Skirmish at Morton's Ford, February 6, 1864

Neuse River, Newbern North Carolina

Pictured is the Neuse River, looking south, Newbern, North Carolina, March, 2024.

Table of Contents

 Introduction

The Second Corps Skirmish at Morton's Ford, February 6, 1864, was vastly more significant in terms of life and death, than the demonstrations that occurred at Raccoon Ford, that same day.  The First Corps was at Raccoon Ford.  The Second Corps, then commanded by General G. K. Warren was at Morton's Ford.  The story of Morton's Ford was initially included on the “February, 1864” page of this website.  But it was a long section, and it had nothing to do with the First Corps, or, the 13th MA except peripherally, so I moved it to its own page here.  Readers can get a better picture of the significance of that day without encroaching on the narrative history of the 13th Regiment.

SOURCES:
        The following sources were used to put this page together.  Whenever O.R. is cited it is from this volume:

“Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I Vol. 33, Serial No. 60.”
        I used many reports and communications from this volume to construct the narrative. Specifically:

January 28 ––February 10, 1864. ––Expedition against New Berne, N. C. (p. 47 - 103).
        February 6––7, 1864. ––Demonstration on the Rapidan, including engagement at Morton's Ford and skirmishes at         Barnett's and Culpeper Fords, Va. (p. 113 - 150).
        Also, Correspondence, Union;  ( p. 511-525;  p. 532, 541, 543, 552-553, 622-626).
        Correspondence Confederate; (p. 1148; 1159 -61; 1165; 1169).

Atlas Map of the New Berne Region

Other References include:

“A Curious Affair."  by Clark B. "Bud" Hall, as reproduced at Eric Wittenberg's blog, "Rantings of a Civil War Historian" posted February 7, 2016.  at civilwarcavalry.com/?p=4339   "The Battle of Morton's Ford, February 6, 1864."

“History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry,” by Charles D. Page, 1906, The Horton Printing Company, Meriden, Connecticut. (p. 208-230).

“The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War,” 1983, Arno Press & Crown Publishers.  Random House, New York.

“Meade's Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman,” by David Lowe (Editor), 2007, Kent State University Press.  (p. 95––96.)

Trinque, Bruce A. "Rebels Across the River", in America's Civil War, Volume 7, number 5 (September 1994).

I would add that the spelling of "Newbern" as it is known today, was different back then, and I have seen it as New Bern, New Berne, & Newberne.

The Map at right, shows the region of New Berne, North Carolina, with the landmarks mentioned in the description of the campaign below.  It comes from the military atlas mentioned above.  You can view an enlarged version of it by clicking here.


PICTURE CREDITS:  All Images are from the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS DIGITAL COLLECTIONS with the following exceptions:     Maps of North Carolina from "The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War";   E.C. Segar cartoon of Popeye and Wimpy is from the website, static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/unhimfight_0.jpg" ;  Mortons Ford 1905-1906 era photographs & portraits of Col. Samuel A. Moore, and Captain Frederick B. Doten, are from Charles D. Page's "History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry"; Portrait of Lt-Col. Francis E. Pierce is from the Smithsonian Institution, https://www.si.edu/object/nmah_1411170 ;  Colonel Charles J. Pierce is from the website, Just A Joy,  https://justajoy.com/cgi-bin/Display_Item.asp?ID=8570.  Contemporary photos were taken by webmaster & author, Bradley M. Forbush.  ALL IMAGES HAVE BEEN EDITED IN PHOTOSHOP.

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PART 1
Prologue: The Affair at New Berne

The February 6th skirmish along the Rapidan River at Morton’s Ford, had its origins in New Berne, North Carolina. #1. Major-General Ambrose Burnside led a successful amphibious expedition to the barrier islands on the North Carolina coast, in January 1862.  His forces captured Confederate defenses at Roanoke Island on February 8th then captured the city of New Berne, in March.  “The second-largest town in North Carolina and an important railroad and river trade center, New Bern became a base for Union raids against railroads and communications in the interior.” #2. 

Confederate Army commander, General Robert E. Lee wanted to take New Bern back.  He wrote Confederate President Jefferson Davis on January 2nd, 1864, “The time is at hand when, if an attempt can be made to capture the enemy’s forces at New Berne, it should be done.”  He then laid out a strategy to re-take the city. #3.

To facilitate the effort Lee sent an understrength brigade of infantry, re-enforced with two additional regiments, (about 2,000 in number) to Major General George E. Pickett in North Carolina, who would lead the attack on New Berne.

Map of New Berne Area

The following brief summary of the campaign by author Paul Branch is posted at ncpedia: #4.

General Pickett “assembled 13,000 Confederates at Kinston [west of New Berne] in late January 1864.  Pickett divided his force into three columns, which were to converge on the town from three directions:  from the north bank of the Neuse River to capture Fort Anderson, from the south bank of the Neuse to seize the Union works there, and directly from Kinston. Meanwhile, Confederate troops would prevent the arrival of Union reinforcements from Morehead City and capture Union gunboats on the Neuse.  Approximately 5,500 Union soldiers, led by Brig. Gen. Innis N. Palmer, defended New Bern, sheltering behind formidable earthworks and forts ringing the town.

“When the attack was launched on 1 February, Confederate forces dispatched to the north and south banks of the Neuse found the Union defenses impregnable.  Advancing from Kinston, Pickett halted before the powerful line of defensive forts and works ringing the city’s western side.  His column was not strong enough to carry the works alone, and he was unable to bring another column around to join him in time for a frontal assault.  Pickett was thus compelled to abandon the entire operation and return to Kinston.  Although the prize of New Bern eluded them, the Confederates captured and destroyed the Union gunboat Underwriter and destroyed the Union base at Newport Barracks before their advance on Morehead City was interrupted.”

Map showing forts around New Berne

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PART 2
Ben Butler at Strategy:  “Let's You and Him Fight.”

General Benjamin F. Butler  commanded all the Union forces in this neck of the woods in January 1864; which was then known as, "The Department of Virginia and North Carolina."  Butler was convinced that General Lee had sent far more troops   to North Carolina for the New Berne offensive than were actually sent from his army south of the Rapidan river.   And, Gen. Butler obviously had been discussing, in person, with authorities in Washington D.C., a plan of his own making to attempt a dashing cavalry raid on Richmond.  It was known the Confederate Capital was lightly defended, and Buter's plan was to release Union prisoners held captive at Belle Isle & Libby Prisons.

Some of his correspondence follows.

General Ben Butler to General-In-Chief Henry Halleck, February 3, 1864

Note General Butler's suggestion that General Meade's Army should move.

Headquarters Eighteenth Army Corps,         
Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina,
   
Fortress Monroe, February 3, 1864.

Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck,
                                General-in-Chief:

Sir:   I send you inclosed a copy of a report received from Brigadier-General Palmer at 1 o-clock to-day, and also a report formerly received, having already sent you by telegraph the substance of the report to-day.

I sent forward the Twenty-first Connecticut –– about 400 men–– to the aid of General Palmer, which is the only infantry regiment I can spare.  General Meade could relieve General Palmer at once by making a movement.  I can move with 6,000 men, to wit, 2,000 sabers and 4,000 infantry, with two batteries of artillery, at any moment, from Williamsburg in the direction I indicated to you in conversation.  The roads are practicable.  There are no troops in Richmond save the City Battalion.  Pickett’s division has but one brigade in Petersburg.   I do not believe that Lee has 20,000 men in front of Meade, because it is thoroughly understood that Meade is in winter quarters.  Why can’t Meade move on Friday?  They are fortifying the road that runs from Richmond in the direction of Danville.  They began on Monday with 5,000 negroes, which they have impressed under their new law of Congress. Please advise me upon all these points, and whether I can get any aid for North Carolina in case the attack turns out a siege.  I am certain that two regiments from each division of Lee’s army have gone south over the Petersburg road, besides all of Picketts division except one brigade at Petersburg.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
BENJ. F. BUTLER,      
Major-General, Commanding.


Butler, Stanton & Halleck

General Ben Butler

At 12.30 noon, on February 3rd, General Butler wrote Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, “I shall be ready to move on Saturday.  Can General Meade move at all?”

At 2 p.m. he wrote both Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, in part:  “Now is the time, if ever, for Gen. Meade to move;  the roads are practicable. That will relieve North Carolina at once and leave a movement for me of which I spoke to you.”

Stanton replied, “General Meade is at Philadelphia, sick.  Your telegram has been been referred to the General-in-Chief for answer as to whether the army can move.”

General Halleck telegrammed back that Major-General John Sedgwick was in temporary command of the Army of the Potomac, and that Butler should write to him.  At 6 p.m. General Butler wrote Major-General Sedgwick direct.




General Ben Butler to General John Sedgwick, February 3, 1864, 6 p.m.

Fort Monroe, Va., February 3, 1864––6 p.m.

Major-General Sedgwick,
                Commanding Army of the Potomac:

“I am directed by General Halleck to telegraph you directly in regard to possible co-operation in a movement which I desire to make.  Some 8,000 of Lee’s army have gone into North Carolina, or perhaps more, and are now attacking New Berne.  Can you make a forward movement which will draw Lee’s troops from Richmond to your front?  Can that be done as early as Saturday ?  Telegraph to what extent you can move.

B. F. BUTLER,      
Major-General.

The next day General Sedgwick telegrammed General Butler as to the true situation south of the Rapidan river, concerning General Lee's strength.

General John Sedgwick to General Ben Butler, February 4, 1864

Headquarters Army of the Potomac,      
February 4, 1864.  (Received War Department 4 p.m.)

Major-General Butler, Commanding, Fort Monroe:

Your dispatch of last evening is received.  The only troops sent from Lee’s army on the Rapidan to North Carolina are two brigades of infantry and one or two regiments of cavalry, numbering in all between 3,000 & 4,000 men.  No portion of Lee’s army is in Richmond, unless some of the troops mentioned above have been stopped there.  The information upon this head is exact and positive.  Two brigades of Pickett’s division have been sent recently from James River or the vicinity of Richmond to North Carolina.  Lee’s army is in my front, on the Rapidan, the advance corps of the two armies being from three to four hours’ march apart.  The condition of the roads and the present state of the weather render an attempt at a flank movement impossible.  The Rapidan in my front is so strongly intrenched that a demonstration upon it would not disturb Lee’s army.

JOHN SEDGWICK,      
Major-General Commanding.


General Halleck's Interference

Popeye Cartoon Panel, "Lets You and Him Fight."

Unfortunately, for General Sedgwick, General Butler had already captured the imagination of President Lincoln and his military advisors in Washington, D.C.  They approved of General Butler's plan.  According to Butler, & Sedgwick, Richmond, Virginia, the Capital City of the Confederacy was lightly defended and ripe for the taking.  If a proper diversion were made, Butler proposed a cavalry raid on the city in an attempt to free Union prisoners at the wretched Belle Isle Prison and also at Libby.  President Lincoln, who was feeling rather glum about his re-election chances, was supportive of taking a chance on any bold action that might bring a positive morale booster to the Northern war effort in the Eastern Theatre.  So Henry Halleck interceded and told General Sedgwick to co-operate with General Butler and his plans.  [Popeye, cartoon Panel by Elzie C. Segar.]

General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to General John Sedgwick, February 5, 1864

This mid-day message and Butler's subsequent request gave General Sedgwick very little time to issue marching orders for 2 of his army corps.

Washington, D.C.,     
February 5, 1864––11.30 am.

Major-General Sedgwick,
                            Army of the Potomac:

General Butler again asks for a demonstration by your army.  Give him such co-operation as you can, and communicate directly with him.  All available forces here have been sent to West Virginia.

H.W. HALLECK,         
General-in-Chief.


General Sedgwick's Hand is Forced

General John Sedgwick

In his curt response to General Halleck two hours after receiving this telegram,  General Sedgwick criticized the move.  “I will co-operate with General Butler as far as I can by vigorous demonstrations and take advantage of such chances as may occur.  A flank movement with this army is impossible in the present condition of the roads and state of the weather.  Demonstrations in our front at the present time may, however, spoil the chances for the future.”

Sedgwick followed up to General Butler saying he would be ready to move on Sunday, February 7th.  But Butler pushed back asking him, “Can you not make it to-morrow without regard to the weather?  I hope to strike the point Sunday morning at 6 o’clock.”

Later that day General Sedgwick issued marching orders to the Army of the Potomac.

He replied to General Butler at 9 p.m., “I will make the demonstration to-morrow.”

[Major-General John Sedgwick, pictured.]

The army’s demonstration included the First Corps, but the brigade at Mitchell's Station was not required to participate.

General A. A. Humphreys, Chief-of-Staff, to General John Newton, Commanding 1st Corps  

Headquarters Army of the Potomac,      
February 5, 1864.

Major-General Newton:

The brigade at Mitchells Station may be held ready to move, but will not be moved unless especially ordered.

A. A. HUMPHREYS,         
Major-General, Chief of Staff.


In the end, Sedgwick's assessment of the whole affair proved correct.  When he tersely reported, “One result of the co-operation with General Butler has been to prove that it has spoilt the best chance we had for a successful attack on the Rapidan.” A few days later he was requested to explain himself.  A tone of anger is evident in his response, which is posted further down this page. #5.


NOTES:
#1.  I have seen this town called New Bern, New Berne, and Newbern.  I gave preference to the old speling when not making a direct quote.
#2.  Paul Branch, 2006, “New Bern, Confederate Expeditions against”;  https://www.ncpedia.org/new-bern-battle accessed January, 2024.
#3.  O.R.  Series 1 Vol.  33.  “General Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis, January 2, 1864;”  (p. 1061). 
#4.  Branch, Paul, ncpedia.org;  SEE NOTE #2.
#5.  O.R.  Series 1 Vol. 33. “Gen. John Sedgwick to Gen. H. W. Halleck, February 7, 1864––noon.” (p. 532).

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PART 3
The Demonstration at Morton's Ford

To facilitate General Butler's requested demonstration on the Rapidan Front, Army Headquarters issued the following marching orders.

 Circular.]                                                   Headquarters Army of the Potomac,     
February 5, 1864.

The following movements will be made to-morrow, the 6th inst:

    1.     Brigadier-General Gregg will direct Merritt’s division of cavalry to move, with at least one battery of artillery, to Barnett’s Ford on the Rapidan, and make demonstrations to cross and attack the enemy there and on the upper Rapidan.  General Gregg will also direct General Kilpatrick to move with his division and at least one battery of artillery to the Rapidan, at Culpeper Ford, cross that river, and make demonstrations upon the enemy’s right.  The artillery of this division will not cross the Rapidan, but will be left on this side with a strong guard.  The cavalry picket-lines and patrols will be left as usual.  Strong camp and train guards will be left.  The demonstration will  be continued through Sunday, the 7th, and Monday morning.  The cavalry will return to its former position by Monday evening, unless otherwise ordered.

    2.    The First Corps, Major-General Newton commanding, will move to the vicinity of Raccoon Ford, with at least three batteries of artillery, and make demonstrations to cross the river at that point or in that vicinity, through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, returning to its present camp Monday evening, unless otherwise ordered.

The brigade at Mitchell’s Station will remain as now posted.

3.  The Second Corps, Major-General Warren commanding, will move to the vicinity of Morton’s Ford, with at least three batteries of artillery, and make demonstrations to cross the river at that point or in that vicinity, through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, returning to its present camp Monday evening, unless otherwise ordered.

4.  The troops will take with them three days’ rations, such ambulances as may be absolutely required for the troops, and such light wagons as may be necessary for headquarters.

5. The artillery left in camp and the ammunition and ambulance trains, medical and hospital wagons, will be held ready to move at a moment’s notice.

6.  The picket-lines will be left as usual, and strong guards will be left to take care of the camp and trains.

7.  The Third and Sixth Corps will be ready to move at a moment’s notice, provided in the same manner as the First and Second Corps, with the same preparations as these corps in respect to artillery, ammunition trains, &c.

8.  The commanders of the First and Second Corps and the cavalry divisions will keep the commanding general constantly and promptly  advised of their progress, of the dispositions of the enemy, and of everything of importance that takes place.

9.  The movements ordered will be commenced to-morrow at 7 a.m., or as soon thereafter as practicable.

By command of Major-General Sedgwick: 

S. WILLIAMS,            
Assistant Adjutant-General.


Headquarters Cavalry Corps,
February 5, 1864––12.30 p. m.

Brigadier-General Kilpatrick,
                    Commanding Third Cavalry Division:

General:  I inclose you a circular of the movements of the troops to-morrow. The general commanding directs that you carry out the orders laid down in the circular for your division, being careful to leave a strong guard with the battery this side of the river and make frequent reports of your progress and of the movements and dispositions of the enemy.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,               
C. ROSS SMITH,      
Lieutenant-Colonel and Chief of Staff.

The Road to Morton's Ford / The Robinson House

Road to Morton's Ford

Road to Morton's Ford.  The mansion in the center background is “Struan,” marked on maps as the Powhattan Robinson House. View South.

The Demonstration Begins

General Caldwell Commands

General Warren commanding the 2nd Corps, reported feeling unwell the morning of February 6,  “and the operations ordered being only by way of demonstration, I allowed the movement to proceed under direction of General Caldwell.”  Caldwell reported his 2nd Corps Division moved toward Morton’s Ford at 7 o’clock in the morning.  “On  riding forward to reconnoiter I found that the enemy had a picket-line along the river, and a force of 30 or more men in rifle-pits directly at the ford.  I directed Brigadier-General Hays, commanding Third Division, to send a  brigade across the river at the ford and to advance it half a mile beyond.” #1.

General Alexander Hays selected the 3rd Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Joshua T. Owen and commanded him to send over 300 of his best veteran troops as skirmishers.

It is noticeable that General Hays requested Owen to use veteran troops.  The army was filled with conscripts at this time.  Perhaps not all of them were as bad as those assigned to the 13th MA, but they were less reliable nonetheless in combat.  When the whole affair was over, General Hays reported, “I regret to forward such a long list of casualties, but it is solely attributable to the faltering of two regiments of conscripts or substitutes comprising the Fourteenth Connecticut and Thirty-ninth New York Volunteers.” #2.

flat ground on the way to Mortons

Before getting to the ford troops had to cross this flat marshy plain along the Rapidan River, about .42 miles in front of the Robinson House.  In this picture local resident Walker Somerville leads a tour to Morton's Ford for some distinguished guests; December 31, 2016.  Photo by Bradley M. Forbush, webmaster.

Owen’s Brigade Crosses the Rapidan

Brigadier-General Joshua T. Owen’s brigade led the advance across the cold, waste deep Rapidan river.  The brigade arrived about mile from Morton’s Ford at 9.35 a.m., when Owen massed his troops “in column by regiments concealed from the enemy’s pickets, and awaited orders.”  At 10.30 a.m. General Hays directed them to move “toward the river and effect a crossing and skirmish with the enemy if he were so disposed, but not to press him too hard, as it was not desired to bring on an engagement, but simply to make a demonstration.” #3.

With these vague orders in hand Owens advanced 300 of his best troops under command of Captain R. S. Seabury.  The veterans were all New Yorkers from the, 39th, 125th and 126th Volunteers; each of the 3 regiments provided 100 men to the attacking party.   Some 80 of the enemy’s pickets “opened a rapid but ill-directed fire” on  Captain Seabury’s men but the rifle-pits were immediately attacked and captured with slight loss.  The enemy retreated in confusion, leaving about 30 men captured.

Across the river ford, directly in front was a ridge “near which stood the house of Major Buckner.  Still farther on stood the house of Dr. Morton, from which the ford took its name.  The latter house was surrounded by a number of smaller out-buildings which were used by negroes all standing within a grove of trees of full growth.” #4.

The rest of Owen’s Brigade crossed and as he reported, “advanced toward Morton’s houses located upon high and commanding positions in the direction of the enemy’s works, my skirmishers meanwhile driving the enemy rapidly before them.  Having gained these positions I made my arrangements to hold them and halted the line of skirmishers.  Immediately thereafter the enemy advanced a stronger line of skirmishers, and began rapidly to concentrate his troops immediately in my front, and opened a vigorous fire both of infantry and artillery.”  #5.

As his advancing soldiers leaped into the icy river, General Hays followed closely behind swinging an ax high over his head at tree branches while shouting, ‘We will cast them down as I do this brush!” #6.

Mortons Ford

Morton's Ford, December 31, 2016.  From the north side looking south.

Morton's Ford 1906

Morton's Ford in 1905 or 06, view south.  Buckner House in the distance up the ridge.  Photo from the History of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, by Charles D. Page.

Caldwell’s report continues,  “This brigade [Owen’s] advanced with little opposition to a ridge about three-quarters of a mile from the river, where it halted about a rifle-shot from the enemy’s intrenchments.  The enemy making a considerable show of force in front of General Owen’s brigade, at the request of General Hays the two remaining brigades of the Third Division were sent across the river.” #7.

At 12.30 General Caldwell sent a message to Army Headquarters.

Headquarters Second Army Corps,
Stringfellow’s House at Morton’s Ford, Feb. 6, 1864––12.30 p.m.

General:   I have the honor to report that I have crossed two brigades at Morton’s Ford with but little opposition, capturing 26 men and 2 officers, without losing a man :  prisoners from Stonewall’s old brigade;  they report that there are but two brigades within 2 miles.  The enemy is firing from three guns.  I have not yet replied with my artillery, distance bing too great.  My skirmish line is within 800 to 1,00 yards of their rifle-pits, which appear to be manned.  They are now showing more artillery, probably ten guns.  I am now sending across another brigade.  I do not purpose to advance without further orders or until the arrival of General Warren.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

JOHN C. CALDWELL,            
Brigadier-General, Commanding Corps.

General Humphreys,
                            Chief of Staff.


"Scene at the late reconnoissance, at Morton's Ford / night."

Alfred Waud Sketch of the Reconnaissance at Morton's Ford

This original sketch by Artist Correspondent Alfred Waud was engraved and printed in Harper's Weekly, March 5, 1864.  The type accompanying the artwork said this:  AT MORTON'S FORD.  “The illustration ...represents the late RECONNOISSANCE AT MORTON'S FORD.  The enemy's fortified position is on the hill, from which he is firing;  on a lower hill is his line of skirmishers, in front of which our line is being formed.  In the fore-ground are our troops, and beyond them Generals Warren and Humphrey's and other officers.”

When I was interpreting this drawing, I couldn't find any record of General Warren & Humphrey crossing the Ford, when he arrived on scene.  I had also mis-identified another historic building called Morton Hall with the Dr. Morton House.  And, because General Caldwell addressed his head-quarters as Stringfellow's House, I came up with a rather wildly inaccurate interpretation of the location this drawing.  (There are 2 Stringfellow Houses close-by).  My error was quickly corrected when I received proof of Generals Warren and Humphrey's presence on the south side of the Rapidan.  I was sent the following quotes from Lt.-Col. Theodore Lyman's papers.  (Lyman was a Voluntary aid to General Meade.)

This is what Colonel Theodore Lyman wrote about the day. At 3 p.m., he joined General Humphreys at Army of the  Potomac Headquarters, and rode to the front with Humphreys and his staff.  He also placed Warren's Headquarters at Struan.

“It was about 5, when we got to General Warren's headquarters, and near sunset therefore.  It was the house of Robinson, a large one, standing some 700 or 800 yards from the river [it's 750 yards]; it was on a high bank of cultivated ground, at whose foot was a wide flat. On the other side the land rose, without much flat, nearly from the river's edge, in two or three rolls, to a high ridge. Dr. Morton's house was the top of the first roll, say 500 or 600 yards from the bank. Opposite his house (nearly) the river divides round a little wooded island, and just there is Morton's Ford...Hays division had waded and....driven back the enemy to their works, and lay under the ridge, near Morton's house;  while their skirmish line was close to that of the Rebels. Our artillery was on the high ground on this side. Gen. Warren had just crossed to reconnoitre....Taking Biddle, McClellan, and me, Gen. Humphreys rode down to cross, meeting Gen. Warren on the way, who turned with us. The ford was bad, hard to get in, or out, and about up to the breast of the horses. As we got to a road with a bank, behind the house, we got off and the two generals advanced to look about, and were immediately shot at. We had not been there five minutes when the rebels opened fire from a battery on our right...The generals came back and mounted and rode again towards the river, and shot still coming over.  I do confess I dodged them when standing there! a wrong thing. We had got but a little way when a heavy, very heavy, skirmish fire broke out; it was the enemy advancing to retake a fence favorable to us. After halting a moment, we kept on & recrossed the river....” #8.

Confederate Gun Pits Overlooking Morton's Ford

Confederate Gun Pits overlookng Morton's Ford

Confederate gun pits on the Carpenter farm overlooking Morton's Ford. [Civil War Times Illustrated.]

Colonel H. C. Cabell, Confederate Artillery

Colonel H. C. Cabell kept the creeping Union soldiers at bay until badly needed re-enforcements arrived.  He reported the following:

“Saturday morning between 10 and 11 o’clock a large force of the enemy drove in our pickets at Morton’s Ford. The First Company of Richmond Howitzers, in charge of 1st-Lieutenant R. M. Anderson, was in position at the breast-works on the right of the main road leading to the ford.  These works are a mile or more from the ford and afford no command of it, the view being cut off by the irregularities of the ground and by the cluster of houses at Dr. Morton’s residence, which entirely conceal the road from that point to the ford.  The morning was foggy and cloudy.  The first intimation Lieutenant Anderson had of the crossing of the enemy was from an officer who requested him to fire the signal gun. 

At the time the Yankee skirmishers had advanced as far as Dr. Morton’s residence about 800 yards distant. They were at first thought to be our pickets falling back.  About the same time several Yankee batteries advanced in the plain on the opposite side of the river and took position so as to cover our front and the advance of their infantry.  After firing the signal gun Lieutenant Anderson opened upon these batteries. Ascertaining that the skirmishers in front were our enemies, he opened fire with great spirit upon them.  This served to halt their advance and was the means of securing the position.” #9.

General Joshua T. OwenGeneral John C. CaldwellGeneral Samuel S. Carroll

Left to right, Brigadier-General Joshua T. Owen, commanding 3rd Brigade, Brigadier-General John C. Caldwell, commanding morning operations;  and Brigadier-General Samuel S. Carroll, commanding 1st Brigade.

The Rest of General Hays' Division Crosses

When General Hays called for the rest of his Division to cross, Colonel S. S. Carroll’s Brigade went first.  He said in his report:  “About 12.30 p.m. on the 6th instant I received orders from General Hays commanding division, to cross the Rapidan at Morton’s Ford and support General Owen’s brigade ;  accordingly, crossed the river, wading waist deep, and marched toward the Third Brigade.  As the head of each regimental column appeared on the hill the enemy opened upon it with artillery, but with no effect.  By General Owen’s direction, I massed the brigade behind a hill on the right of the Third Brigade.” #10.

Once General Carroll’s brigade was across and in position, Colonel Charles J. Powers 2nd Brigade followed.  One of the regiments' in his brigade, the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteers, left a detailed account of their experiences at Morton's Ford.  This is because their regiment took the most casualties during the fight.  The author of their regimental history, Charles D. Page, described the river crossing:

“The water was icy cold, mixed with snow and ice. So deep was it that the men were obliged to hold their cartridge-boxes above their heads to prevent the ammunition from being spoiled by the water.  To add to the discomfort of the men there was a cold drizzling rain.

“On reaching the opposite shore, they ascended the bank and advanced at the double-quick across an open space which was raked by the fire of a rebel battery, fortunately aimed too high, and thus none of the men were hit.  The men were here massed with their comrades in a ravine where they were protected from the enemy’s shot and shell and remained all day, but little except picket firing occurring to break the monotony.  This, however, was so close and frequent that the men could not stand up with safety.

“From here also could be seen troops arriving from all directions toward the Confederate breastworks.” #11.

South Side of Morton's Ford, Buckner House in Distance

South side of Morton's Ford, Buckner House in the Distance. Photo, 1905 or 06, by Charles D. Page, 14th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers.

Confederate Reinforcements

Southern re-inforcements arrived quickly while General Hays’ two brigades were crossing the Rapidan. Colonel Cabell, continues to tell what happened on the Confederate side.  “Fortunately that morning Steuart’s brigade was relieving two regiments of Ramseur’s and two regiments of Doles’ brigade.  This gave double the usual force.  These troops hurried forward to the works and arrived very promptly, considering the distance from their camps.  There was, however a considerable time that the battery [Richmond Howitzers]  was without support. I ordered up Captain Carlton’s battery. It came up almost simultaneously with the infantry and was put in position on the right of the howitzers.  The firing of these two batteries served to prevent any farther advance of the enemy at that time.” #12.

Cabell credited the Richmond Howitzers and Captain Carlton’s batteries with halting the Union advance.  The Richmond Howitzer battery fired 104 rounds; Captain Carlton’s battery fired 58.  Thats a lot of cannon fodder.

Soon General Richard Ewell arrived on the scene to direct matters.

Gen. Richard Ewell asked in amazement, “What on earth is the matter here?” Convinced his corps was under attack, General Ewell focused the plunging fire of his big command on the soon outnumbered attackers. “We crossed the river to feel the enemy, “one bluecoat wrote, “and we got the feel badly.” Another Yank pointed out the obvious, “The enemy was not badly scared.”  #13.

More artillery was brought up throughout the afternoon to fill in the Confederate earthworks and hold back any attempted Union charges.   General Hays’ troops were essentially pinned down in position on the slope of the hill all afternoon near the Buckner and Morton houses.

General Caldwell Requests Further Instructions

Communication with First Corps commander, General Newton, informed General Caldwell that the First Corps troops covering Raccoon Ford were not intending to cross the Rapidan.  They would instead, burn the tiny village of Raccoon Ford, ––for no apparent reason.

Warren Takes Command

About 3 p.m. Major General G.K. Warren, apparently over his illness, arrived on the scene and assumed command of his corps.  Warren had instructions from General Sedgwick, (who was opposed to the movement from the start)  “to withdraw our troops across the river if I deemed them in danger of being overwhelmed, or to push our advance father if it offered prospects of success.”   After surveying the situation General Warren determined to withdraw his troops back to the north side of the river, that night under cover of darkness. But, “Just at dark the enemy commenced an attack upon our skirmish line, and one of his regiments assailed a house [Morton's] where the right of this line was posted, and took it.” #14.

Confederate Counter–Attack

About 5 p.m. General Ewell attacked both flanks of the Federal lines.

Buckner House

General Owen [3rd Brigade] wrote,   “…At 3.45 p.. the enemy having extended his lines of battle and skirmishers to the right and left and increased the vigor of his fire, indicated an intention to attack, and at 4.30 p.m. began to advance, his main attack being directed against the two houses before mentioned, combining therewith a movement of a heavy column toward our right, with the intention of cutting off our communication with Morton’s Ford.  The general commanding the division [Gen. Hays] assumed command in person, and led on the troops to repel this attack, and by his direction I took command on the left and repelled the attack on that flank.” #15.

Buckner House, which was on the Union Left.

General Carroll [1st Brigade] wrote, “…after 5 p.m.,  …the enemy commenced shelling our position, their missiles, however, going over us.  At the same time they advanced a line of skirmishers and threw down a column as if to get around our right flank and obtain possession of the road.  So soon as I discovered this movement I moved my command …to check it.  While moving we were exposed to quite a severe fire of artillery and infantry doing us some damage.  Immediately I got into position to prevent their turning our flank.  I moved about 50 yards to the rear, so as to cover the men from fire, and threw out skirmishers, who engaged the enemy.”   Carroll’s brigade of mid-western troops, lost 2 men killed and another 43 wounded.#16.

The regimental history of the 14th Connecticut gives a more colorful rendering of Colonel Powers 2nd Brigade, which was ordered to re-take the Morton property.  The casualties in that regiment accounted for nearly half the total Union losses at Morton's Ford, and they were rightly bitter about it.

“General Hays rode back and forth upon his galloping steed, his reckless manner and incoherent language indicating that he had added two or three extra fingers to his morning dram.  …The brigade commander [Col. Powers] was also so seriously indisposed as to be unable to sit upon his saddle or even to walk about, but sat listlessly in a large arm-chair brought from one of the neighboring houses.

“It was nearly dark when there was lively firing from the enemy’s batteries, responded to by the Union guns across the river, and the firing along the skirmish line assumed the proportions of a volley.  The 39th N.Y., known as the “Garibaldi Guards,” was brought up to the support of the skirmish line.  These were probably the most unfit troops in the whole corps to take up the duty. They were mostly foreigners, could not understand the language of the orders and as they came over the crest of the hill and encountered the enemy’s fire, they became confused and instead of keeping their line, recoiled in confusion and huddled together in groups, upon which the enemy’s shot made sad havoc.

“Finding these men could not be depended upon the 14th Reg. was ordered up and the sharp, clear voice of Lieuenant-Colonel Moore was heard “Fall in Fourteenth” and the men went forward, stepping over the prostrate forms of the Twelfth N.J., who lay directly before them.

“The 14th Regiment moved swiftly up to the brow of the hill when the order was given to deploy as skirmishers, the men being four or five feet apart.  The bullets fell thick and fast and the noise was indescribable.  Lieutenant-Colonel Moore with the right wing and center of the regiment marched down the slope on the broad plain toward the enemy, while Adjutant Hincks took the left.  A couple of dozen of the recruits clustered behind one of the buildings, but were soon dislodged and forced into line through the prodding of the sharp points of Adjutant Hincks and Sergeant-Major Murdock's sabres.  The darkness was intense, the artillery had ceased to play and the sharp flashes of musketry were the only indications of the whereabouts of the enemy.    Above the shouts and clatter of the musketry could be heard the sharp tenor voice of Lieutenant-Colonel Moore, directing his men and encouraging them to proceed.

“The advance was rapid and the line had now reached the Morton houses in a cluster of trees, the men shielding themselves behind the garden fence.  Just before reaching this house Major Colt was wounded and left the field.  Capt.  Broatch, senior captain of the regiment, while advancing sword in hand was struck by a bullet which shattered his fingers and threw his sword twenty feet into the air.  Picking it up and grasping it on his left hand he swung it over his head, at the same time guiding his men with his voice until his wound proved so painful that he was obliged to retire from the field.

Captain Doten, 14th Connecticut Volunteers

“…With the serious losses which the Fourteenth had met in its advance, it was not able unsupported to dislodge the Confederates from the strong position which they had formed behind the Morton house and among the outbuildings.  The contest had become fierce and in many cases it was a hand to hand fight with bayonets in the darkness.  Some of the 14th entered the buildings and Captain Frederick B. Doten, [pictured] of Co F, with half a dozen men entered one of the houses and fired upon the enemy from the windows.

“Presently an officer dashed up to the house, dismounted, entered and with various expletives, better imagined than written, wanted to know what they were doing there!

“It proved to be General Hays who, unaccompanied by any of his staff, had come out to the skirmish line. Captain Doten attempted to explain the situation, stating that there was a large rebel force, with which he could not cope, directly in front.  General Hays would accept no explanation, but ordered him to move out and onward.  Capt. Doten and the men well knew the consequences of moving out, but like all 14th men they obeyed orders and, opening the back door, stepped out.

“The General followed and mounted his horse.  As he passed the corner of the house a sharp rifle shot was heard and Gen. Hays fell heavily to the ground.

“As Captain Doten and his men advanced and left the house there was a voice from the darkness, ordering them to surrender, saying that he had heard the conversation and did not wish to shoot them in cold blood, adding, “As for your general, we have killed him.”

“This latter was not true as the shot had entered the saddle of General Hays horse and he quickly mounted his steed and slid away in the darkness.

“Doten could do nothing else than surrender and he and his six men were marched out and later took their long journey to Libby prison.  It proved that the captors of these men were four companies of the 44th Georgia Regiment, who were drawn up in line of battle in their front.

Dr Morton House from 14th CT history

Dr. George Morton's House, circa 1905-06.  The house no longer stands.

“The Fourteenth Regiment had done a grand work, but it was unable to meet the large force of the enemy.  Seeing this Gen Hays ordered up the 108th N.Y. and the 10th N.Y. Battalion in line of battle.  Halting them a little just before reaching the house, in front of which stood the 14th, he ordered the 10th N.Y. to fire.

An officer of the 10th replied, “General, those are our men in front of us!”

General Hays replied,  “They are rebels!” preceding his order to fire by an oath.

Crash went that dreadful volley and how many of the brave 14th fell by that stupid drunken order will never be known.  There was a loud cry of dismay, and the two advancing regiments approached the house.  The line was further strengthened, the attempt to flank was foiled, the Confederates were routed and the battle of Morton's Ford was at an end.” #17.

Summary

General Powers commanding the brigade, summed up this action in his report. “The attack of the enemy was very persistent and continued. The Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteers  were being pressed hard, and it was found necessary to send still to that point the One hundred and eighth and Tenth New York Volunteers, when they together made a firm advance of a good 500 yards and drove the enemy from a group of small houses and trees.” #18.

Samuel A. Moore, 14th CT

Colonel Samuel A. Moore, 14th Connecticut, in his report of the skirmish, wrote of the fight in the grove of trees, “Here the enemy made a stand, and the regiment fought them hand to hand, in some cases using the bayonet, until the 108th New York and the battalion of the 10th New York coming to our aid enabled us to drive them from the buildings.  We held this point for upward of an hour until ordered to withdraw to our former position, which we did, leaving a strong picket to keep the enemy from advancing while we were carrying off our dead and wounded.”  The 14th Connecticut had 6 men killed, 7 officers and 83 enlisted men wounded with another officer and 18 men reported missing.  Their total reported loss was 115.  #19.  (Colonel Moore pictured).

General G. K. Warren concluded his report.  “Holding their position bravely against the concentrating, plunging , and crossing fire, and replying as best they could to the enemy, mainly well sheltered, our men of General Hays’ division lost about 210 in killed and wounded.  While this was going on, General Webb’s division was ordered by me to cross to General Hays’ support.  The firing ceased after about one hours’s duration.  General Webb relieved General Hays’ troops, and they withdrew with their wounded and dead to our side.  General Webb withdrew his division about midnight.  We remained on the river bank in position all day on the 7th, and returned to our camp in the evening.” #20.

General Robert E. Lee reported,  “They left 17 dead and 46 prisoners in our hands.  Our loss, 4 killed and 20 wounded.  The guard at the ford (a lieutenant and 25 men), ...were captured.” #21.

Contemporary accounts by the American Battlefield Trust estimates Confederate losses at 75, Union losses at 252.


This may be redundant to list but here are the citations.  The Sources are listed at the top of the Page in the Introduction.

NOTES:
#1.  O.R. Major-General G. K. Warren's Report.  (No. 2).  (p. 114-118).
#2.  O.R.  Brigadier-General Alexander Hays Report. (no. 10). (p. 126-127).
#3.  O.R.  Brigadier-General Joshua T. Owen's Report. (No. 15). (p. 132-134).
#4.  14th Connecticut History, by Charles D. Page.  (p. 217).
#5.   O.R.  Gen. Owen's Report.
#6.  Bud Hall Article, "A Curious Affair"
#7.  O.R.  Brig.-Gen. John C. Caldwell's Report.  (No. 3).  (p. 119-120).
#8.  Lt.-Col. Theodore Lyman.  (p. 95-96), via correspondence with historian John Hennessy.
#9.  Col. Henry C. Cabell's Report. (No. 25). (p. 141-143).  [C.S. Artillery]
#10.  O.R.  Gen. Hays' Report.
#11.  Page, History of the 14th Connecticut Vol. Infantry. (p. 218).
#12.  O.R.  Cabell's Report.
#13.  Bud Hall, "A Curious Affair"
#14  O.R.  Warren's Report.
#15.  O.R.  Gen. Owen's Report.
#16.  O.R.  Col. Samuel S. Carroll's Report. (No. 11). (p. 128).
#17.  Page, History of the 14th Connecticut Vol. Infantry. (p. 219–223).
#18.  O.R.  Col. Charles J. Powers Report. (No. 12).  (p. 129-130).
#19.  O.R.  Lt.-Col. Samuel A. Moore's Report.  (No. 13). (p. 130-131). [14th CT]
#20.  O.R.  Gen. Warren's Report.
#21.  O.R.  Robert E. Lee's Report. (No. 24). ( p. 141).

Return to Table of Contents

PART 4
Aftermath of the Skirmish at Morton's Ford

Conclusions

Brigadier-General Alexander Hays

The costly demonstration made no sense to the men of the 14th Connecticut.  Angry over their loss, they claimed Brigadier Powers, General Hays, and even Corps Commander Major-General Warren were drunk.  Many officers, including several in his division, attested that Hays was sober throughout the engagement. No other unit involved complained Hays was drunk.#1.

Charles D. Page, author of the Fourteenth Connecticut history, wrote that after the fight at Morton's Ford, General Hays took an interest in the wounded men of the regiment, which they attibuted to a feeling of guilt for ordering Captain Doten forward.

“…There was a suspicious solicitude on the part of Gen Hays for the men of the 14th who were in the hospital.  It might have been the tinges of conscience for the cruel order which he gave at the Morton house.  He and his wife visited the hospital daily, bringing oranges and delicacies for the wounded men.” #2.

The opinion of the webmaster here, is that the regimental history is hard on the general, rightly so for ordering Captain Doten forward, but maybe not so much about him being drunk.  Still, they were the ones who bore the brunt of casualties so are entitled to their feelings in the matter.  The day dawned wet and nasty and surely the officers who imbibed took a bit of whisky to take the edge off of the cold.

I think General Hays seemingly erratic behaviour is probably a personality quirk, or military theatrics brought on by the excitement of battle.

 At Gettysburg, during the repulse of Pickett's Charge, General Hays was seen, with a large Confederate flag tied to his horses tail dragging in the mud, while he rode along the lines.  He then rushed out into an open field in sight of the enemy, then back again in front of his line, “to be welcomed with a storm of cheers.”

“These demonstrations of course were in sight of the enemy and were made for effect.” #3.

NOTES:
#1.  Trinque, Bruce A. “Rebels Across the River” in America's Civil War, Volume 7, number 5 (September 1994).
#2.  Page, Charles D., “History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry;” ( p. 229).
#3.  “History of the Ninety-Seventh Regiment, New York Volunteers [Conkling Rifles] in the War for the Union,” by Major Isaac Hall, 1896, Utica, New York,  L.C. Childs & Son. (p. 146).


General Butler initially requested a demonstration on General Lee's front that would draw troops out of Richmond, or at least keep re-enforcements from going to Richmond when his raid reached the city defenses.  That is unlikely to have happened even if the entire Army of the Potomac attacked, which General Sedgwick had already declared impractical.  During the demonstration General Lee alerted some of his cavalry to be ready to move, but that was the extent of it.  Bulter made the same mistake of other Union Generals is devising a strategy and then expecting or hoping that General Lee would react the way they wanted him to.  That never happened.  General John Pope did it at Manassas on the morning of August 30, 1862 when he assumed the Confederate Army was retreating.  General Hooker did it at Chancellorsville, and General Meade did it at the Wilderness, May 5, 1864, when he assumed the Lee would occupy his defenses at Mine Run rather than attack; and the Union soldiers likewise suffered for it.

And what of  General Butler's raid on Richmond?   It failed for other reasons.

Telegram from Major-General Benjamin F. Butler to President Lincoln, Feb. 8, 1864

Fort Monroe, Va.February 8, 1864––10.55 p.m.      
(Received 11 p.m.)

I have sent the following telegram to the President, and I duplicate to you in order that you may urge my request upon him:

Hon. Abraham Lincoln,
                    President of the United States:

After much preparation I made a raid on Richmond to release our prisoners there.  Everything worked precisely as I expected.  The troops reached Bottom’s Bridge, 10 miles from Richmond, at 2.30 o’clock on Sunday morning, but we found a force of the enemy posted there to meet us, evidently informed of our intention, none having been there before for two months.  They had destroyed the bridge and fallen trees across the road to prevent the passing of the cavalry.  Finding the enemy were informed and prepared, we were obliged to retire.  The flag-of-truce boat came down from Richmond to-day, bringing a copy of the Examiner, in which it is said that they were prepared for us from information received from a Yankee deserter.  Who that deserter was that gave the information you will see by a dispatch just received by me from General Wistar.  I send it to you that you may see how your clemency has been misplaced.  I desire that you will revoke your order suspending executions in this department.  Please answer by telegraph.

Dispatch received from General Wistar:

Fort Magruder, February 8, 1864.

Major-General Butler:
        Private William Boyle, New York Mounted Rifles, under sentence of death for murder of Lieutenant Disosway, was allowed to escape by Private Abraham, of One hundred and thirty-ninth New York, the sentinel over him, four days previous to my movement.  It is said he also told him that large numbers of cavalry and infantry were concentrated here to take Richmond.  During my absence the commander here has learned that Boyle reached Richmond, and was arrested and placed in Castle Thunder.  Boyle would have been hung long ago but for the President’s order suspending executions in this department.  Charges against him went forward a week ago.

I. J. WISTAR,
                        Brigadier-General.,

BENJ .F. BUTLER,      
            Major-General, Commanding.     

Secretary of War.

Suffering in the Aftermath of the Skirmish at Morton's Ford

The suffering encountered by the troops involved in this nonsense, is embodied in the following letter from a soldier in the 108th New York, which was one of the regiments that came to the assistance of the 14th Connecticut.  The 108th was raised in Rochester, N.Y.  The paper is most likely the Rochester Daily Democrat and American.

SATURDAY MORNING, FEB. 13.

LOCAL AFFAIRS.

From the 108th Regiment.
        Correspondence of the Democrat and American.

NEAR MORTON'S FORD, VIRGINIA,      
Feb. 9th, 1864.     

The telegraph will announce to you that another conflict has occurred on the Rapidan. At an early hour Saturday morning, our Corps moved, for the purpose of feeling of the enemy, across the river. Our (3d) Division forded the river, the water being waist deep—drove and captured a number of the rebel pickets. Having driven them some two miles, their artillery opened upon us briskly with shells. Our men were compelled to lie down upon the wet ground, (for the day was rainy) and thus continued till night fall, when another sharp action occurred, in which the rebels were pushed still further back. The Third Division was the only one over and under fire. Our artillery could not cross nor get in position. The loss in this Division is severe, being near 200. The hospitals and our chapel were filled with wounded and dying.

Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Pierce, 108th NY

The 108th are sorely grieved—sadness is upon us. Lieut. Col. [Francis Edward] Pierce* (pictured) is dangerously wounded, a ball striking him near the outer corner of the left eye, and causing it to protrude outward the size of a hen's egg. Although in great pain, he appears calm. What the result will be we cannot say, but sincerely trust he may be spared to us. The additional wounded, as far as we can learn at the present writing, are as follows: Henry J. Clow, Co. B, abdomen, seriously;  John R. W. Chase, Co. B, left shoulder, seriously;  Corporal John H. Goodyer,  Co. F, left shoulder cap fractured by a ball, seriously;  Seeley Meeker, Co. F, ankle, badly fractured.

The regiment has been out all night, and is still out on the river. Fighting has been going on briskly upon our right, and is still going on. The dead are being buried, amputated limbs are seen, and groans of pain and anguish are heard. They rendered the Sabbath doleful. The wounded were immediately stripped of their wet clothing and made as comfortable as possible. Thanks and blessings to Messrs. Rogers, Stearns, Lane and Burgess, of the Sutler department, for their untiring zeal during the night in furnishing hot coffee to the wounded, are duly recorded by the grateful boys themselves. I must close the sad story.

The 126th have also suffered—to what extent I cannot say. In haste,
                                                                                Trume.

*Pierce survived his wound and continued to serve and was wounded again at the Battle of the Wilderness, May 6, 1864.  He mustered out of the 108th NY May 28, 1865 at Bailey's Cross Roads, Va. and mustered into the 8th Veteran Volunteers as Colonel on June 15, 1865.  Mustered out March 22, 1866.  (Brevet Brig-Gen. 3/13/65).

General G. K. Warren's Map of the Skirmish at Morton's Ford

General G.K. Warren's Map of the Battle of Morton's Ford

Pictured is General G. K. Warren's Map of the action at Morton's Ford.  The crossing was needless and rather silly.  Click here to view larger.

Boston Evening Transcript, February 10, 1864.

The Northern papers always tried to put a positive spin on things.  The skirmish was reported in the Boston Transcript.  It includes the exploits of the cavalry demonstration conducted by General Kilpatrick, which I excluded from the above narratives.

FEBRUARY 10, 1864.

The Late Reconnoissance on the Rapidan.

A heavy reconnoissance was sent out to the Rapidan last Friday evening and Saturday morning.  The weather was very unpropitious, otherwise the movement would have been more extensive.  However, military men assert that enough was done to furnish important information concerning the position and strength of Lee’s army.  We furnish a connected account of the movement:

The 2d Corps, under the command of Brig. Gen. Cauldwell (Gen. Warren being temporarily indisposed) left camp at 7 o’clock on Saturday morning, taking the road leading to Mortons Ford.  The men were supplied with three days' rations, as were all the troops engaged in the reconnoissance.

The corps reached the cavalry reserve, within half a mile of the Rapidan, at 10 o’clock A. M., when a consultation between Generals Cauldwell, Webb and Hayes, commanding respectively the first, second and third divisions, was held, and a crossing of the river decided upon.  Brig. Gen. Hayes, commanding the 3d division, was directed to lead the advance, which he did in person, fording the river waist deep, on foot, at the head of Gen. J. T. Owens’s third brigade.  The rebel sharpshooters, in rifle pits, on the other side, kept up a galling fire while a battery stationed on the hills to the right, and a mile beyond the ford, hotly shelled the advancing column.  Capt. Arnold, in command of Battery A, 1st Rhode Island artillery, was placed in position on a bluff several hundred yards from the river on the north side, and did excellent service in responding to the enemy’s guns, which were mainly directed against the fording party.  The fire of the enemy was unusually wild, and but few casualties occurred in Gen. Owen’s brigade.

On reaching the south bank of the river, a charge was made on the rebel rifle pits, and twenty-eight men and an officer captured.  A few of the prisoners regarded their situation when taken with indifference, and the majority seemed inclined to rejoice rather than weep at the fate which had befallen them.  The prisoners taken were members of Virginia, Georgia and Mississippi regiments.  The brigade was posted in line of battle, to the left and half a mile beyond the ford, under the shelter of several crests of hills, the fire of several rebel guns being still directed upon them from the heights above the ford.

Colonel Charles J. Powers

The 39th and 126th New York were then deployed as skirmishers, nearly at right angles with the river, with orders to force back the enemy as far as possible.  Sharp skirmishing then ensued, the enemy’s line gradually retiring before our skirmishers.  The right wing of the skirmish line was commanded by Col. Bull of the 126th, and the left by Lieut. Col. Baird of the same regiment.  At 12 M. Col. Carroll, commanding the 1st brigade of Gen. Haye’s division, crossed to the support of the 3d, and at 5 P.M. Col. Powell, [Powers] 2d brigade, followed.

The position occupied by Col. Powell’s [Powers] brigade being an exposed one, his command suffered more than any other.  It was nearly dusk when the brigade mentioned got into position, and at this time the heaviest fighting occurred. The 39th and 126th New York, having occupied the picket line all day, were relieved by the 14th Connecticut, which suffered more severely than any other regiment engaged during the day. (Colonel Charles J. Powers pictured.)

Some little disorder at one time occurred on the right of the skirmish line, but it was almost instantly checked by the officers in command. The fight continued fiercely until half an hour after dusk, when the cannonading and musketry ceased, and all was quiet, except occasional shots from the sharpshooters.  At half-past eight P. M. Gen. Webb’s second division was ordered to ford the river to support the third.

At midnight Gen. Warren, who had come down to the front in the afternoon, received orders to recross his troops, which he did in good order, and without being molested by the enemy. One division of the Third Corps, the Second, marched on Saturday afternoon to the support of General Warren, but their services were not needed.

Two hundred and fifty in killed, wounded and missing, will cover our total loss, of which ten per cent, will correctly indicate our killed and mortally wounded.

The cavalry movements are described as follows:  Gen. Kilpatrick, accompanied by Battery C, 3d Artillery, Lieut. Kelly, left camp at seven o’clock A.M.  Saturday morning, and after several feints, crossed at Culpeper Mine Ford, where six rebel pickets belonging to Hampton’s Legion were found posted.  On crossing, detachments were sent out to scour the country in every direction.  Col. Alger, commanding the 5th Michigan, was sent on the macadamized pike to Robertson’s Tavern, while Gen. Kilpatrick, with the main body, proceeded down the Fredericksburg plank road to the vicinity of Chancellorsville, meeting no infantry force, and but small parties of cavalry, who fell back before his advance.

In accordance with instructions he returned to the vicinity of Culpepper Ford on Saturday night to await further orders, and was there directed to return to camp, which he did the next day.  On recrossing, Major White with one battalion was sent up the river for the purpose of capturing any pickets which might be stationed at the upper fords.  He recrossed the river at Jacob’s Mills, where four or five videttes were taken prisoners.

Gen. Kilpatrick’s reconnoissance conclusively proves that no force of the enemy occupies the country east of Mine Run.  The small parties of cavalry all belonged to Hampton’s Legion, which is stationed at Fredericksburg.  More than half the videttes have no horses, are seldom relieved, and are sometimes obliged to walk 28 miles to their post of duty.  The rebels are represented as being engaged in replanking the road from Chancellorsville to Orange Court House, and are laying out several new roads through the wilderness.

Twelve or fifteen prisoners were captured by Gen. K., and he returned to his camp Sunday evening without having lost a man during his reconnoissance.

At cavalry headquarters, same night, no special details of Gen. Merritt’s operations had been received, except that he had been to Madison Court House, and that he was, at the time his courier was despatched on Saturday night, at Barnett’s Ford.  He had encountered no considerable force of the enemy, and had met with no losses.

A telegraphic despatch stated that, on Monday, heavy firing was heard in the neighborhood of Culpepper, indicating that our cavalry were then engaged.

General Sedwick was Mad

In the following communication it is clearly evident from his last sentence, that General Sedwick was angry for being forced into making a demonstration on the Rapidan in support of General Butler's plans.

Headquarters Army of the Potomac,         
February  7, 1864––noon.  (Received 12.45 p.m.)

Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief:

Vigorous demonstrations were made yesterday.  We lost 200 in killed and wounded at Morton’s Ford last evening.  We punished the enemy sharply and took about 60 prisoners.  The operation is still going on.  Information from Harrisonburg Wednesday last makes Early and Imboden moving on Winchester.  Our scouts from the valley will be in to-night or to-morrow morning.  One result of the co-operation with General Butler has been to prove that it has spoilt the best chance we had for a successful attack on the Rapidan.

JOHN SEDGWICK,         
Major-General.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Major-General Butler February 8, 1864

Meanwhile, The Administration seemed pleased with General Butler's Efforts.

 WashingtonFebruary 8, 1864––10.45 p.m.  

Major-General Butler:

The order relieving Captain Farquhar is revoked, as you desire.  You will return it to the Adjutant General.  Your telegrams announcing the result of your expedition have been received.  Its failure, through the treacherous disclosure of a deserter could not be effectually guarded against and, while regretting the want of success, I am glad the enterprise has not suffered disaster.  Perhaps there will be better luck next time.

EDWIN M. STANTON,      
Secretary of War.

General Sedgwick in Trouble with the President

Washington, February 11, 1864––4 p.m.

Major-General Sedgwick,
                            Army of the Potomac:

In your telegram of the 7th instant you say:

One result of the co-operation with General Butler has been to prove that it has spoilt the best chance we had for a successful attack on the Rapidan.

The President directs that you report what this “best chance” was:  what “successful attack” was proposed; when it was to be executed, and how it has been spoiled by your co-operation with General Butler.

H. W. HALLECK,      
General-in-Chief.

General Sedgwick Lists His Grievances

Headquarters Army of the Potomac,                  
February
12, 1864––8 a.m.  (Received 11 a.m.)

Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck,
                            General-in-Chief:

In reply to your telegram of last evening, I have to state the best chance for a successful attack on the Rapidan lay in the fact that not more than a brigade or a brigade and a half was holding the works at Morton’s Ford; that the nearest re-enforcements (not counting the brigade or brigade and a half holding the works at Raccoon Ford, which could not be removed without abandoning that part of the line) were from 5 to 6 miles off (two brigades back of Somerville and Robertson’s Fords);  that the other posts of Ewell’s corps were from 10 to 12 miles off, and Hill’s corps as far off, if not farther; that the appearance of our troops at Morton’s Ford, on the Rapidan, was a complete surprise, and if 1,000 or 1,200 men had rushed to the enemy’s works at that point they could have been carried, and if the whole army could have been on the river, with the artillery and ammunition and other fighting trains ready to follow up taking of the works at Morton's Ford, Lee’s army would have had to fight without the advantage of the strong position of the Rapidan, rendered vastly stronger by intrenchments.  In other words, gaining the intrenchments at Morton’s Ford, with the whole army to follow it up, would have turned his intrenched position of the Rapidan and its appendages.

Second, the condition of the roads, country, and weather during the time that co-operation with General Butler was proposed and executed was such as to render the secret and rapid movement of this army impracticable.

Major-General Benjamin Butler

  Third, the dispatch from General Butler received Friday night requested that the demonstration by this army should be made the next day (Saturday), without regard to the weather; it stated that he hoped to strike his point Sunday morning at 6 o’clock.  The demonstration, to be in time for General Butler’s purpose (and it was made for no other object), could only be effected by using the two corps nearest the Rapidan––the First and Second––without bringing in their detached brigades, picket guards, &c., and by leaving their camps standing, with guards, &c., and sending parts of two divisions of cavalry to make demonstrations on the Rapidan above and below, by which the operations would be prolonged through Saturday.

Fourth, the requirements of General Butler, just stated, rendered it impossible to take advantage of a surprise at Morton’s Ford if one should be made, since the army could not be got to the river in time, if, indeed it was practicable to get it there at all.

 Fifth, the co-operation with General Butler spoiled the chance for a  successful attack by giving the enemy proof that we could surprise them at Morton’s Ford, and by indicating to them what they should do, by a new arrangement of troops and new defensive works, to prevent a  repetition of it.  They have already thrown up a new rifle-pit close to the ford.  A mere cavalry reconnaissance last fall caused them to extend the intrenchments on the Rapidan up Mine Run several miles.  A similar reconnaissance at an earlier day toward their left caused them to intrench the crossing of Blue River and make other defensive dispositions.

Sixth, in my telegram to you of the 5th instant I stated, “Demonstrations in our front at the present time may, however, spoil the chances for the future.”  The conditions of a successful attack, so far as they relate to the condition, position, and sense of security of Lee’s army, existed already.  The conditions relating to the state of the roads and the weather which rendered it practicable to move this army secretly and rapidly to the Rapidan, did not exist, and until they did no plan of attack could be prepared with any view to its execution, nor could any time be proposed for its execution.

It was believed, however, that the opportunity would occur.

JOHN SEDGWICK,      
Major-General, Commanding.

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Page Updated May 5, 2024.

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"It Has Spoilt The Best Chance We Had."