The prelude to the Battle of Chancellorsville is a planned cavalry action known as Stoneman’s 1863 Raid. It is named after Major General George Stoneman who commanded the 1o,000-man strong Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
The Army commander, Maj. General Joseph Hooker was preparing a plan to meet Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in central Virginia. His goal was to force the Confederates out of their fortified positions around Fredericksburg. Hooker conceived of a sweeping cavalry action that would sever Lee’s railroad supply lines and pin the Confederates in place for the oncoming Union assault.
The frontal assaults carried out by Union troops in December 1862 had been the undoing of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and precipitated his removal as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties and the South had received a great boost in morale. The Richmond Examiner described it as a “stunning defeat to the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil.” Burnside was relieved of command a month later, following an unsuccessful attempt to purge some of his subordinates from the Army and the humiliating failure of his “Mud March” in January.
With Burnside’s failure in the forefront of his thinking “Fighting Joe” Hooker conceived a new plan of attack across the dividing line of the Rappahannock River. His initial weapon of choice was Stoneman’s Cavalry Corps. The plan was for the Union cavalry to cross the Rappahannock.
His plan called for the dispersal Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry around Culpeper and then a dash south to Gordonsville. There, they would sever Lee’s line of supply by destroying the strategically vital north-south Orange and Alexandria Railroad where it joined with the east-west Virginia Central Railroad.
Without a reliable line of supply, Lee would be forced to withdraw from his fortifications at Fredericksburg and fall back towards Richmond. Hooker knew that the Confederate authorities were as sensitive about the security of their capital as the Union authorities were about Washington. On April 12, the bombastic Hooker wrote to Stoneman of the impending operation: “Let your watchword be fight, and let all your orders be fight, fight, fight.”
Hooker made sure that Brig. Gen. John Buford was given an active field command and rode to battle in April 1863 with the Reserve Brigade, an organisation that contained the majority of the Regular Army cavalry units serving in the east. Up to this point Buford had served on the staff of the Army commander.
At 8 a.m. on April 13, 1863, Buford’s Brigade, composed of the First, Second, Fifth, and Sixth U.S. Cavalry, left camp at Falmouth, Virginia, to embark on the ambitious and daring raid. Falmouth was a town opposite Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. After camping that night at Morrisville, on the following day Buford’s force engaged the enemy at Kelly’s Ford, upriver from their starting point, a key crossing point.
After a brief artillery duel, 25 shots in all, the Union cavalry continued their advance to the west and the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. By the 15th, they were at Rappahannock Bridge, ready to cross but were ordered to await further instructions. Heavy rains had turned the roads to quagmires and the streams into raging torrents. It was not until April 29 that the Reserve Brigade was able to completely cross at Kelly’s Ford.
Meanwhile, Col. Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis’ Brigade was ordered to continue their advance through the night of April 13-14 with the goal of crossing the river at Sulphur Springs. Once across, Davis was to proceed back downriver to drive the Confederates from Beverly Ford and Rappahannock Bridge in order for the rest of the cavalry to cross.
At Beverly Ford, Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg‘s Division skirmished with elements of the 9th and 13 Virginia Cavalry under Brig. Gen. Rooney Lee. Rather than press forward, the Union cavalry opted not to attack until the following morning. Stoneman began to show signs of caution. That night the river rose an incredible 7 feet from a torrential rainstorm. At this Stoneman cancelled the advance and ordered Davis back across the river.
The rain continued for days and Stoneman’s force marked time while waiting for it to abate. He kept the bulk of his force near Warrenton Junction where he was able to supply them from the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. At this point Hooker changed his original plan. Rather than seizing Hanover Junction or blocking Lee’s retreat, the orders were less specific.
On April 22nd, Hooker directed Stoneman to “subdivide your command, and let them take different routes, and have some point of meeting on your line of general operations. These detachments can dash off to the right and left, and inflict a vast deal of mischief, and at the same time bewilder the enemy as to the course and intentions of the main body.”
By April 28th, Hooker had issued yet another set of orders that closely resembled the original orders of April 12th in part. Stoneman was instructed to cut of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad in Lee’s rear. The cavalry was ordered to “cut off the retreat of enemy” and reunite somewhere south of the Pamunkey River after having divided his force in accordance with the April 22nd orders.
Stoneman collected his scattered units and after several hours of scouting, the Union cavalry crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford. Hooker’s engineers had built a pontoon bridge at this spot and some of Stoneman’s forces used that to cross. Some of the troopers swam their horses through the overflowing stream while the other’s used the ford itself. By 5:00 PM, Stoneman force was across the river.
He then split his forces for the next stage of the advance. Brig. Gen. William W. Averell, accompanied by Davis’ Brigade, was ordered to move his division toward Culpeper and disperse Fitzhugh Lee’s smaller cavalry force in that area. Gregg’s Division, along with Buford’s Reserve Brigade, would move to the southwest toward Stevensburg. Each column had a battery of artillery for support.
Averell’s wing collided with a small force of Confederate cavalry and after a brief engagement dispersed them. However, Stoneman’s cautious approach once more slowed both columns. He ordered them both to halt until after dark. Both wings bivouacked for the night, well short of their objectives.
During the night, Stoneman determined to press on. He ordered all of the supply wagons, pack mules and led horses to be sent toward Hooker’s right wing at Germanna Ford. Gregg’s and Buford’s men each loaded three days of rations, three days of forage, 40 rounds of carbine and 20 rounds of pistol ammunition on their horses. This wing was ordered to push east toward Richmond. Averell’s wing was to continue to engage the Confederate cavalry to his front.
By May 1st, Gregg’s wing split in two with Buford heading to Orange Court House and Gregg moving toward Orange Springs, 10 miles to the southwest. Upon reaching the Fredericksburg-Orange Turnpike, Stoneman directed his columns to make for Louisa Court House. The majority of the troops rested at Orange Springs for the rest of the day. At 6:00 PM, Gregg ordered them to saddle up and 9 hours later they arrived about a mile north of Louisa.
In the morning, Gregg’s troops encountered token resistance and easily took the town. They tore up the tracks, burned the sleepers and twisted the rails for about 5 miles. The also captured the depot and the storehouses in the area. Stoneman ordered a small force to head west toward Gordonsville. After some 3 miles, they encountered Confederate pickets which they scattered. Rooney Lee‘s 9th Virginia counterattacked and drove off the Union scouts, capturing almost half of them.
After an afternoon of skirmishing, both sides withdrew to their main lines. Meanwhile, Stoneman had sent out the 1st U.S. Cavalry to pillage Confederate supply depots at Tolersville and Fredericks Hall. They carried out their orders and in their travels managed to burn the 200-foot long Carr’s Bridge which spanned the North Anna River.
Meanwhile, Averell had continued to push south. On May 1st, Averell met the Confederates at Rapidan Station where the railroad crossed the Rapidan River. After an all-day stand-off, Averell slipped some troops to his right and across the river about 5 miles above the crossing. Rooney Lee countered with a blocking force but soon after received orders to withdraw to Gordonsville to confront Stoneman’s wing. The retreating Confederates burned the bridge to discourage Union pursuit.
Averell received a message from Hooker at 6:30 AM on May 2nd. In the dispatch, Hooker ordered him to return immediately to United State Ford. Averell attempted to reply with an explanation of Stoneman’s orders but he also immediately set out for United States Ford as ordered. By the following afternoon, he had been relieved of command and he was replaced by Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton on May 4, 1863. Hooker claimed that Averell had disobeyed his orders by obeying Stoneman’s, his immediate superior.
Meanwhile, Stoneman made the classic mistake of dividing his 10 regiments into seven separate groupings, thereby rendering them vulnerable to a superior concentration of Confederate cavalry. Divided his force stood little chance of delaying the Army of Northern Virginia if Hooker were to force it south.
Nevertheless, Stoneman, who remained at Thompson’s Crossroads with a painful case of hemorrhoids, sent his troopers off in all directions to wreak havoc on the countryside. They burned dozens of bridges, canal boats, canal locks and enemy supplies. They also tore down telegraph lines and tore up railroad tracks. One column led by the colorful Col H. Judson Kilpatrick rode until they were in sight of Richmond’s outer defenses. Kilpatrick and a second column led by Col. Hasbrouck Davis were forced to head east towards Williamsburg on the Peninsula.
Stoneman had not received word from Hooker and the lack of retreating Confederates meant that Hooker’s plan had met with a reverse. He now had to navigate with his remaining troopers through a sea of Confederates. Using Buford and a picked force of 646 men and horses, Stoneman and the remainder retraced their route to the Rapidan River.
Buford followed through violent rainstorm, fording the North Anna River about 2:00 AM on May 6th and arriving at Orange Springs near dawn. Stoneman and his force arrived at Orange Springs several hours after Buford having traveled through the same miserable weather. Rooney Lee followed the Union columns but when he arrived at the North Anna River, it was too swollen to ford.
On the 6th, Stoneman cautiously moved north. Local slaves reported that Hooker had withdrawn across the Rappahannock in defeat. After resting for some hours, Stoneman’s columns spent another miserable night in torrential rainstorms and roads that had turned into muddy quagmires. At 2:00 AM on May 7th, they reached Raccoon Ford which was fordable. By dawn, the last regiment had crossed into Culpeper County. After a difficult crossing at Kelly’s Ford, Stoneman’s weary troopers reached Bealton on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad where they were resupplied.
Stoneman’s Raid gave the Union cavalry a newfound sense of self respect. They had proved that the cavalry could operate as an independent force against the enemy. No less a Confederate commander than Robert E. Lee urged Jefferson Davis that the Confederate cavalry formations would be increased in order to fend off “aggressive expeditions of the enemy…”
Stoneman had accomplished this with an estimate loss of 189 men from all causes out of a total force of 10,000, less than 2%. Hooker thought otherwise, testifying before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War that Stoneman had misconstrued his orders. However, the sentiment of the time favored Stoneman. By late June Hooker had been relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. George Meade.
Despite not accomplishing his stated goal of cutting off Lee from Richmond, Stoneman’s Raid established the Union cavalry as a force to be reckoned with and their star continued to ascend.