May 29, 1863 (Friday)
Generals Joe Hooker and Alfred Pleasonton had looked all around their right flank for Rebel Cavalry that had crossed the Rappahannock River. Rumors, reported for days, had it that Jeb Stuart was at Culpeper and John S. Mosby was at Warrenton. So concerned was Hooker that he threw infantry into the nearby fords, and allowed the cavalry to resume their true function – that of gathering information and protecting the lines of supply.
For the most part, the land east of the Blue Ridge Mountains was well guarded and patrolled. The Shenandoah Valley, west of the Blue Ridge, had never been fully given up by the Rebels. Cavalry under Grumble Jones and Albert Jenkins had claimed much of it as their own, and, for the most part, their Federal counterparts left them to their own devices.
But as the campaign season was drawing closer, Federals in Washington feared raids on the east side of the Blue Ridge, between Hooker’s Army of the Potomac at Falmouth and the capital. With the rumored gathering of Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavaliers at Culpeper, this was looking like a distinct possibility.
“There is no strong force of the enemy concentrated this side of the Blue Ridge [the eastern side]” reported a Union scout to General Julius Stahel, commanding Union troops at Fairfax, Virginia. “Only Mosby’s men are scouting through the country in every direction in small parties.”
This was proof enough that it was only Mosby, and perhaps 200 of his boys, making a bit of fuss. By all accounts, Stuart and his division of Cavalry were still south of the Rappahannock.
But there were other rumors that, when added to yet more rumors, actually added up to something big. Apparently a relative of Confederate General Richard Ewell had been “making arrangements this week for the pasture of a large number of cavalry horses” near Sudley Springs, just north of the old Bull Run battlefield.
“It is the current conversation and belief,” wrote Stahel to General Samuel Heintzelman, commanding the defenses of Washington, “that Stuart is to be this side of the Blue Ridge within a week. All the events and circumstances indicate such to be the fact.”
As a testament to the accuracy of Hooker and Halleck’s informants, both already knew about Lee’s plan to start his campaign before the Federals, who were weakened by the large number of regiments that have gone home. Officers all across Maryland, Washington and Virginia were abuzz with rumors and suggestions. Lee was supposedly trying to draw Hooker out by demonstrating up the Rappahannock River, and then pounce upon him while Jeb Stuart dashed around the Union right flank. “Pretty good theory,” insisted General Milroy in Winchester. Halleck warned Milroy to be on alert for an attack.
Of course, they did not yet know Lee’s intentions, and so focused upon finding out what the Confederate cavalry was about, hoping to figure everything out by watching their movements.
While everyone was waiting to see what Stuart would do, Mosby and his small band were basically forgotten. It was well known that they were operating around Warrenton, but though feared locally by several Federal cavalry units, Washington had not yet caught on. Mosby had certainly made a name for himself, but had not yet found himself to be a legend.
This was not for lack of trying. Mosby had once been part of Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry, but had branched off on his own. His intent was not fame as much as it was disruption of anything having to do with the Federal Army. Since the battle of Chancellorsville, Mosby had wanted to hit the heavily-guarded Orange & Alexandria Railroad, the supply line for the right flank of the Union army.
Mosby’s men did not have a camp in the strictest sense of the idea. They stayed wherever they could find shelter, taking up residence in the houses of any secessionists who were willing to help the cause. When the time came for another raid or action, word would be spread through the typical channels and a meeting would be set for a certain date.
Such a meeting was set for this date. Mosby’s idea to hit the Orange & Alexandria Railroad had inspired him to ask General Stuart for a small howitzer. It had recently arrived and was the centerpiece of the meeting and his plan. “Some of the men thought it a bit too large to carry in a holster,” remembered one of Mosby’s boys after the war, “but not big enough to be called a cannon.” The men were taught how to use it and the plan was unfolded.
By the night, they would be in Greenwich, northeast of Warrenton, and the next morning, they would descend upon the depot at Catlett’s Station, hoping to throw the Union supply lines into complete disarray.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p566, 567; Partisan life with Col. John S. Mosby by John Scott; Reminiscences of a Mosby Guerilla by John W. Munson. [↩]