Battle of Morton's Ford

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Battle of Morton's Ford
Rapidan River
21288v.jpg
Began:

February 6, 1864

Ended:

February 7, 1864

Location:

Orange and Culpeper Counties, Virginia

Theater:

Eastern Theater

Campaign:

Demonstration on the Rapidan River

Outcome:

Inconclusive

33 star flag.png
Combatants
2nd National Flag.png
Commanders

J.C. Caldwell
Brigadier General, USA

Richard S. Ewell
Lieutenant General, CSA

Strength
Casualties

723 total US and CS

723 total US and CS

  

To distract attention from a planned cavalry-infantry raid up the Peninsula on Richmond, the Federal army forced several crossings of the Rapidan River on February 6. A II Corps division crossed at Morton’s Ford, the I Corps at Raccoon Ford. Union cavalry crossed at Robertson’s Ford. Ewell’s Corps resisted the crossings. Fighting was sporadic but most severe at Morton’s Ford. By February 7, the attacks had stalled, and the Federals withdrew during the night. (NPS summary)

The Affair at Morton's Ford

In the introduction of the opening volume of his fabulous set of works on the Overland Campaign, Gordon Rhea mentions the fight at Morton's Ford. The brief description of the fight there sparked my curiosity and I thought it would be interesting to look into it further. This short series of postswill describe the action at Morton's Ford and the other crossings of the Rapidan River during the month of February 1864 and their relevance to a simultaneous operation planned by MG Benjamin Butler against the Confederate capital.

On February 2, 1864 BG Innis Palmer reported to MG Benjamin Butler that his forces in the vicinity of New Berne, North Carolina were being attacked along his outer defense by 15,000 Confederate soldiers (Butler lowered the estimate to 8,000 in his correspondence) from Hoke's Brigade and Pickett's Division. Butler saw an opportunity in the problems of his subordinate. The next day he telegraphed MG Henry Halleck with a proposal to attack Richmond. Butler believed that the high operational tempo of the enemy forces and demands for their dwindling forces everywhere left the city vulnerable to such an attempt. Butler wanted a coordinated attack along the Rapidan defenses to alleviate pressure on Palmer and further deplete the defenses in the Confederate capital. He stated in a wire to Secretary of War Henry Stanton that;

"Now is the time, if ever, for Meade to move; the roads are practicable. This will relieve North Carolina at once and leave a movement for me which I spoke to you."Earlier discussions concerning a raid into Richmond had resulted in nothing but Butler was now armed with more intelligence. Claiming information contained in "a cipher letter to me from a lady in Richmond" exposed weakness in the capital defenses he demanded support for a move that would include 2,000 cavalry, 4,000 infantry, and two batteries of artillery. Stanton delayed the proposed action by responsing that Meade was sick and the matter had to be referred to MG Halleck for consideration. After a brief consideration Halleck sent a telegram to MG John Sedgwick, stepping in for the ill Meade, on February 5th ordering him to give Butler:

"...such cooperation as you can and communicate directly with him." Sedgwick reluctantly acknowledged the order but warned that a flanking manuever was out of the question due to the "present condition of the roads and the state of the weather." He also forewarned the General in Chief that a demonstration in his front would hinder future operations there by causing a higher state of alert among the Confederate defenders. Nevertheless, Sedgwick issued a nine part circular order for the movement. Summarized the order required the following:

  • Cavalry
Merritt's Division, with at least one battery, to move to Barrett's Ford on the Rapidan.
Kilpatrick's Division, with at least one battery, to move to Culpeper Ford.
Both would make demonstrations through February 7th and into the morning of the 8th, The artillery was not to cross the river.
  • I Corps
Newton's Corps to move to Raccoon Ford, with three batteries, to make demonstrations through Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. ::Return to their former position Monday night.
  • II Corps
Warren's Corps to move to Morton's Ford and conduct operations similiar to I Corps.
  • Three Days rations to be carried and only such ambulances and light wagons as absolutely necessary be brought along.
  • All remaining artillery, ammunition wagons and ambulances ready to move at a moments notice.
  • No change would be made to existing picket lines and strong guards to be posted on camps and trains.
  • III Corps and VI Corps to be prepared to lend support as required.
  • Corps and cavalry commanders to maintain prompt communication with headquarters.
  • Operations to begin at 0700 on February 6th.

At Fortress Monroe, Butler was also formulating his plan. A new wrinkle developed when the "cipher letter" revealed that Federal prisoners in Richmond were to be transferred to Georgia. He declared that "now, or never, is the time to strike". Included in his dash for Richmond would be an effort to "rescue our friends." BG Isaac Wistar's cavalry was ordered to lead the way.

Wistar also issued a detailed set of instructions:

  • Co F 1st New York Mounted rifles to form the advance and seize Bottom's Bridge "without firing, if possible."
  • 100 men from the 1st District of Columbia cavalry to secure the bridge for the follow o0n infantry force.
  • The column was to bypass 250 men of Holcombe's Legion (CSA) and Battery No. 2 without engagement.
  • 3rd New York Cavalry to attend to Libby Prison and liberate the prisoners and then burn Mayo's Bridge.
  • 250 members of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry, under Major Stratton, to destroy the Navy Yard.
  • 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry to destroy Tredegar Iron Works.
  • The remainder of the 1st New York Mounted Rifles to move to the Jefferson Davis residence at 12th and Marshall Streets in an effort to capture the Confederate president.

It was an incredibly ambitious and somewhat unrealistic plan but the orders were issued and the simultaneous operations were set to begin.

Raccoon Ford

MG Newton's I Corps troops were assigned to execute the demonstration at Raccoon Ford. The lead elements marched early on February 6th and arrived at the river later that day. A 300 man detail was sent to the ford and to raise attention to their presence burned several buildings. There was no response so three batteries of artillery (Battery B, 4th US: Battery L, 1st New York, and Battery A, 1st Maryland) were brought up. The New York and Maryland batteries were detached to take positions between the Raccoon Ford and Morton's Ford. They spent the day lobbing 60 rounds of ammunition into the opposite shore. The fire prompted no response from the enemy and all the guns and troops were recalled to camp before the end of the day. Cavalry Operations at Barrett's Ford and Culpeper Ford

After travelling on "heavy roads" and through obstructions left behind by retreating Confederate pickets BG Wesley Merritt's 1st Division troopers reached the Rapidan River early on the morning of the 7th. At Barrett's Ford they presented themselves as a force attempting to cross the river and elicited "brisk skirmishing with small arms and a lively duel" between artillery batteries until around noon. According to Merritt's report the supposed attempt to cross was opposed by a "brigade of five regiments of infantry" that moved in to support the skirmishers at the ford. The fight was taken up by the artillerymen, who exchanged shots until 1300 when the demonstration was pulled back. The show of force here cost the Union cavalrymen, 3 Killed and 12 wounded.

BG Judson Kilpatrick, commanding Third Division, sent a force of 1360 troopers and 1 battery of artillery to Culpepers Ford. Detached units were also sent to perform reconnassaince to Germanna and Ely's Ford. None of Kilpatrick's men faced any considerable opposition as they reconned as far as Chancellorsville and Jacob's Ford. Kilpatrick would report that the Confederates had "no considerable force this side of Mine Run." The scouting parties were called back at 0900 without loss. Intelligence gained from this action included information that Hampton's cavalry was suffering a lack of mounts and other basic necessities. BG Kilpatrick estimated that only 240 Confederate cavalry picketed the river from Germanna Ford to United States Ford. It was this type of information, although not a primary mission imperative, that would pay great dividends later. Morton's Ford

The II Corps mission to demonstrate at Morton's Ford became the responsibility of BG John C. Caldwell when MG Gouverneur Warren became ill and retired to quarters. Caldwell advanced the BG Alexander Hays' 3rd Division beginning at 0700 on the 6th of February. At 0935 the column arrived within a half mile of the ford and Caldwell conducted a reconnaissance of the crossing. The reconnaissance revealed "no evidence of opposition" and BG J. T. Owen was ordered to test the strength of the enemy position on the southern shore with his 3rd Brigade troops.

At 1030 BG Owen mounted a crossing with "300 of my best troops" by tasking 100 men each from the 39th New York, 126th New York , and 125th New York under command of CPT Seabury, the assistant adjutant general of the brigade. The detail experienced "considerable difficulty" as it forded the waist deep, icy, rapidly flowing water and scaled the "steep and slippery banks". Fortunately for the assault party the enemy pickets were awaiting a tardy relief and had hunkered down in ther holes searching for shelter from the cold rain. Surprised at the appearance of the Federal skirmishers they managed only a "rapid but ill directed fire." The rifle pits were attacked and overwhelmed by Seabury's force capturing 28 enlisted men and two officers.

The remainder of Owen's brigade followed the skirmishers across the river as soon as the far shore was secured. The brigade was pushed forward toward the Morton House in the point of land formed by a bend in the river (see sketch on pg 117 Volume XXXIII OR's). Artillery was placed in advantageous firing positions on the near shore. The Union troops moved into positions about 800 yards from the main Confederate line of entrenchments that were located on a low ridge that overlooked the entire area. The firing at the crossing alerted the remainder of the Confederate force who were encamped at two locations about a mile from the river. COL Henry Cabell rushed two regiments from Ramseur's brigade and two from Doles' brigade to the works.While these troops were hustling into position the sole responsibility of challenging any further Federal advance fell to LT Anderson and a battery of artillery. Anderson at first targetted the enemy batteries across the river but when he realized the close proximity of the Union troops he shifted his fire there. BG Owen saw the Confederate infantry arriving and adjusted his line to the new circumstances. Although he planned no further advance he also called for reinforcements to extend his line and increase the effectiveness of the demonstration. At 1315 1st Brigade troops under COL Carroll moved into the position. Owen was not satisfied and after judging the enemy force arrayed against him at 4,000 troops and artillery he asked for and received COL Powers' 2nd Brigade. The Union line of battle was barely set when a advance was made on the buildings at the Morton residence and a manuever made "with the intention of cutting off our communications with Morton's Ford" with support of additional artillery assets called up by Cabell.

MG Hays had arrived and assumed command of the effort to protect the line of communications while Owen "repelled the attack" on the left of the Union line. By 1950 the situation had evolved into a stalemate, neither side wanting to move forward. The Union troops were ordered back across the river after enduring a battering of 163 rounds from the assembled Confederate artillery. With the demonstration complete the last Federal soldiers backed away from the river around midnight. Some of the last troops to cross the river were members of the 19th Maine. A detail from Company C, commanded by Captain Nash, was very nearly captured as they made their way back from forward picket positions. The final members of the unit made it back to the northern shore at 0300. The 19th Maine suffered two wounded for their part in the operation. One, SGT Janes Hinckley, died on February 15th.

The overall casualty report for the demonstration revealed that 11 Union soldiers were dead, 204 had been wounded, and 40 were unaccounted for. They had accomplished their mission at a high price for such a short operation.

Butler's Raid

BG Isaac Wistar was ordered to advance to Bottom's Bridge by 0300 on the 7th. Although he was given command of 6200 troops (4,000 infantry and 2.200 cavalry) he elected to begin his movement cautiously. An advanced "picked company", under the command of CPT Hill, 1st New York Mounted Rifles, was assigned to subdue the Confederate pickets at New Kent, Baltimore Cross-Roads, and Bottom's Bridge. The telegraph wires between Meadow Station and Richmond were also to be cut. Wistar held no illusions about the difficulty of the mission. He stated

"...of course the success of the enterprise was based on the sudden and noiseless approach"

to the defense at Bottom's Bridge.

Unfortunately an intelligence leak about the plan had warned the Confederates of the impending raid. PVT William Boyle, 1st New York Mounted Rifles, had been convicted of the murder of one of his officers and was awaiting execution. President Lincoln, however, suspended all executions in Butler's department. While waiting for suspension of the boycott Boyle had befriended one of his guards who allowed him to escape. Boyle made his way to Richmond and to secure good will told officials in the capital that "large numbers of cavalry and infantry were being concentrated....to take Richmond."When COL S. P. Spear, leading detchments from 5 seperate regiments failed to capture the Confederate pickets at the second way point any hope of surprise was lost. Although they reached Bottom's Bridge according to schedule they found the crossing to be defended beyond their expectations. Wistar described the situation at the bridge as follows;

"The bridge planks planks had been taken up, the fords both above and below effectually obstructed, extensive earth works and rifle pits, and strong force of troops brought down.."

After gathering his forces Wistar determined to test the defenses at the bridge. On the morning of the 7th Major Whelan "made a gallant but unsuccessful charge" down the causeway leading to the bridge. Whelan's attackers were stopped by cannister fired from the south side of the river. The episode claimed 9 casualties and 10 horses.

For the infantry the raid amounted to little more than four days of fruitless marching. After arriving about seven miles from the bridge they met the retreating cavalry column and were turned around. A total of 104 miles were marched in the four days of their involvement. A rear guard of 300 members of the 3rd New York Cavalry was overtaken and attacked at Baltimore Store. The effort was beaten back and the raid was ended before it even got started.

Butler immediately sought out scapegoats for the failure of his grandiose plan. He blamed the moratorium on executions for the intelligence that caused the defeat of Wistar's column. Writing to the president he stated "that your clemency has been misplaced."

References

  • The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Volume XXXIII
  • The Battle of the Wilderness - May 5&6, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea
  • The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide, John S, Salmon
  • History of the Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac, Francis Walker
  • The Union Cavalry in the Civil War, Volume II, Stephen Z. Starr
  • The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry 1862-1865, John D. Smith