Friday, March 21, 2014

The Battle of Jeffersonton, Virginia Oct. 1863

          From reading most accounts of the Bristoe Station Campaign, launched by Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on October 8, 1863 one would get the impression that there was little combat between the rival armies, save for the action at Bristoe Station on October 14, that gave the campaign its name.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As Lee's maneuvers forced George Meade's Army of the Potomac back from Culpeper Courthouse to within 25 miles of Washington, D.C., there was a great deal of fighting -- much of it intense and quite severe.  One of the most interesting actions occurred on October 12, as the Rebels moved to outflank Meade and cross the upper Rappahannock River.  The results were the battles of Jeffersonston and Sulphur Springs.  Below is an account of the battle of Jeffersonton from my forthcoming book, After Gettysburg, Before Grant, which will be published by Savas & Beatie this fall.
The Battle of Jeffersonton

            Along the Rappahannock, everything hinged on news from Meade's right flank, where Brigadier General David Gregg's division covered the river’s upper fords. The focal point of concern was Sulphur Springs – sometimes known as White Sulphur Springs – one of the most beautiful and renown spots in all Virginia. Home of a mineral spring reputed to have curative powers it had long been a popular tourist attraction.  During the 1830s entrepreneurs had built a spacious and magnificent four-story hotel there.  Combined with rows of individual guest cottages flanking well-manicured and elaborately landscaped lawns, the resort was capable of accommodating 800 guests.
Such splendor did not survive the war, however.  In August 1862, Union and Confederate forces engaged in a nasty little fight for the bridge spanning the Rappahannock at Sulphur Springs. Hit by shells from both sides, the hotel caught fire and burned to the ground. Now all that remained of its former glory were blackened granite walls, standing in stark contrast to majestic trees and untended gardens.
Little more than a year later Sulphur Springs was once again the potential center of a bull’s-eye. Lee’s infantry was marching hard toward the upper Rappahannock; Hill’s Corp’s aiming for Waterloo Bridge, while Ewell’s was wearing out shoe leather toward the springs. But before the Rebels could count on crossing the river at either location they would have to push Union cavalry out of their way.  
George Meade did not intend for the Confederates to have to push very hard. Gregg’s instructions were quite clear.  He was to post a brigade on the Sperryville road, watch for any sign of the enemy and send in frequent reports. Meade's chief-of-staff made certain the general understood “it was information of Lee's movements solely” that was wanted.  The Union cavalry was not to get caught up in a battle.  It was not charged with slowing Lee down. Its’ entire mission was to discover Lee's whereabouts and get that information to army headquarters “at the earliest possible moment.” 222
Gregg assigned the task of watching the Sulphur Springs road to his 2nd Brigade which happened to be commanded by his cousin, Colonel John Irvin Gregg, who in turn placed Lieutenant Colonel Garrick Mallery’s 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry between Rixeyville and Jeffersonton.  The rest of the brigade he stationed north of the Rappahannock, spread out to cover the various roads to Warrenton.
Mallery threw his pickets well forward of Jeffersonton and waited for something to happen.  For an agonizingly long time nothing did.  Feeling something more proactive could be done, General Gregg dispatched Colonel Charles Smith’s 1st Maine Cavalry to scout the road to Sperryville, traveling through Amissville, Gaines Crossroads and Little Washington on its way.

As the 13th Pennsylvania stood guard near Jeffersonton, Smith’s cavalrymen rode off to the west.  Reaching its destination without encountering opposition of any kind, the regiment about faced to return via the same route it had come. Between Amissville and Gaine’s Crossroads, however, it unexpectedly found A.P. Hill’s infantry clogging the roads.  In one of those bizarre occurrences so common in war, the 1st Maine had ridden right across the path of the oncoming Confederate army without seeing a single enemy soldier.
Realizing he had found what he had been sent to find, Colonel Smith also understood he was powerless to communicate his vital discovery. Cut off completely, with Lee's entire host seemingly between his regiment and the Army of the Potomac, Smith had only one escape route left open.  The Union troopers headed north and west, beginning a thirty-hour trek that would lead them on a 90-mile march around Lee's flank and back to their own lines. While the 1st Maine thus managed to save itself, the vital information it possessed regarding Lee's movements was heading away from, not toward, George Meade.
As the Maine cavalrymen stumbled into their awkward predicament, Gregg’s troopers watching the Rixeyville Road were descending into a worse ordeal. Around daybreak, dismounted Rebel cavalry began driving in the 13th Pennsylvania’s outposts and by 9 a.m. Union pickets had been pushed all the way back into Jeffersonton.
The Rebels had no idea how many Yankees were holding the town, but they knew the surest way to find out was to poke the beehive and see what swarmed out. So as their dismounted skirmishers continued advancing, Southern cavalry essayed a mounted charge toward the village.  Anticipating such a threat, Colonel Mallery had kept a reserve force of about 100 men in the saddle.  As the Rebels came thundering forward, the Pennsylvanians counter charged.  For a moment it looked like a classic cavalry mêlée was at hand. But before the opposing forces made contact the Virginians abruptly reversed course, leaving their Yankee counterparts with no one to fight.
Being denied a chance to cross sabers with the Rebels quickly proved the least of Mallery’s problems. Lured out into the open, the mounted Pennsylvanians now became easy targets for Southern marksmen who had been clandestinely deployed to take advantage of the opportunity. Rapidly turning about, the Yankee cavalrymen beat a hasty retreat. No matter how fast they spurred their horses, however, they had no hope of outrunning the hailstorm of enemy bullets which emptied many saddles before the colonel’s troopers made it back into town.  Those who survived were ordered to dismount and fight on foot.
As the struggle around the little village continued, Mallery sent word back to John Gregg that Confederate cavalry was on the road between Rixeyville and Culpeper. Then, with no instructions to resist the Rebel advance, he ordered the 13th to abandon Jeffersonton and fall back toward the Rappahannock. 
As of yet Mallery’s men had seen no Rebel infantry.  The presence of Southern cavalry meant little and might amount to nothing more than a reconnaissance.  Not willing to concede ground south of the river to Stuart’s horsemen, General Gregg ordered his 2nd Brigade to reinforce the Pennsylvanians.
That task fell to Major George Covode’s 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which was just going into camp between Sulphur Springs and Warrenton when the message to head south arrived. Abandoning their bivouac, Covode’s men, accompanied personally by Colonel Gregg, were soon crossing the Rappahannock to support their fellow Keystone State troopers. About 12:30 p.m., the 4th met up with the 13th about a half mile north of Jeffersonton.  Gregg promptly directed the two regiments to reoccupy the hamlet, which was easily done – the Rebel cavalry meekly falling back into woods south of town.
But the enemy did not remain meek for long. Confederates in force made contact with the Pennsylvanians around three in the afternoon.  The 11th Virginia Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Dulany Ball, found the Federals posted behind hills, fences and a stone wall surrounding the town’s Baptist church.  Dismounting his troopers, Ball tried to dislodge the Yankees by a quick push.  The Rebels attacked with great vigor and fighting swirled around the town – its epicenter the church’s stone wall, which was the scene of several bouts of hand-to-hand combat. 
Despite the determination of Ball’s assault, a pair of Union regiments proved too much for his Virginians and they were driven back with some loss. Once more, however, Federal success was momentary.  Shortly after Ball’s repulse, Stuart, Ewell and Robert E. Lee arrived on the scene, bringing with them the bulk of Funsten’s cavalry brigade and Major General Robert Rodes’ division which was the vanguard of Ewell's corps.  Seeing the retreat of the 11th Virginia, Lee – not content to be a mere bystander – told Stuart to deploy his regiments and drive the Yankees away.
While Stuart moved to execute Lee's orders, Rodes deployed Brigadier General Cullen Battle’s six Alabama regiments and Major Eugene Blackford’s sharpshooters to surround the town.  Battle dispatched the 3rd, 6th and 12th Alabama on a sweep to envelop Jeffersonton from the west, while the 5th and 26th Alabama moved to strike from the east. Blackford’s command made a mile-wide circuit to get behind the town, his men being careful to stay out of sight of the its defenders.
As the infantry pressed forward, Stuart shook out Funsten’s Brigade, sending the 7th Virginia Cavalry to the left, while posting the 12th Virginia Cavalry to the right.  The 11th Virginia, remounted, took position in the center.  The Federal troopers in Jeffersonton were not blind to what was happening and a continuous and rapid skirmish fire erupted between the rival lines.
Once the Confederate regiments surged forward, however, the outcome of the fight was a foregone conclusion.  Outnumbered and outflanked, those Pennsylvanians who could fell back.  But most of the dismounted Federals discovered their horses had disappeared – either captured or run off.  With no officers in sight, some troopers held a quick consultation and decided to retreat to a nearby ridge covered with cord wood.  Here each man hurriedly stacked firewood to make an individual little fortress.
No sooner were these makeshift fortifications erected, than Rebel cavalry came bearing down on the ridge.  After driving off five separate charges, the isolated Pennsylvanians suddenly found themselves confronting Southern infantry.  Private John Hollis watched aghast as “large square bodies” of gray troops approached, battle flags fluttering in the breeze.  With a sinking feeling the private realized there was no escape. Nonetheless, he was surprised at just how quickly the Federal position was overrun; Rebel infantry with fixed bayonets easily rousting the Yankees out of their wooden forts and marching them away as prisoners.
Gregg’s mounted men seemed headed toward a similarly grim fate.  About a half a mile north of Jeffersonton the road to Sulphur Springs passed through an expansive pine thicket three-quarter miles in length. In this dreadful tangle Funsten’s regiments slammed into the retreating Federals, who turned to make another stand. For thirty minutes a vicious close quarters struggle swayed back and forth, the Virginia and Pennsylvania regiments charging and counter charging in the difficult terrain. It was as mean a fight as could be imagined; the dense pines trapping the gun smoke and intensifying the “rattle of small arms,” shouts of command and “cries and oaths of the combatants.” One Rebel called the struggle a “bloody and doubtful contest” in which confusion reigned supreme.
Gradually the Federals were pushed back by Confederate numbers and relentlessness.  During the mêlée, Blackford’s sharpshooters slipped between the Pennsylvanians and the river, threatening the Federal line of retreat. Realizing they were in danger of being surrounded, the Northerners broke and fled, running for the Rappahannock with Stuart's men in hot pursuit. As they dashed toward the river, the sharpshooters, positioned parallel to the road, poured a hot fire into the Federal troopers, killing a dozen and capturing 20 others whose horses fell victim to their fire.
With Rebel cavalry bearing down on their rear and Blackford’s marksmen ripping into their flank, the Pennsylvanians’ situation seemed to be worsening by the moment. Without help both Union regiments were sure to be cut off and destroyed.  In an effort to stem the crisis, Major Henry Avery’s 10th New York Cavalry was ordered across the river to do what it could to protect the battered commands desperately trying to reach the Rappahannock.  Avery led his regiment to the south bank and deployed a squadron of skirmishers on the slope of a long ridge running perpendicular to the road and about a half mile from the river.  The sudden appearance of the 10th New York diverted Confederate attention from Jeffersonton’s fleeing defenders, thus saving what could be saved of the regiment’s Pennsylvania brethren.  
That success was a double-edged sword, however, as the Rebels now focused their wrath on the Federal newcomers and the New Yorkers found themselves in exactly the same sort of jeopardy the battered Pennsylvanians were escaping. Luckily for Avery, his men were relatively fresh and his opponents somewhat disorganized by their clash at Jeffersonton. Still, the 10th barely held on long enough for the Pennsylvanians to get away. With his mission accomplished and enemy troops pressing ever closer, the major was eager to extract his regiment from its increasingly perilous position before it was too late. Although the order to retreat was not long in coming, the 10th barely managed to get back to the river, losing heavily in men and horses in the process.
As Avery withdrew toward the Rappahannock, the first part of the afternoon’s action came to an end. Gregg's cavalrymen had put up quite a fight and the cost of their stubbornness was high. All three Federal regiments were cut to pieces, losing collectively 17 known dead, 114 wounded and 432 captured or missing.
Sadly, these Federal losses served little purpose. The mission of Gregg’s regiments was reconnaissance not combat.  Caught up in what seemed a fairly routine fight against Rebel cavalry, they were taken completely by surprise when Rodes’ infantry suddenly appeared. With no hope of significantly slowing Lee's main body, the few regiments engaged at Jeffersonton wound up fighting for mere survival.  Their struggle, although a brave one, was so utterly absorbing it unintentionally delayed transmission of the critical intelligence on which Meade's entire army was waiting.
As soon as Federal officers in Jeffersonton had spotted Rebels wearing knapsacks, a courier was dispatched to Sulphur Springs with news that Confederate infantry was nearby.  The assault of Stuart's cavalry followed so closely on the arrival of Lee's infantry however, the courier had no chance to get away.  Blundering into the path of the 12th Virginia Cavalry, he was taken prisoner after being severely wounded and having his horse killed.
Hence, only when the battered remnants of the 13th and 4th Pennsylvania safely crossed the river, could evidence of Lee's infantry finally begin its journey to an anxious Meade. Not until 4:50 p.m. did General Gregg hold in his hand reports confirming Rebel foot soldiers were at Jeffersonton and marching on Sulphur Springs.  Gregg hastily scrawled out a message to Meade saying that a large column of enemy infantry was “in plain sight” and moving to cross the Rappahannock.
Buford's reconnaissance had informed Meade hours before that Lee was not at Culpeper. Now Gregg had evidence the Southerners were moving to turn the Federal flank. The Army of the Potomac was in the wrong place and it would have to reat quickly to escape the trap Lee was settting.