Monday, February 17, 2014

150 Years Ago This Month- Charlottesville's Brush with Civil War Combat

This month one hundred and fifty years ago, Charlottesville, Virginia found itself in the sights of George Armstrong Custer, and witnessed its brief and only encounter with Civil War combat.

Map of the counties of Greene, Madison, Page, and Rockingham, and parts of the counties of Albemarle, Augusta, Culpeper, Louisa, Orange, and Rappahannock, Va. Virginia Historical Society. Access full screen, zoomable map here.
In the pre-dawn darkness of February 29th, 1864, Custer led a force of 1,500 cavalrymen southwest out of Madison Court-House, leaving behind the security of the Army of the Potomac's 6th corps to plunge deep into enemy territory. The column included elements of several regiments, including the 1st, 2nd, and 5th U.S., the 1st New York Dragoons, 6th Pennsylvania, 1st New Jersey, and 6th Ohio. The troopers moved at a deliberate gait. At the small hamlet of Wolftown they dispersed a handful of rebel pickets, and then splashed across the shallow and sluggish waters of the Rapidan River at Banks Mill Ford with the first light of day. The pace quickened on the south side of the river, and the column traversed another six miles to Stanardsville by 8:15 in the morning. After scattering another picket post, Custer and his men took the road toward their objective: Charlottesville, another twenty-odd miles distant. For the second time in its history, the seat of Albemarle County was the target of a lightning cavalry raid. In 1781 Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton hoped to bag Governor Thomas Jefferson and disrupt the Virginia Legislature. Now, on Leap Day of 1864, Custer set his sights on the Virginia Central Railroad Bridge over the Rivanna River at the base of Jefferson's "little mountain." The Virginia Central was a critical link between the Army of Northern Virginia and the foodstuffs of the Shenandoah Valley.
This image of General Custer was
taken just weeks before
his raid into Albemarle County.
Source: Library of Congress.

Custer's raid was a diversion, intended to keep Confederate attention focused away from the true show: the Kilpatrick / Dahlgren Raid that aimed at nothing short of attacking the rebel capital and liberating thousands of prisoners-of-war. As Custer's troopers plodded along on this chilly February morning, their leader was well aware of the vulnerability of his small column. Maj. Gen. George Meade had ordered Custer to destroy the railroad bridge only if doing so was "consistent with the security of his return within supporting distance of Madison Court-House." Cavalry Commander Alfred Pleasonton added a stern caution to these instructions, explaining to Custer that "the enemy may be able to throw forward cavalry and infantry to interrupt your progress." The brash twenty-four year old took these ominous warnings to heart.

Along their path, the Yankee raiders attracted the curiosity of the local population. More than one hundred enslaved African Americans joined the column, in the hopes of finding their way to freedom, while many of the white men along the route found themselves forcibly attached to the column. Sketch artist Alfred Waud traveled with Custer and wrote a descriptive account for Harper's Weekly. "The men were exceedingly disgusted when they found they had to accompany the column as temporary prisoners," he wrote. "The female relatives of one person hung about him with outcries and shrieks, as if they imagined he would be led at once to execution."

Information collected along the route indicated that Fitzhugh Lee's division of cavalry awaited the raiders in Charlottesville. Unfortunately for Custer, the information was misleading. Such was the crisis in procuring and feeding mounts for the Army of Northern Virginia that winter, that Fitz Lee had at first dispersed his division on both sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and eventually disbanded many of the units to return home for horses. The only Confederate forces up ahead in Charlottesville were four batteries of the Stuart Horse Artillery--under the temporary command of Captain Marcellus N. Moorman.

Alfred Waud included these sketches with his account of Custer's Raid in the  March 26th, 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly.
Custer and his men reached the Rivanna River six miles north of Charlottesville at about 3:00 p.m., driving Confederate videttes before them. They crossed the river at Rio Bridge, and ran into their first serious resistance about a mile and a half south of the river. Disposed on a hilltop Custer observed what he believed to be a substantial force of cavalry supported by four batteries of artillery. Meanwhile, from the town in the distance Custer's men noted the hissing and chugging sounds of trains arriving from the direction of Gordonsville - certainly infantry reinforcements they concluded.

Captain Moorman had barely learned of Custer's approach from a Lieutenant in the 1st Virginia Cavalry when the federals had begun to cross the Rivanna. He frantically wired Lynchburg for reinforcements, but probably realized that no help was within reach. With no time to retreat, Moorman ordered four artillery pieces into battery on a rise of ground commanding his winter camp on Rio Hill, while his men pulled the rest of the guns back. He then drew up his artillerymen into a mounted formation supporting the guns, hoping to present the appearance of cavalry.

Custer summoned Captain Joseph Penrose Ash, a superb junior officer in the 5th U.S. Cavalry. Desiring to assess the enemy's true strength, Custer ordered Ash to take two squadrons and assail the enemy's right flank. Captain Ash and about 65 men moved off to the east and crossed the river downstream at Cook's Ford. The squadrons charged into the Confederate camps, scattering the mounted force deployed in front of Moorman's guns. The federals set fire to the camp while destroying six caissons and two artillery forges. Meanwhile Custer deployed two guns to duel with Moorman's four, and soon one of the Confederate artillery pieces exploded. The explosion evidently rattled and confused the federal cavalry, and the main body that had crossed the river at Rio Bridge mistook Ash's men for Confederates and opened fire. Just at this moment Moorman's make-shift mounted command launched a charge of their own.

Wary of his vulnerable position deep in enemy territory, Custer was in no mood to push his luck. Between the artillery fire raining down upon his men, the false information from citizens and prisoners, Moorman's bold show of force, and the noise of trains rattling in the distance, Custer convinced himself that his small command faced grave danger. The destruction of the Virginia Central Railroad Bridge would have to wait for another day. "Learning of the vast superiority of the numbers of the enemy," he wrote in his report, "I determined to withdraw my command."

Map of Albemarle : Made under the direction of Maj. A.H. Campbell Capt. Engs. in charge of Top. Dept. D.N.V. from surveys and reconnaissances, 1864. Virginia Historical Society. Accessed at Library of Congress website.
The federal horse soldiers repelled Moorman's charge, but then began to recross the Rivanna. Moorman and his artillerist had successfully defended Charlottesville. Custer's men put the Rio bridge to flames, along with a mill on the north side of the river, and began to retrace their route to Stanardsville. Hastened by an imaginary foe with great numbers, the tired command stumbled along until 9 p.m. that night, when it stopped to feed and rest the horses. The temperatures dropped and the night turned rainy and miserable. Alfred Waud recorded:
All had to lie upon the ground and get wet through. It was difficult to get fires to burn, and the rain began to freeze upon the limbs of the trees, so that by morning everything appeared to be cased in crystal.
Wet, miserable, and exhausted, the column set out again early the next morning. At daylight on March 1st, the hunt was on. Having received word of Custer's raid on Charlottesville, J.E.B. Stuart had gathered up several companies of the 1st and 2nd Virginia Cavalry, encamped about Orange Court-House, and set off in an attempt to cut Custer off from his infantry supports north of the Rapidan. Stuart's troopers clashed with Custer's men at several points between Stanardsville and Banks Mill Ford. "the cannon-shot made a wonderful crashing among the frost-bound limbs of the forest," recorded Waud. Eventually, Custer and his men slipped away from Stuart and recrossed the Rapidan at Banks Mill Ford unmolested.

You can follow most of the route of Custer's Raid today. As best I can tell based on first-hand accounts and period maps, this map marks out a pretty accurate approximation of Custer's route.

By dark of March 1st, the column was back within the safety of Union lines at Madison Court-House. Custer summed up his accomplishments in his report as follows:
My command returned to its camp without having suffered the loss of a man. While on this expedition it marched upwards of 150 miles, destroyed the bridge over the Rivanna River, burned 3 large flouring mills filled with grain and flour, captured 6 caissons and 2 forges, with harness complete; captured 1 standard bearing the arms of Virginia, over 50 prisoners, and about 500 horses, besides bringing away over 100 contrabands.
In the wake of the disaster of the Kilpatrick / Dahlgren raid, the top brass of the Army of the Potomac was anxious to tout Custer's accomplishments as a tremendous success. They were quick to accept Custer's report of significant opposition. Charlottesville, and the Virginia Central Railroad Bridge, remained within Confederate control for another year. But for over 100 individuals, Custer's brief raid brought freedom.

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