan were entrenched near the railroad crossing. All was as it had been, and all was, more or less, as it should be.