Hear about Culpeper's History from Bud Hall
Culpeper: A deep dive into Culpeper's history with Bud Hall
Bud is a founding board member of the Chantilly Battlefield Association, the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the American Battlefield Trust), the Brandy Station Foundation, and has been active in historic preservation for more than 30 years. Bud has written and lectured widely on cavalry operations and Culpeper County during the American Civil War, and is acknowledged as Culpeper’s Civil War historian.
The History of Culpeper
Author: Bud Hall
Rapidan Front in Culpeper County
The following chronological narrative outlines the Civil War significance of the “Rapidan Front” from March 1862 to May 1864. Several military campaigns opened and closed, on and about the Rapidan River, and numerous pitched battles were fought directly over its steep banks. This is not a surprising military phenomenon, however, when realizing the Rapidan River - named in Colonial times for Queen Anne-served as the Confederacy’s, “last line of defense,” for most of the war.
And one can also consider that for most of the war, Orange County, south of the river, was Confederate territory. North of the river, Culpeper County “belonged” to the Federals. And for much of the Civil War, the northern border of the Confederate States of America was indeed affixed at the Rapidan River and throughout the central “Rapidan Valley.” Massive Clark’s Mountain, the highest peak in Virginia east of the Blue Ridge, at 1200 feet, anchored the Rapidan River’s defensive bulwark and its broad, descending slopes, crowned with artillery and infantry trenchworks, was termed by both armies as the “Rapidan Heights.”
It is also a strategic point worth emphasizing the oldest road in central Virginia, the “Old
Carolina Road,” a pre-Colonial byway, traverses the Rapidan River just beyond the eastern base of Clark’s Mountain - where it traverses the Rapidan over the river’s oldest crossing, the pre- Colonial, “Raccoon Ford.”
Further adding to the Rapidan Front’s military significance, the wartime Orange and Alexandria Railroad (1854) crossed the river at Rapidan Station, and it is a fact this railroad was more fought over, more times, more often, than any other railroad in the entire country. It is significant to emphasize—an historical irony—that the distance from the Rapidan River to Abraham Lincoln’s White House revealed a span of 75 miles; and from the Rapidan down to Jefferson Davis’s Confederate White House in Richmond covered the same 75 miles.
So, in 1861-1865, the Rapidan River—by serendipitous hook of its geographic position—found itself innocently positioned in the precise center of two warring capitals. So, it necessarily proved inevitable that “War to the Knife” would soon come to the Rapidan.
The two counties are uniquely intertwined, historically, when considering Culpeper, once part of Orange County, was not created until 1749 when it was “split-off” from Orange by an Act of the Virginia House of Burgesses.
In 1736, Orange County officials directed a road and ferry be established at Raccoon Ford, a former Indian hunting path. See Orange County Road Orders, 1734-1749, Ann Brush Miller (Orange County Historical Society).
Making good military use of this road, the Marquis de Lafayette crossed at Raccoon Ford in June 1781 with 4500 soldiers and headed straight for Cornwallis. Yorktown was of course the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War, and Raccoon Ford provided the springboard for this, the final campaign of the American Revolution.
March 10, 1862, Confederates enter Culpeper County:
General Joe Johnston’s 40,000-man army withdrew from their Centreville defensive positions in March 1862 and fell back toward the Rappahannock while following the line of the Orange & Alexandra Railroad. After consolidating his forces in Culpeper, Joe Johnston continued south over the Rapidan with the bulk of his command toward Gordonsville but left General Richard Ewells’ division at the Rappahannock Station railroad bridge to cover the army’s withdrawal.
In mid-April, General Ewell and his 8,000 soldiers fell back to the railhead of Rapidan Station, on the Rapidan, and took cars to Gordonsville in order to join Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign, about to begin.
July 1862, Army of Virginia Invades the Piedmont:
In July 1862, General John Pope’s 45,000-man Army of Virginia invaded across the
Rappahannock, with the objective of capturing the railroad junction at Gordonsville. On July 23, Federal troops arrived in Rapidan Station, burned the railroad bridge, and a portion of Pope’s forces continued on toward Gordonsville.
On August 8, 1862, Gen. Jackson entered Culpeper by fording the Robinson River, an upriver tributary of the Rapidan.
As the victorious army of Stonewall Jackson withdrew southward over the Rapidan after the “Battle of Cedar Mountain” on August 11, 1862, a Jackson staff officer (R.L. Dabney) wrote: “Upon an elevated hill which is called Clark’s Mountain…he had (earlier) established a signal station. From this lofty lookout, all the course of the Rapidan, and the plains of Culpeper, white with the enemy’s tents…were visible.”
Second Manassas Campaign
As Longstreet’s command arrived in Gordonsville following the Peninsula Campaign, General Jackson left Gordonsville, and on the 15th of August his forces arrived at the southeastern base of Clark’s Mountain, where he carefully masked his forces at Mt. Pisgah Church… His Clark’s Mountain signal officer, just above Mt. Pisgah, reported to Jackson, “the enemy are quiet…unconscious of their danger.”
On August 18, after learning from captured orders that Robert E. Lee was moving his gray army to attack him, General Pope turned his back to the enemy and fled Culpeper Country for the relative safety of the Rappahannock River Line, in Fauquier County.
On August 20, Jackson’s command departed Mt. Pisgah early in the morning. As a staff officer described, “We went across a depression in Clark’s Mountain, crossed the Rapidan at Somerville Ford, and marched on to Stevensburg, 9 miles beyond the river. The Second Manassas Campaign was now fully underway.
After the Gettysburg Campaign, General Lee’s army once more returned to the Piedmont, with Lee arriving at “Camp Culpeper” by July 26. Feeling the heat from the rapidly closing Federal army, General Lee transferred all of his infantry south of the Rapidan and defended the Rapidan Front, while leaving his cavalry division (5000 troopers) in Culpeper.
August 1863, Confederate Cavalry occupies Culpeper County:
General Lee added his personal take on the Rapidan Front’s military importance: “I could find no field in Culpeper offering advantages for battle, and any taken could be so easily avoided should the enemy wish to reach the south bank of the Rapidan.” In other words, General Lee asserted there is not any defensive line he could secure in Culpeper County that could not be “avoided” (flanked) by an aggressive enemy.
Point being, if an army commander boasts Clark’s Mountain looming right over his shoulder—with a strong river barrier in front of it—why not fall back to superior ground?
September 13, 1863, Army of Potomac enters Culpeper County:
General Jeb Stuart received intelligence on September 12 1863 that the Federals planned to advance into Culpeper the next day. Stuart readied to confront this attack with three brigades of cavalry, less than 5,000 men.
September 13 dawned brilliantly as 10,000 Union cavalrymen, soon followed by infantry and artillery, roared across the Rappahannock. The bold Yankee thrust proceeded but a mile, however, before observing enemy artillery on Fleetwood Hill—the summit these same Yankees were chased from on June 9, 1863, during the Battle of Brandy Station.
Rebel horse artillery thundered down from Fleetwood upon the advancing foe, but thousands of Northern troopers continued to amass south of the river. “There was nothing to do but retreat,” a gray trooper wrote. Retrograding slowly, the Rebels arrived at Culpeper Court House.
Undaunted, the bold Yankees forged ahead, seizing one gun. A severe, hand-to-hand affair emerged, accompanied by “firing pistols, flashing sabers…and excited men …wildly struggling like maddened demons.”
After losing two more guns, the outmanned Confederates retreated toward the safety of
infantry and artillery support at the Rapidan Front. Federal cavalry chased Stuart’s legions all the way down to Raccoon Ford where an extremely hot cavalry fight took place, and by nightfall, Federal cavalry controlled the entirety of Culpeper County.
On September 14, 1863, Captain George Gray, 6th Michigan Cavalry, scouted upriver from Somerville Ford, looked up at Clark’s Mountain, and observed Confederate infantry “were in large force, intrenched in rifle pits.” He added that Rebel artillery commanded the fords and occupied “natural positions of extraordinary strength.”
Union General G.K. Warren wrote on September 15, 1863, “Clark’s Mountain gives the enemy all the command.” Warren, an expert engineer, added, “I believe there is no command for our artillery till Germanna Ford is reached…It seems to me that the best way to turn the enemy is by a rapid move of troops toward Germanna or Ely’s Fords.” In other words, it would be foolhardy to directly attack Clark’s Mountain. This was a conclusion Federal commanders reached again in two campaigns, yet to come.
Federal troops soon amassed in Culpeper County, 90,000-strong, directly to the front of Clark’s Mountain.
October 1863, Bristoe Station Campaign:
Attempting a surprise attack against camping Federals, General Robert E. Lee’s army boldly crossed the Rapidan and. advanced into Culpeper on October 11. Not of course desirous of being trapped with the Rappahannock at his back, General George G. Meade withdrew his forces north, and “with unseemly haste,” the Army of the Potomac retreated along the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
Behind their re-invigorated cavalry troopers, the Army of Northern Virginia advanced into Culpeper, with a satisfied General Lee writing to the Secretary of War, “I have the honor to inform you that General Meade’s army has been compelled to retire north of the Rappahannock by the movements of this army on his right flank.”
Finally closing on the rear guard of retrograding Yankees at Bristoe Station on October
Rebel infantry attacked Union troops ensconced behind a steep railroad embankment—and met complete disaster as a “perfect hurricane of shot” riddled Southern lines. A survivor wrote, “Our lines were mowed down like grain before a reaper.”
Suffering near 1400 casualties (Union losses were about 540), General Lee ordered his army to fall back south. Tearing up railroad tracks and bridges through Fauquier County, the defeated Confederate army found themselves ingloriously turning their backs to the enemy.
On October 19, General Lee informed President Davis, “I now occupy the line of the
Rappahannock.” Establishing a defensive posture along the river, Confederates posted artillery on Culpeper’s bluffs and constructed a strong redoubt with connecting trenches at Rappahannock Station. A Louisiana brigade was given the responsibility of defending this exposed bridgehead.
November 8, 1863, the Battle of Rappahannock Station:
Well, as it turned out, General Meade did indeed “come on again,” as on November 7, 1863, the entire Army of the Potomac, over 100,000 strong, fanned out over the southwestern Fauquier countryside and attacked Lee’s army at both Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford during “The Battle of Rappahannock Station.”
This savage evening attack resulted in heavy Southern losses—the greater part of two brigades lost, more than 2000 men, a triumph achieved with light Union casualties.
General Lee then withdrew his army over the Rapidan on November 8, departing Culpeper County—for the last time. (He would never again return to Culpeper.)
November 1863, Army of Northern Virginia consolidates at the Rapidan Front
Mine Run Campaign: General George G. Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, deigned to skirt around the right flank (east) of Clark’s Mountain and proceed across the lower fords of the Rapidan in an effort to attack the right flank of Lee’s army. So, on November 26, 1863, the Union army, comprised of 80,000 soldiers, headed for Jacob’s and Germanna Fords.
Not at all surprised by the Federal invasion, General Lee advanced his army eastward, down the Rapidan, to meet the foe. On November 27, a sharp fight emerged at “Payne’s Farm,” just east of Mine Run, which heralded the heaviest fighting of the campaign. After this hot action, General Lee withdrew to the Mine Run Line.
On November 30, General Meade planned an all-out assault against the Confederate line at Mine Run—which empties into the Rapidan--but upon surveying the strong position, he called off the attack and retreated back to Culpeper County. One Union officer wrote, “The Army, perhaps the Union cause was saved…” by the decision not to attack at Mine Run. The Mine Run Campaign tallied 2,000 casulaties, with Federal losses at about 1300, and the Confederates lost 600.
What was accomplished? Needless deaths, Blue and Gray. That is all. As for the Confederates, they shrugged it off and returned to their former positions—which
they had only briefly started to construct.
Winter Encampment, Army of Northern Virginia, 1863-1864:
Described by one historian as a “natural military breastwork,” it is not surprising Clark’s
Mountain anchored the center of a defensive front along the Rapidan that extended twenty-two miles from Mine Run, on the east, to Liberty Mills, on the west.
Lt. Gen. A.P Hill’s 3rd Corp, three divisions, about 30,000 soldiers, covered the river front from (roughly) Rapidan Station to Liberty Mills (Somerset.) Following the Rapidan, west, much of this line abruptly curved around to the southwest starting at the junction of the Robinson and Rapidan Rivers (at “Horseshoe”). The most important protective responsibility with which this Corps was charged involved protection of the vital railhead and supply deport at Orange Court House.
From Rapidan Station to Mine Run, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s 2nd Corps, about 33,000 soldiers, covered fourteen miles of Rapidan frontage. Clark’s Mountain hovered over the Rapidan in the western sector of the 2nd Corps Line.
General Lee’s headquarters were situated in a tent on the “Middle Hill Farm,” a bit over a mile east of Orange Court House and located near the base of Jerdone (Quarles) Mountain.
Clark’s Mountain Signal Station:
During the winter encampment, both the 2nd and 3rd Corps retained Signal Corps components on Clark’s Mountain, but both used the same permanent station.
Signalman H.W. Manson, a Texan, added, “General Lee would come up and spend hours studying the situation with his splendid field glasses, and the glorious Stuart would dash up, always with a lady, and a pretty one, too… When they reached the level plateau on top of the summit, and Stuart left her in care of one of us and took the other (signalman) off to one side and questioned the very sweat out of him about the enemy’s position, he was Gen. Stuart, but when he got back and lifted the beauty into the saddle and then he rode off, humming a breezy air.”
Camp Life, Army of Northern Virginia, Rapidan Front:
Log winter huts, set out in individual brigade camps, were built with wood from the plentiful forestland surrounding Clark’s Mountain, and especially in the valley south of the mountain, on both sides of Mountain Run. Mountain Run, by far, was the principal water source for Ewell’s 2nd Corps. “Our camp looks like a little city,” one wrote. “It is laid off in regular streets and really looks
Once huts were constructed, in systematic, uniform and orderly fashion, stables were then built for the horses. Soldiers drilled every single day in regimental formation, and guard duty around the camps was a matter reflecting serious duty for the individual soldier. One soldier observed, “this was the hardest winter we endured during the war.” The weather was brutally cold and it often snowed. Rations were continually short, and discipline frequently broke down. Desertions were frequent, and so were executions, for desertion.
On December 19, 1863, the Southern Illustrated News informs its readers, “All quiet on the Rapidan.” But the paper also added, “There is always a calm before the storm.”
General John B. Gordon, a brigade commander, wrote, “My camp and quarters were on Clark’s Mountain from the top of which General Lee so often surveyed with his fine glasses the whitetented city of the Union army spread out before us on the undulating plain, below. A more peaceful scene could scarcely be conceived than fell upon our view day after day as 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 at regular intervals the different divisions, its stillness unbroken save by an occasional drum-beat and the clear ringing notes of bugles sounding the familiar calls.”
\Feb. 6, 1864, Battle of Morton’s Ford:
In order to support a planned cavalry-infantry raid on Richmond, Union strategists in
Washington instructed the Army of the Potomac to initiate a diversionary attack against
entrenched Confederates south of the Rapidan. Although stoutly opposed to the impending assault against the enemy’s “strongly entrenched line,” on the Rapidan, Federal commander Gen. John Sedgwick selected Morton’s Ford as the avenue of attack. “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.” Under direct firefrom Rebel works located a mile back of the ford, the courageous but poorly led Federals withered and their “attack” grinded to a halt. One Federal officer theorized the “purpose of our attack was to draw a force of enemy to our front.” The Federals achieved that objective as the cool Southerners responded “in a deadly focus of fire.” Northerners fell dead by the dozens.
Late in the day, things only got worse for the besieged Federals as the now-aroused
Confederates initiated a bold counterattack. One Union officer—obviously a future politician—artfully described this Rebel thrust as the “enemy retreating toward us.” Disingenuous semantics aside, the Yankees withdrew after dark over the river, losing near 300 casualties in the process while Dick Ewell’s corps incurred about 55 casualties. R.E. Lee’s great biographer accurately termed the daylong battle a “curious affair.”
Overland Campaign Begins Along the Rapidan Front, May 1864:
A Clark’s Mountain signal corps soldier wrote, “During the latter part of April 1864, President (Jefferson) Davis, accompanied by…General Lee rode up to Clark’s Mountain, where I, as sergeant, had charge of the signal station. This promontory overlooked much of the country lying between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock Rivers where Grant’s army was encamped.
Having pointed out the various encampments of the enemy and the changes they had recently made, General Lee said to President Davis: ‘I think those people over there are going to make a move soon.’ Then turning to me, he said: ‘Sergeant, do you keep a guard on watch at night?’ I replied that I did not. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘you must put one on.”
Historian Donald Pfanz writes, “On 2 May 1864, Gen. Robert E. Lee met with all of his corps anddivision commanders on the summit of Clark’s Mountain. Ewell was there; so too, were A.P. Hill, Longstreet, Anderson, Early, Rodes, and several others. It may well have been the greatest collection of Confederate military leaders to assemble during the war.”
Of this august and threshold meeting atop Clark’s Mountain, General Dick Ewell wrote General Lee “gave it as his opinion that the enemy would cross by some of the fords below us, at Germanna or Ely’s.” After this meeting General Lee and his senior officers “came down from the mountain for the last time.” General Lee never again visited Clark’s Mountain and would soon depart the Rapidan Front.
May 3: Pickets at the river observed “a cloud of dust was seen floating over the woods in front and stretching in a long line down the river…We signaled back to principal observatory on Clark’s Mountain, but they answered they had a full view of the movement from that elevated point.”
Sgt. B. L. Wynn, Clark’s Mountain signal station wrote, “About midnight of the 3rd (May), the guard called me to the glass. Occasionally, I could catch glimpses of troops as they passed between me and their camp fires, but could not make out in which direction they were moving.
I signaled to General Lee at once what I saw. He asked me if I could make out whether they were coming toward Germanna Ford or Liberty Mills. I replied that I could not. His next message was that I make a report to him as early in the morning as possible. An hour or so after this, the following from General Lee passed over the line or station: ‘General Ewell, have your command ready to move by daylight.”
The conscientious Sgt Wynn further added, “On the morning of the 4th I signaled General Lee that the enemy was moving down the river, that clouds of dust were rising from all the roads leading southeast and toward Fredericksburg, and that Germanna Ford seems to be their objective point.” (True, enough.)
On May 3, 1864, a Union staff officer wrote: “The Position of General Lee behind the Rapidan was too strong to permit a direct attack.” On the evening of of May 3, 1864, 156 years ago, 120,000 Federal soldiers were lodged in Culpeper and within the span of two days not a single Union soldier remained in the county.
Beginning on May 4, 1864 the Army of the Potomac departed Culpeper after wintering there for the previous five months. The elongated 21-mile long column now departing Culpeper included 102,000 infantry, 4300 wagons, 34,000 horses, 22,000 braying mules, 274 artillery pieces, and leading the way, 16,000 cavalry troopers. This column represents the largest single military file ever to march together in this country.
General John B. Gordon wrote, “A more beautiful day never dawned on Clark’s Mountain and the valley of the Rapidan than on May 4, 1864. There was not a cloud in the sky, and the broad expanse of meadow-lands on the north side of the river, and the steep woofed hills on the other, seemed appareled in celestial light as the sun rose upon them. At an early hour, however, the enchantment of the scene was rudely broken by bugles and kettle drums calling Lee’s veterans to strike tents, and fall into line.
On May 4, General Lee telegrammed President Jefferson Davis “that the long-threatened effort to take Richmond has begun, and the enemy has collected all his force to accomplish it… The army was put in motion today, and our advance already occupies our former position on Mine Run”
On May 5, 1864, the last message (ever) from the Clark’s Mountain signal station and the Rapidan Front is relayed from General Lee to General Ewell when Lee informs Ewell, “Captain (R.E.) Wilbourn (signal officer, Clark’s Mountain) reports everything moving to our right except cavalry. If so, better move the divisions to occupy lines at Mine Run and PREPARE FOR ACTION.”
And the war would be over in less than a year.
But today, the glorious “Rapidan Front” remains intact. This extraordinarily historic acreage is, in fact little-changed since May 1864—both sides of Queen Anne’s River--and richly deserves full preservation protection.
By Bud Hall
To recap the two marches on October 10th, 1863: In the wee hours, between 1 a.m. until about 2 p.m., the First Corps marched from their campground near Mitchell's, (#3a. on the map) a few miles east to near Morton's Ford. General Newton's headquarters were located at the J. Vaughn house, (#4 on the map) and from here, Col. Wainwright's artillery marched around Pony Mountain to the new position, (#5 on the map). This new camp was close to the J. Smith homestead, where they were bivouacked September 24th; (#2 on the map).
The objective was to cross the Rapidan River at Morton's Ford. The soldiers laid around in camp all afternoon waiting for orders to cross. This was to happen when General Buford's Cavalry reconnaissance on the South side of the Rapidan reached the ford. But on the morning of October 10th, while the 1st Corps was marching, General Meade's right flank was attacked at James City, tipping him off that Lee was on the move. Consequently orders were changed and in the afternoon, the First Corps was ordered back to Stevensburg. This provoked another night march beginning at dark, and ending about 11 p.m. The next day, October 11, they were ordered to Kelly's Ford.
From the Diary of Sam Webster, Company D, 13th MA Vols:
Saturday, October 10th, 1863. Turned out about 1 o’clock this a.m. rations were issued and we moved a few miles easterly to road leading to Raccoon ford, and about a mile from the ford.
Journal of Colonel Charles Wainwright, Chief of 1st Corps Artillery:
October 10, Saturday. I got off at two-thirty o’clock with my brigade, having a guide to show me the way. The moon was still up when we started but very little of its light got through the dense growth of scrub oak and pine on this slope of the hill. Our road was a very narrow and winding one, and my guide none of the best. We had not more than fully got into the wood before he lost his way, and after two or three mistakes became totally confused at last. I knew nothing of it myslef, and it was too dark to see anything whatever. Carriages got stuck in trying to turn around, horses got baulky, and my staff who I had sent to find the right road did not get back. I kept moving most of the time, but where we went to I have no notion at this time. As the day began to break we found our way out, and pushed on as fast as possible. I was in a great worry at having got so much behind time when everything might depend on exactness; I was therefore much relieved when I found that but one division of infantry had got to the neighborhood of the Smith house before me. This made it full two hours after sunrise by the time we were in a position to act. Fortunately no harm was done this time, as it was not in contemplation to force an immediate passage.
General Buford with his division of Cavalry went down the river yesterday to Germania ford about 6 miles below this, where he was to cross & work his way up the river; the 6th Corps crossing in the same manner at Raccoon ford. Meantime our main work was to keep them close, but ready to second or assist Buford so soon as we heard from him.
Morton’s ford on examination presented anything but a good place for crossing in my opinion. To be sure the land is nearly level on the other side without any of the steep bluffs that line the south bank above. But the low land is surrounded by a regular horse shoe of low crests covered at their summit with woods and crowned with rifle pits all around. This line of works is drawn with a radius of about a third of a mile around the ford & makes a perfect “cul de sac.“ The banks of the river are low on both sides, & look as if it had a muddy bottom & insecure footing on both sides. We saw but very few rebels on the other side; not more than a dozen during the whole day. Our own men were kept tolerably well hid behind the woods, but had the rebels had any force they would easily have made out that something was the matter. With Gen’l Newton I examined the ground around the ford so far as the posting of batteries was concerned should we have to cross, & then I pointed out to Breck, Cooper & Stewart, whose guns stood in the road just within the woods exactly what they were to do.
General John Buford’s Cavalry Fight At Morton’s Ford
October 11, 1863
Excerpt From General John Bufords Report
Headquarters First Cavalry Division
November 14, 1863.
Colonel: On the morning of October 10, while at Stevensburg, I received the following instructions, viz:
Hdqrs. Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac,
October 9, 1863 –– 7.20 p.m., rm