The Other Port Royal

When someone mentions Port Royal in the Civil War, most historians or scholars think of Port Royal, South Carolina and the Battle of Port Royal in November 1861.  There is another Port Royal that was very important during the Civil War – Port Royal Virginia.

Port Royal, Virginia.

Because of Port Royal’s strategic location on the Rappahannock River it was greatly affected by the Civil War from the beginning in 1861, until the end in 1865.   At the beginning of the war, its residents readily enlisted in the Confederate army – the 9th VA Cavalry, the 47th VA Infantry and the Caroline Light Artillery.  The cavalry and infantry fought with the Army of Northern Virginia around the Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Richmond areas for most of the Civil War. The Light Artillery did not fight with the Army of Northern Virginia until the Siege of Petersburg.

The little town of Port Royal became a contested area during the occupation and then the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 and a supply depot for the Union army in May of 1864.  The Union navy continued to patrol and raid the Rappahannock River in the Port Royal area until early in 1865.  Very important as well, was the fact that John Wilkes Booth was killed on the outskirts of this little town.

We will explore the town of Port Royal in the Civil War, from both military and civilian perspectives.  This little town was an important strategic location on the Rappahannock River because the river narrowed here.  The Union Army of the Potomac considered this as the last place on the Rappahannock where they could use pontoons to bridge the river.

Port Royal was also important because Major General Irvin McDowell occupied Fredericksburg area from April until August 1862, with an expedition to Port Royal in August. Then General Ambrose E. Burnside occupied and invaded Fredericksburg from November 1862 until January 1863.  General Joseph Hooker then camps in Stafford County and fights in Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville – however, he also raids Port Royal in April 1863.  In May of 1864, Port Royal becomes a supply depot for Generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade, as the Army of the Potomac moves into and through Caroline and Hanover Counties, towards Richmond.

George G. Meade.

After Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to fight the rebellion, Virginia secedes from the Union.  Port Royal is a small town on the Rappahannock River surrounded by some large plantations on both sides of the river and just 20 miles from Fredericksburg.  You had the some of the richest and finest families of Virginia – the plantation owners and their families, mixing with the farmers, grassroots pioneers, slaves, and free blacks – a true melting pot experience in Port Royal.

The men of Port Royal and Caroline County enthusiastically joined the Confederate Army. In June 1861, they joined the 47th Virginia Infantry (the men of Company E were the Port Royal Guards, who actually reported for duty at Fredericksburg on June 21, 1861), in July 1861, they organized the Caroline Light Artillery, and in January 1862, the 9th Virginia Cavalry.  With the exception of the Caroline Light Artillery, these men spent much of the war fighting within 75 miles in either direction from their homes.  This had to cause a lot of distress to the soldiers and their families – especially during the times when Port Royal was either raided, fired upon, and occupied by the Union army and navy.

On April 18, 1862, the Union army entered Fredericksburg and occupied it through August 1862.  In the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, is a report from Acting Master Nelson Provost, United States Navy, commanding the USS Anacostia to General Ambrose Burnside about the August 15-16, 1862 “Expedition from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, VA.”  The report states that Provost had the steamer with its crew and 25 men of the 9th New York Infantry (Hawkins Zouaves) proceed down the river toward Port Royal because of reports that the Confederates had held regular communication with Baltimore and Richmond.

The expedition landed at several plantations along the way, which were deserted by their proprietors.  Contrabands told him that recruits for the rebel army were ferried across the river from Port Conway to Port Royal with arms, goods, and stores.  They were thence passed onto Richmond.  The Union detachment captured a few prisoners, burned several small boats, and destroyed a canal-boat used to ferry persons across the river.  General Burnside’s troops replaced General McDowell’s troops, who had gone to fight the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Irvin McDowell

The Fredericksburg Campaign brought the Union army and navy back to this area.  On December 4th 1862, the Yankee Navy sent four gunboats under the command Lieutenant Commander Samuel Magaw to Port Royal in support of General Burnside’s operations in the Fredericksburg area. General Daniel Harvey Hill’s Division of General Stonewall Jackson’s Corps and General Rooney Lee’s Cavalry Brigade of General J.E.B. Stuart’s Cavalry Division led the defense of Port Royal.  The “Gallant” Major Pelham’s artillery and Captain R.A. Hardaway’s Whitworth rifle forced the Union fleet back down the river.

On December 10th and 11th, the Union navy was back shelling Port Royal as a diversion to the upcoming Fredericksburg attack.  They were met by the same determined Confederates who kept the navy at bay, before D. H. Hill was ordered to Fredericksburg on the evening of December 12th.

On December 15th, Commander Magaw made contact with Colonel Benjamin Davis’ 8th New York Cavalry.  Magaw gave the Confederate garrison an ultimatum to evacuate Port Royal or the town would be bombarded.  Davis and Magaw thought that this diversion would take the pressure off of Burnside in Fredericksburg.  Lt. Colonel Zachariah of the 10th Virginia Cavalry acknowledged the warning and notified the civilians in Port Royal to evacuate.  General Robert E. Lee reacted quickly to this news and sent Stuart’s Cavalry and Jackson’s Corps back to Port Royal.  However, the Federals heard that Burnside had withdrawn from Fredericksburg, so they scrapped their mission and thus, Port Royal was saved from destruction and occupation.

During the winter of 1862-1863, General Jackson’s Corps stayed in the Port Royal area, at varying plantations like Moss Neck, Gay Mont, Hayfield, Belle Hill, and Santee.  Helen Bernard lived at Gay Mont and her sister lived at Beaumont right outside of Fredericksburg.  Helen wrote letters to her sisters and kept a diary, she wrote that the shelling around Port Royal was continued “fast and furious.”  She also talked of hosting many of the Confederate officers, including Generals JEB Stuart and “Rooney” Lee, and Major Pelham.  They placed guards at Gay Mont for protection of the plantation and its residents.

On an April 30th, 1863 entry in her diary, Helen talked about a Yankee raid into Port Royal.  She said that five hundred Yankees pillaged the village and examined the rifle pits but left before a Confederate regiment and artillery were sent to the rescue.

Port Royal.

Two members of the 24th Michigan talked about this raid or “expedition” on April 23rd 1863.  Crossing the Rappahannock from Port Conway, talking about the rebels hurriedly leaving town, of burning a wagon train, taking six prisoners, fifteen horses and mules and two loyal female refugees who had been detained in the town.  One soldier described Port Royal as, “a history weary town, dating back to colonial days.”  The other said of Port Royal, “an ancient borough of colonial days.”

From May 25th until 30th 1864, the Union Army made Port Royal a Union supply depot.  During the Overland Campaign, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George Gordon Meade moved quickly from the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House to the North Anna River, then to Cold Harbor.  The army had to move supply depots from Belle Plain and Fredericksburg to Port Royal and then to White House.  Helen Bernard talked of Union General John Abercrombie sending a guard to protect the family and their remaining slaves at Gay Mont.  However, the Union soldiers both carried off all of their mules and killed the foals.

Throughout the diary and letters Helen Bernard talks about the raids on Port Royal.  The Union navy continued to make frequent incursions into Port Royal all the way through the end of 1864 and into early 1865.

John Wilkes Booth

I have talked about the incursions into the town of Port Royal and the shelling, pillaging, burning of wagons, and the killing of livestock, but what about the human toll of Port Royal and Caroline County.  The 9th Virginia Cavalry fought from the Seven Days Battles around Richmond through Appomattox Court House.  The regiment had a roster of 1,815 soldiers during the war, but by the time they start in the Gettysburg Campaign, they have 522 soldiers left.  At Appomattox they surrendered 27 men – one officer and 26 men.

The 47thVirginia Infantry had a roster of 1,172 men and by April of 1862 it is down to 444 men.  They too fought from Seven Pines to Appomattox, where they surrender just two sergeants!  Likewise of 243 men, the Caroline Artillery surrendered just one officer and 11 men at Appomattox.  The loss of manpower in this town and county were disastrous after four years of the Civil War!

Finally, in 1865, John Wilkes Booth escaped Washington, D. C., after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, he came to Port Royal.  He was killed at the Garrett Farm, not far from Port Royal. Needless to say, the other Port Royal had a very interesting Civil War experience.  I hope that this article shines a little light on their place in Civil War history.

About stewardthenderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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3 Responses to The Other Port Royal

  1. Jim McLean says:

    Dear sir,
    Can you tell me the location of the Helen Bernard diary for 1863? I am particularly interested in the April 1863 expedition to Port Royal by the 24th Michigan & 14th Brooklyn.

    A week earlier Abner Doubleday led a larger expedition to Port Royal but failed to cross the Rappahannock due to a problem with inadequate lashings for the portable pontoon boats. Wadsworth then suggested he be allowed to send a couple of his regiments to complete the assignment.

  2. Great post Steward! Today Port Royal is still a nice little town, with a few good restaurants! On a side note, the town is also the birth place of Confederate general John Bankhead Magruder.

  3. bellegroveatportconway says:

    I enjoyed reading your post about Port Royal and the Civil War. My husband and I are working on opening a bed and breakfast in Port Conway at the Belle Grove Plantation. In preparation of the bed and breakfast, I have been doing research on the past history of the area. I am sure you are aware that the property was where James Madison was born. The Conway family purchased the property in 1670 and it remained in the family for 120 years. In 1790, John Hipkins purchased the property from the Conway family and in 1791 built Belle Grove for his only child, Fannie. I mention this because Gay Mont was his home. At the time, the name of the plantation was not Gay Mont, but Rose Hill. It was later inherited by his namesake and grandson, John Hipkins Bernard. It was he who changed the name to Gay Mont to honor his wife, Jane Gay Bernard. Helen was their child. I am still working on the history of Belle Grove and would be interested in any other history you may know of the Turner Family (Carolinus) that lived there. I am also search for confirmation on a piece of information dealing with John Wilkes Booth. I have read that in the chase through Virginia, the Secret Service that were chasing Booth stopped at Belle Grove and slept overnight. Any information you may have would be most appreciated. I am scheduled to meet with John Pratt at Camden next week so it is my hope I can fill in some of the history.

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