Stuart’s “Narrow” Escape Along the Chickahominy

June 14, 1862 (Saturday)

Gouverneur K. Warren had a fairly bad day.

It had been a long night for Union Col. Gouverneur K. Warren. His unit had been dispatched to track down the mysterious brigade of Confederate infantry, supposed to be accompanying the large body of cavalry that attacked a Federal camp the previous day.

The large body of cavalry was Jeb Stuart’s. He and 1,200 troopers were on the second day of their ride around McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, at the gates of Richmond. The rumors were that he had as many as 5,000 riders and was augmented by as many as seven regiments of infantry.

Col. Warren didn’t believe it, but followed the order to move out from Old Church, site of the burned out Union camp, More rumors had placed Stuart’s band at New Castle, a few miles north. These were believable, and so at 4am, Warren’s infantry, along with General Philip St. George Cooke’s cavalry, slowly tramped toward the Pamunkey River. Finding it empty, as Stuart was nearly twenty miles away, Cooke and Warren began to follow the Rebels’ trail towards the Richmond & York River Railroad.

The Federal infantry had made a forced march late into the night and received only two hours rest before starting again. They were exhausted and Warren, convinced that no infantry was with the Confederates, urged Cooke to leave them behind. Cooke could then move faster, and hopefully run down the Rebels. Much to Warren’s dismay, Cooke refused. The infantry would plod along with the cavalry, but the cavalry would keep the pace of the infantry. This practically ensured that they would never, ever catch Stuart.

They reached Tunstall’s Station at noon, missing the Rebels by some fifteen hours.1 The night before, Stuart had tried to hold up a train laden with Federal troops, but discretion being the better part of valor, continued on his way.

Jeb Stuart

The dawn brought Stuart to the Chickahominy River, thirty-five miles from Richmond and fifteen miles behind the main Union lines. The river, usually shallow enough to be forded, was found swollen and fifteen feet deep. Col. Rooney Lee, General Robert E. Lee’s son, tried to swim the racing current, but was nearly drowned. When he returned, exhausted and dripping, a staff member, John Esten Cooke, asked him what he thought. “Well Captain,” came the reply, “I think we are caught.”

They could not turn around, and they could not go forward. Rumors came in that an entire Federal division was on their trail and closing in fast. There was no truth in it, but it added something like the sense of urgency to their situation. Stuart moved a bit downstream to where an old bridge used to span the river. All but the stone abutments were gone. He deployed his artillery, threw up a strong rear guard and began the task of rebuilding Jones Bridge (usually known as Forge Bridge).

Stuart's Ride

They first tore down an old barn and used its wood to create a foot bridge. Some of the men trodded lightly over it, while swimming their horses through the Chickahominy. This was too slow, so the building continued until a more or less proper bridge lay atop the stone abutments. The remaining troopers, and even the artillery, hurried across, before destroying the bridge. All were convinced that they had made the most narrow of escapes.

John Esten Cooke remembered that Union Col. Richard Rush “thundered down with this ‘lancers’ to the bank,” and “banged away at Colonel Lee,” who commanded the rear guard.2 Though Cooke spun a fabulous yarn, the truth, according to Col. Rush, was that he reached a farm passed by Stuart five or six hours before. He sent nine of his men ahead to the river, but, arriving at 2:45pm, they were too late. One trooper, Major Morris, fired one shot at the five Rebels that remained near the bridge. They mounted and rode off, while Morris returned to Rush.3

From the Chickahominy to Richmond, Stuart’s ride was without incident. Leaving the main body in the command of Col. Fitzhugh Lee (General Lee’s nephew), General Stuart rode ahead to report in person to General Lee. He arrived after dawn the next morning. Lee would use this information when deciding what to do with Stonewall Jackson’s army.4


Jackson Refits and Remembers his Wife

Mary Anna Jackson, Stonewall's wife.

Meanwhile, Stonewall Jackson’s army was still at Weyer’s Cave, just south of Port Republic. With the Federals under Generals Fremont and Shields retreating north, down the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson was able to rest and refit his men. General Shields, in fact, was preparing to leave the Valley entirely, along with General Ord’s Division, now commanded by General Ricketts. This would leave Fremont and General Nathaniel Banks the sole Federal units in the Shenandoah Valley.

The previous day, Jackson had sent a letter to General Lee, asking for his command to be increased to 40,000. This way, he could storm down the Valley and take the fight into Pennsylvania. He sent Congressman Alexander Boteler, traveling with Jackson, to Richmond. Boteler arrived on this date, but wasn’t able to see Lee until the 15th, after Jeb Stuart delivered his own information.5

At this point, Lee must have been in a similar mind as Jackson. He had sent two brigades under Generals Whiting and Lawton, which had been arriving over the past several days. Once fully in the Valley, Jackson’s forces would number 18,000.

Large map of the Virginia situation - not much has changed in the past couple of days.

With his numbers growing, Jackson had time to reflect on Weyer’s Cave. Back in May, when he had first passed through Port Republic, though on the march, he remembered that his wife, Anna, had told him about the cavern. “I would like to see the cave,” wrote Jackson, “for I remembered that my little pet had been there, and that gave me a deeper interest in the great curiosity.” On this day, he again wrote to Anna: “When I look at the locality of the cave, I take additional interest in it from the fact that my esposita was there once….”

Jackson had ordered that this date, starting at 3pm, was a day of Thanksgiving. “This evening,” continued Jackson to his wife, “we have religious services in the army for the purpose of rendering thanks to the Most High for the victories with which He has crowned our arms, and to offer earnest prayer that He will continue to give us success, until, through His divine blessing, our independence shall be established. Wouldn’t you like to get home again?”6

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p1030 (Warren’s Report). []
  2. Wearing of the Gray by John Esten Cooke, E.B. Treat & Co., 1867. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p1017 (Rush’s Report). []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p1039 (Stuart’s Report). []
  5. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  6. Life and letters of General Thomas J. Jackson by Mary Anna Jackson, Harper & Brothers, 1892. []
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Stuart’s “Narrow” Escape Along the Chickahominy by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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