Clark Mountain: Robert E. Lee’s Lookout Post

This entry is part 14 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

Panoramic view from Clark MountainPhoto Copyright Linda Walcroft 1996

Robert E. Lee was a master of terrain and its use in combat during his Virginia campaigns. He scored several major and many minor victories over the Union Army with his skillful use of the terrain. It was only when he left his native state to campaign in Maryland and Pennsylvania that he ran afoul of the terrain.

At South Mountain, he was defeated because he believed that the terrain favored his Army of Northern Virginia. In actual fact, he attempted to defend too much terrain with too few defenders and was forced to fall back across Antietam Creek where both armies mauled each other.

At Gettysburg, he was forced to assault the Union defensive positions on Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill over the three-day battle. His attacks at both locations were repulsed with horrendous casualties. The assault that we know as Pickett’s Charge cost General George Pickett 2,655 casualties to his division.

Two of his three brigadiers were killed, the third was so seriously wounded that he saw no further combat. Of Pickett’s field-grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels), 26 of the 40 were casualties. The other divisions involved in the assault had similar casualty rates.

Lee’s success rate on Virginia soil was almost the exact opposite. At the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run to the Union) in August of 1862 he caught the Union Army of Virginia in a hammer-and-anvil trap and defeated them convincingly. General John Pope, the Union commander, was relieved of command and sent to Minnesota.

At Chancellorsville, Lee was able to turn back Fighting Joe Hooker and the Army of Potomac in what is considered his ‘most perfect battle’. Despite being outnumbered almost 2-to-1 Lee was able to administer a whipping to the Union Army and force it to retreat.

At the Wilderness in May of 1864, he caught the advancing Army of the Potomac in the thick woods and on the narrow road net. The Army of Northern Virginia dealt the Union forces serious casualties but did not deter General Ulysses S. Grant from advancing.

At these three battles Robert E. Lee had a secret weapon that he used to discern Union troop movements: Clark Mountain. As mountain’s go Clark Mountain isn’t very towering. Located in Orange County in the Virginia Piedmont, the mountain is a mere 1,100 in height. Yet this modest prominence played an important role in three major battles of the Civil War.

The mountain was used by the Confederate forces as a lookout post to ‘spy’ on movements of the Union Army on the north side of Rapidan River. It was said by Confederate officers that they could look right into the Union camps and judge when they were about to move south. The peak commanded an area with a view of twenty Virginia counties.

On the 2nd of May, 1864, a group of officers stood at the Confederate signal station on Clark’s Mountain, Virginia, south of the Rapidan, and examined closely through their field-glasses the position of the Federal army then lying north of the river in Culpeper county. The central figure of the group was the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, who had requested his corps and division commanders to meet him there. Though some demonstrations had been made in the direction of the upper fords, General Lee expressed the opinion that the Federal army would cross the river at Germanna or Ely’s.

Thirty-six hours later General Meade’s army, General Grant, now commander-in-chief, being with it, commenced its march to the crossings indicated by General Lee. , The Army of the Potomac, which had now commenced its march toward Richmond, was more powerful in numbers than at any previous period of the war. It consisted of three corps : the Second (Hancock’s), the Fifth (Warren’s), and the Sixth (Sedgwick’s) ; but the Ninth (Burnside’s) acted with Meade throughout the campaign. Meade’s army was thoroughly equipped, and provided with every appliance of modern warfare. On the other hand, the Army of Northern Virginia had gained little in numbers during the winter just passed, and had never been so scantily supplied with food and clothing. The description is by Major-General F.M. Law, C.S.A. in his book From the Wilderness to Cold Harbor.

Brigadier General John Gordon remembered the view from Clark’s Mountain (it was spelled both ways).

A more peaceful scene could scarcely be conceived than that which broke upon our view day after day as the rays of the morning sun fell upon the quiet, wide-spreading Union camp, with its thousands of smoke columns rising like miniature geysers, its fluttering flags marking the different divisions…

Robert E. Lee used the mountain to his advantage. He stationed a permanent force of lookouts on the mountain whose only job was to watch for Union troop movements and report them to him. With advanced knowledge of the strength of the enemy and the direction of their advance Lee was able to skillfully counter them.

Once the two armies moved out of the view of the lookouts on Clark Mountain, Lee’s only advantage was that of a native Virginian who a large number of native Virginians in his command. With the start of the Overland Campaign, the rest of the war for the armies of the two protagonists would be fought on Virginia soil.


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