Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Baptism of Fire at Brandy Station

This is Part 3 of an on-going series taking a closer look at "French's Pets," the third division of the Third Corps (later transferred to the Sixth Corps).
By November of 1863, Joseph Bradford Carr's third division of the Third Corps had served in the Army of the Potomac for the better part of four months, and yet it had seen no combat. Since recrossing to the south side of the Potomac River after Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia had grappled with each other in a contest of maneuver, skirmishing and fighting a few larger engagements such as the Battle of Bristoe Station on October 14th. The two foes had avoided a general battle, and the Army of the Potomac had avoided testing its greenest division. By the end of October, Robert E. Lee had withdrawn his army below the Rappahannock, leaving a small force north of the river at Rappahannock Station to defend the crossing there. Lee positioned the remainder of his army between the river and Culpeper, and his men began to build huts for winter quarters.

George Gordon Meade was not content to end active operations for the year. Informed that Lee's army had begun to construct huts, he decided to push his army across the Rappahannock to confront the Army of Northern Virginia, and issued orders for an army-wide advance on the morning of November 7th, 1863. A column comprised of the Fifth and Sixth Corps and led by Major General John Sedgwick would force a crossing at Rappahannock Station. Meanwhile, Major General William H. French would lead a second column, the First, Second, and Third Corps, advancing against Kelly's Ford downstream. Once both forces crossed the river, they would march on Brandy Station and offer battle. For the men of the third division, this movement would provide yet another chance to prove their mettle.

"Fight at Kelly's Ford. Sleeper's battery." Drawn by Alfred Waud, 7 November 1863. Library of Congress.
At about 7 a.m. on the morning of November 7th, the men of the Third Corps broke up their camps around Warrenton Junction and took up the road for Kelly's Ford. David Birney's first division led the march, and unexpectedly found enemy infantry posted behind rifle pits supported by artillery on the opposite bank when they arrived at the ford around noon. As the third division closed up behind Birney's men, Third Corps artillery batteries unlimbered on the north bank of the river and began to bombard the south bank. When Carr's men arrived on the scene, they moved into position on the left of the first division to support the corps artillery. Meanwhile, Birney's men assaulted and carried the south bank of the river. The Confederates who had opposed the Third Corps, men of Robert Rodes' division, drew off toward Brandy Station, and the Third Corps began to cross the river. A pontoon bridge was laid at the ford, and at 5:10 that afternoon French reported to Army Headquarters:
The Third Corps is crossing the bridge and getting into position; the Second is massing near.... The enemy occupy a rifle-pit covering the road to Brandy. I hope to have it before dark.... Should there be an advance of the whole army here, it must for a while be a bushwhacking affair until we seize the plains beyond. I will force the fighting as early to-morrow as the troops can see. The pickets are ordered to push out to-night.
"Capture of the fortifications on the Rappahannock at the Railway Bridge--by the right wing commanded by Genl. Sedgwick." Drawn by Alfred Waud, 7 November 1863. Library of Congress.
Late that afternoon, the Fifth and Sixth Corps stormed Confederate defenses at Rappahannock Station, and drove the rebels to the river's south bank. Meade's initial plans had come off with minimal complications. With one column across at Kelly's Ford and the other ready to cross the next morning, many expected a battle the following day. At Kelly's Ford, Carr's men had crossed the river by about 7:00 that evening and camped near the south bank. The next morning, they would rotate to the front of the Third Corps column. As French pushed his forces toward a junction at Brandy Station, his pets would lead the way.

Carr's men awoke early on November 8th. Colonel Joseph W. Keifer's 2nd brigade would lead the advance. Not knowing how far Rodes's men had fallen back, at 4 a.m. Keifer ordered his two Ohio regiments, the 110th and 122nd, to make a reconnaissance down the road toward Brandy Station. These two regiments found that the rebels had left during the night, and scooped up 38 stragglers as they advanced a mile and a half. Satisfied that the Confederates were in retreat, French ordered Carr's division to begin the march toward Brandy Station. Keifer's brigade led, with the 6th Maryland in front. They marched to within two and a half miles of their goal, when Keifer found a rearguard of cavalry and a battery of artillery drawn up along a rise of ground and astride the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, apparently intent to dispute their continued advance. The Colonel halted his brigade and deployed it for action, the 6th Maryland astride the right side of the railroad, and the 110th Ohio moving into line on the Marylanders' right. On the left side of the railroad Keifer positioned the entirely green 138th Pennsylvania, supported by the 122nd Ohio. Keifer ordered the 110th and the 138th to each push forward a company of skirmishers. In the 138th, Captain Charles Fisher led Company A forward, while 1st Lieutenant James A. Fox led Company B of the 110th out into the fields to confront the Confederate rearguard.

General Carr came forward and ordered Keifer to advance two regiments to carry the hill, and the 110th and the 138th began to advance behind their skirmishers. The 110th had seen action before at Second Winchester, but this marked the 138th's first venture under fire. The two regiments moved forward across a plain commanded by the rebel battery. As the 138th Pennsylvania crested a small knoll, the Confederate artillery opened with shrapnel, shell, and solid shot. The 138th's regimental historian Osceola Lewis remembered that "Shells whizzed over our heads and through our ranks, tore up the turf before and behind us; fragments of shrapnel hummed about our ears; and solid shot bounded over and around us." Near the center of the regimental line in Company H, a deadly missile burst just as it struck Captain Lazarus C. Andress, badly mangling his hip and thigh, and splintering his sword. Fragments from the shell also shattered the left arm of Sergeant Abraham Rapp, while a piece of Andress's sword severely bruised Rapp's thigh and lodged in his pocketbook. The shell also minorly wounded two other members of Company H. Andress, a blacksmith from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, had organized Company H and served as its captain since the beginning of its service. He would hang on to his life for four days before succumbing to his wounds on November 12th, the first death in combat for the 138th. Rapp would lose his left arm. Yet the regiment did not falter. Unable to capture the rebel artillery, the 110th Ohio and 138th Pennsylvania succeeded in driving the rebels off. The two regiments continued their pursuit of the enemy through Brandy Station. Occassionally the rebel rearguard would pause to throw a few shells toward Keifer's men in an attempt to keep them at a respectful distance.

At Brandy Station, the pursuit was called off. Lee's army was in retreat across the Rapidan River. By the standards set by the Army of the Potomac, the affair at Brandy Station was a minor skirmish. The 138th suffered a total of seven casualties, and the 110th Ohio lost none. For the men of Joseph W. Keifer's second brigade, however, it had marked a baptism of fire as members of the Army of the Potomac. Keifer and his men hoped that this minor but successful affair would prove their worth to those officers who still distrusted the third division of the Third Corps. Ever mindful of his men's poor reputation as he wrote up his report of the affair, Keifer recorded:
 Officers and men were prompt in obeying orders. The manner in which they performed the services required of them fully warrants me saying that when more important and dangerous duties are assigned to them, they will willingly and cheerfully discharge them.
Of Captain Andress, Keifer wrote that "his loss is deeply regretted by all who knew him." For the men of the 138th Pennsylvania, and their comrades in Carr's division, this was just the beginning of their war.

War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 29, parts 1 and 2.

Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, From Gettysburg to the Rapidan: The Army of the Potomac, July 1863 to April 1864, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1883.

Edwin Mortimer Haynes, A History of the Tenth Regiment, Vermont Volunteers...," Published by the Tenth Vermont Regimental Association, 1870.

Osceola Lewis, History of the One Hundred and Thirty-Eighth Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Norristown: Wills, Iredell & Jenkins, 1866.

Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers: 1861-5, Harrisburg: State Printer, 1868-1871.

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