Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Power of Place: Germanna Ford

View of the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford
Sometimes you can stand in a place and connect with a sense of its history. Yesterday, I felt this power of place when I visited Germanna Ford on the Rapidan River for the first time. As I stood overlooking the stream with the sound of modern traffic audible on the Route 3 bridge nearby, I was struck by the fact that it was here, on the south bank of the Rapidan, that the war entered its final, darkest, act on May 4th, 1864.

The Rapidan begins high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains as a small stream, cascading down over rocks and creating small pools. It meanders across the Piedmont of Central Virginia on its 88-mile journey to a confluence near Fredericksburg with the Rappahannock, which continues on to the Chesapeake Bay.

These two rivers became the dividing line of the war in the east. John Pope and Robert E. Lee's armies skirmished and sparred with each other over these rivers in August of 1862, as a prelude to Second Manassas. The Army of Northern Virginia contested a Rappahannock crossing again at Fredericksburg in December of 1862, and the two armies wintered on opposite banks in the battle's aftermath. In April of 1863 the Army of the Potomac utilized Germanna Ford in an attempt to flank Lee's position at Fredericksburg, but withdrew after defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Under George Gordon Meade, the army returned  to Germanna Ford in November, a portion crossing here before aborting its campaign in front of Lee's entrenchments at Mine Run. During the winter of 1863 and 1864, the Rapidan divided the armed camps of both armies.

For nearly three years, rebel forces had thwarted every attempt by the United States army to establish itself south of these rivers.

After dark on May 3, 1864 the Army of the Potomac broke up its camps around Culpeper to begin yet another, final, attempt to pass the Rapidan. By 4 a.m. on May 4th, the men of the 50th New York Engineers had arrived at Germanna Ford and began to build two 220 foot bridges across the Rapidan. Within two hours, the engineers completed both bridges, and troops began to flow across the river. By 6 p.m., that evening, some 50,000 soldiers of the 5th and 6th Corps, of the Army of the Potomac had crossed on these two bridges.

Germanna Ford, Rapidan River, Virginia. Grant's Troops Crossing Germannia [Sic] Ford.
Timothy O'Sullivan. Library of Congress

Sometime late that afternoon, photographer Timothy O'Sullivan, traveling with the Army of the Potomac, crossed the bridges with his dark wagon, and set up on a bluff on south side to record a series of historic images of the crossing.

These fascinating images record an army in motion. By May of 1864, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac had gotten used to crossing the Rapidan River. Few of these soldiers probably thought about the historical nature of this crossing. Who among them could have predicted that for most of them, this would be their final crossing of the river before the end of the war? Yet the stakes were higher this spring. The end of this season of battle would bring with it a Presidential Election. It may be hard for many of us to fathom, but the election season of 1864 was darker and fraught with more dangers than even our current unhappiness.

Theodore Lyman, a military aide to Meade, recorded crossing at about 9:30 in the morning, and resting for some time on the high bank south of the river,watching "the steady stream of men and cannon and trains pouring over the pontoons." He later reflected:
I remember thinking how strange it would be if each man who was destined to fall in the campaign had some large badge on! There would have been Generals Sedgwick, Wadsworth, and Rice, and what crowds of subordinate officers and privates, all marching gaily along, unconscious, happily, of their fate
Up ahead lay the Wilderness of Spotsylvania County, where the men of the 5th and 6th Corps would be drawn into battle the following morning. It marked the beginning of 42 days of consecutive battle.

Further Reading
William Frassanito, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865
Theodore Lyman, With Grant and Meade: From the Wilderness to Appomattox.
Gordon Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864.

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