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Raiding through Orange, Louisa, Hanover and Fluvanna

December 7, 2002 1:15 am

Part 40 of a series on the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville

WHEN THE LAST drenched, mud-caked Federal soldier slogged across the Rappahannock early on May 6, 1863, the armies fighting at Chancellorsville had reached the end of their historic encounter. Well to the south, however, other Yankees remained loose in the midst of Confederate territory. A column of cavalry raiding toward Richmond had begun its adventure before the main battle erupted behind them, and would continue it after most of the infantry had returned to their camps.

Gen. George Stoneman of New York, the commander of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, had received exciting orders at the outset of the campaign. He was to take a very strong mounted column into the rear of R.E. Lee's Confederate army and play a significant role in the outcome of Gen. Joe Hooker's operations. Stoneman might be able to damage rail lines and a canal, and otherwise raise chaos across a wide front. His key duty, though, was to sever Lee's line of communications and supply at Hanover Junction (modern Doswell). At that key spot the Virginia Central Railroad met the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. Almost all of the produce and supplies from Virginia's fertile Piedmont region, and from the rich Shenandoah Valley, rolled toward Richmond on the two sets of rails that crossed at Hanover Junction.

Hooker's orders to Stoneman oozed the bravado common to all of the army commander's pronouncements. "Let all your orders be fight, fight, fight," Hooker roared. Also characteristically, reminiscent of his dealings with Sedgwick, Hooker's instructions envisioned success of unreasonable proportions from a secondary initiative: "on youmust depend in a great measure the extent and brilliancy of our success."

Although it would not matter during the operations around Chancellorsville, George Stoneman had cause to know "Stonewall" Jackson better than almost anyone in either army. The two men had roomed together at the U.S. Military Academy as youngsters, both graduating in the class of 1846 (Jackson ranking 17th, Stoneman 33rd). It is amusing to imagine how Stoneman must have viewed the miraculous rise of the awkward, ill-educated backwoods boy he had known in the 1840s--"a country clodhopper," one contemporary at West Point called him--into perhaps the most famous man in the world, Mighty Stonewall.

On April 14, two full weeks before the campaign opened in earnest, Stoneman sent some troopers across the Rappahannock and into Culpeper County, well upstream beyond Chancellorsville. Rain flooded the countryside and aborted the crossing. Stoneman did not succeed in launching his raid until April 29, crossing the river at Kelly's Ford.

For the next 10 days, Stoneman's blue-clad horseman caromed across central Virginia. They generated considerable excitement on both sides, but did not accomplish much of lasting significance on their journey. Stoneman's Raid constitutes a dashing subchapter, not a major component, in the story of the Chancellorsville Campaign.

The cavalrymen cantering through Culpeper toward Orange suffered more at first from mud and poor rations and exhaustion than from Confederate opponents. Their route carried them through Orange County on a line between the courthouse village and Verdiersville, then across the North Anna River and into Louisa County. A Maine trooper described the deadly weariness that beset the men as they moved steadily southward. "As we rode along [we] would sleep," he recalled, "nodding & swaying, first one side then the other and making all sorts of gyrations."

Gen. R.E. Lee had responded to news of Stoneman's raid by vectoring Confederate cavalry toward the threatened zone. The general's son inherited the assignment. Gen. William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, known to most family and friends as "Rooney" (though his dad called him "Fitzhugh"), came in part from Fredericksburg roots. His great-grandfather was William Fitzhugh, who built Chatham opposite Fredericksburg in the 1760s. Young Lee had attended Harvard without much success, then entered the prewar U.S. Army as a lieutenant in 1857. Contemporaries marveled at Rooney's immense bulk. Someone described him memorably as too large to be a man, but too small to be a horse.

Rooney Lee's Southern horsemen first tangled with the Yankee raiders near Louisa Court House on May 2. The Northerners had spent the day tearing up several miles of the railroad and stealing everything not nailed down. Lee did not have enough strength to harm the raiders seriously, but he distracted them and discovered the strength he would have to face.

Early on May 3, while the Battle of Chancellorsville reached a crashing crescendo a few dozen miles northward, Stoneman sent a detachment off toward Columbia, in southeastern Fluvanna County. He hoped that this flying column could destroy an important canal aqueduct, and damage the canal itself. The marauders succeeded in burning some boats and bridges, but the masonry aqueduct proved impervious. Rooney Lee showed up in time to shepherd the thwarted vandals back whence they came, picking up about 40 prisoners in the process.

Another of Stoneman's detachments rode into the outskirts of Richmond on May 3. Col. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, who led that column, did not inspire awe from all observers. The men called him "Kill Cavalry"; a fellow officer referred to Kilpatrick as "a frothy braggart without brains." Having reached the northern environs of Richmond, Kilpatrick continued on, independent of Stoneman, across several rivers and finally reached Federal positions at far-distant Gloucester Point. He and his men had covered nearly 200 miles.

Stoneman made his biggest splash when his troopers interdicted the railroads at Hanover Junction and Ashland on May 3. At about 4 p.m., a southbound train approached Ashland full of Confederate wounded from around Fredericksburg. Outside of town a local black man hailed the locomotive and warned of Yankees ahead, but in vain. The raiders paroled about 300 wounded Southerners, burned some rolling stock and railroad buildings, then rode on.

The Yankees' return to friendly ground followed the same pattern as their outbound ride. Confederates in modest numbers hounded the rear of the columns, snaring prisoners among the unwary, nudging their enemies homeward. By dawn on May 9, most of Stoneman's main force had recrossed the Rappahannock and reached the vicinity of Bealeton.

Hooker's reaction to the raid was typically self-defensive. "I consider Stoneman as justly answerable for my failure," Hooker wrote after the war, exceeding even his own high standards for silliness. Stoneman had been "completely emasculated," Hooker professed to know, by having married "a Rebel wife" and being "afflicted with the piles." A cavalryman who rode on the raid deftly analyzed Hooker's grumbling: "I think we accomplished as much as he did."

Confederate reaction to Stoneman's Raid had been just about perfect. Gen. R.E. Lee sent out only about one-quarter as many troopers as the raiders could muster. Most of the time Rooney Lee had one-tenth as many men as Stoneman. The Southern chieftain intended not that his son should whip the enemy column in battle, but instead contain it; keep it from running entirely amok; harass it and capture stragglers; deflect it from vital targets. Rooney succeeded in his mission, defusing Stoneman and largely neutralizing his impact on the larger campaign.

A few weeks later the armies' cavalry roles would be reversed. En route to Gettysburg, Confederate cavalry under Gen. Jeb Stuart swung wide on a glorious raid with insubstantial results. In that case Federals responded judiciously, keeping most of their mounted strength available to assist the main army. It was as though Northern horsemen had learned a lesson in May 1863, and their Confederate tutors already had forgotten the point.

Was Joe Hooker drunk?

ROBERT K. KRICK of Fredericksburg was chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years. He is the author of 14 books; the most recent, "The Smoothbore Volley that Doomed the Confederacy," was published in February by Louisiana State University Press.

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