Swimming Deep and Dangerous – Federals Cross the Rappahannock

July 31, 1863 (Friday)

Since it seemed that his army wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, General George Meade decided to take up defensive positions along the northern banks of the Rappahannock River. As he had informed Washington, Meade was none too impressed with the ground he had to work with. He position he held did not offer “any particular advantage.” Still, he could leave his Army of the Potomac in a huddle of encampments around Warrenton, so on this date, he would begin his movement.

Buford: You might want to hurry with the bridge, George.
Buford: You might want to hurry with the bridge, George.

To hold the Rappahannock River meant to hold the crossings – specifically Kelly’s Ford and the posthumous railroad bridge of the Orange & Alexandria. Kelly’s would be built on this date, while Rappahannock Station’s would be built the next. Meade had ordered his cavalry to clear off the Rebel pickets and hold the southern landings. While John Buford’s Division readied itself, Meade planned to move five corps towards the river crossings. The I Corps was to hold the center, at Rappahannock Station, while the XII Corps took the left and the III Corps, the right. In reserve, Meade placed the II Corps on the left and his old V Corps on the right.

Buford and the engineers were set in motion at dawn of this day. There was a bit of drama over mules and boats, as was often the case when anyone wanted a bridge to be constructed here or there. Somehow or another, it worked itself out, but the engineers were, according to John Buford, less than helpful. For some reason, they had never received orders to throw a bridge across Kelly’s Ford.

If a bridge were constructed, reported Buford, “I can take my division across before 7a.m. I cannot cross without the bridge, as the river is swimming deep, and dangerous.” Buford procured a boat and sent eighty of his men across the river, driving off the small contingent of Rebel pickets on the south side. “A bridge can be laid in perfect safety,” concluded Buford.

The reason the engineers had never received the order to build the bridge was because it wasn’t scheduled to be thrown across until nightfall. Buford did not want to wait. He saw before him an easy opportunity to cross his division without opposition. If they waited for too long, the Rebels would no doubt take notice of all the activity around Kelly’s Ford.

But that was not Meade’s plan. A bridge was to be laid at night and Buford’s Division was to cross, circle around to the south bank of Rappahannock Station, clearing away the enemy as he rode. Unable to cross until a proper bridge was installed, Buford had little to do but wait.

As the cavalry whiled away the daylight, Meade issued orders to each of the four corps he was pushing towards the River. They would arrive at dusk, around 6pm.


General Henry Slocum’s XII Corps was tasked with the most important work – clearing Kelly’s Ford of the Rebels. While Buford’s Cavalry had done this at dawn, they had come back. As Buford’s men did that morning, Slocum sent a regiment (the 66th Ohio) across in boats and they quickly drove away the 4th North Carolina Cavalry. It was now again safe for the engineers to ply their trade, which took very little time.

By 11pm, General Slocum had a brigade across and planned to cross two more at dawn the following day. One thing that Slocum did not see was Buford’s Cavalry. They had given up Kelly’s Ford and moved upriver to Rappahannock Station, ready to cross the next morning.

This wasn’t, however, where he was supposed to be. His orders were to remain and cross at Kelly’s Ford, clearing the way for the infantry to follow. With the infantry across after dark, however, this point seemed moot and would have to be worked out the next day.

However it was done, General Meade had established control of one crossing of the Rappahannock and appeared to be ready to take another. Both of these (Kelly’s and Rappahannock Station) had been picketed by the left flank of the Confederate Cavalry, which watched the river from Rappahannock Station to Fredericksburg, figuring that Meade would strike somewhere along that line. Word would soon spread, but that would have to wait for the next day as well.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p150, 932; Part 3, p782-784, 788, 791-793, 819. []
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Swimming Deep and Dangerous – Federals Cross the Rappahannock by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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