Expeditions Bold and Admirable: The First Battle of Hartwood Church
Part one in a series. You may read the Introduction here.
On November 17, the lead elements of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac reached Stafford Heights, opposite Fredericksburg. The old colonial city was the first stop in Burnside’s winter drive on Richmond. But in order to continue the campaign, the Federals required pontoon bridges to span the Rappahannock River. Burnside hoped the trains would be waiting for him upon his arrival, however, the engineers and material required for their construction were late. This delay provided Robert E. Lee time to move his army into position outside the city to the south. With the road to Richmond blocked, the Confederate commander needed information regarding his enemy’s intentions and he turned to his cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart. Accordingly, Stuart directed his senior subordinate, Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton to cross the Rappahannock and conduct a reconnaissance of the Union position.
Since their arrival in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Hampton’s brigade had been on picket near the confluence of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers above the city. For his mission, Hampton chose 50 troopers from the 1st North Carolina Cavalry and the Cobb Legion, 40 troopers from the Jeff Davis Legion and 34 troopers from the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry and the Phillips’ Legion.
On November 27, Hampton’s handpicked force splashed over the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford. Once on the other side, Hampton dispatched his scouts and headed for Morrisville. The Confederates passed through the hamlet and moved in the direction of the White Ridge Road. Hampton’s scouts soon returned and reported that a regiment of enemy cavalry lay several miles away at Hartwood Church. The South Carolinian determined to attack the Federals there and turned his column to the east. Skillfully, he maneuvered his men through the enemy’s outer line of pickets along Deep Run. Unable to reach the house of worship, which still stands today along the modern northbound lanes of State Route 17 in Stafford County, Hampton bedded down for the night about two miles from the Union position.
Hampton resumed his march at 4 a.m. In order to avoid detection, the Confederates moved through the woods between the Marsh and White Ridge Roads. Striking the Marsh Road about a half mile from Hartwood Church, Hampton prepared to attack. Ahead lay two squadrons of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, led by Capt. George Johnson. Assigned to Brig. Gen. William Averell’s brigade attached to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Center Grand Division, Johnson’s men guarded Burnside’s far right flank. Johnson had deployed his pickets to the west and established his reserve at the church.
Johnson was directed to act with “the greatest vigilance and carefulness” Averell recalled. “Patrols were frequently to examine the country in front, and his reserve was to stand to horse from one hour before sunrise until one hour after, every morning.” On the evening of November 26, Averell sent an officer with additional instructions to Johnson. He was warned of “an expected demonstration on the part of our enemy” and was directed once again to “keep his reserve constantly saddled and ready for action; to increase the vigilance of the patrols and pickets, and guard against the attack.” Inexplicably, Johnson failed to carry out his orders.
Hampton picked the combined detachments form the Jeff Davis Legion and 1st North Carolina to lead the attack. A few minutes after dawn, an “unearthly yell” reverberated through the woods as the Confederates crashed into Johnson’s line. Surprised, the Federals gave way and retreated to the church only to “find all there huddled together on the floor wrapped in their blankets and asleep.” Soon the rest of Hampton’s command arrived and surrounded the building. Those inside quickly surrendered. With the church and surrounding vicinity secure, Hampton sent the Cobb Legion to capture the Union pickets on theWhite Ridge Road. The assignment was “successfully performed” he wrote.
Back at the church, Hampton assessed the situation and found he did not have enough men to both guard his prisoners and continue the expedition. Judiciously, he decided to call off any further movement and return to the south bank of the Rappahannock. He reached the safety of the Confederate lines later that afternoon having spirited off with “87 privates and non-commissioned officers, 2 captains, 3 lieutenants, 2 colors…100 horses, an the same number of carbines.” Interestingly enough, George Johnson was not included in the numbers. Somehow, the incompetent captain had managed to elude capture. Johnson, however, could not avoid the wrath of his superiors. Averell was furious when he learned of the event and Johnson was summarily dismissed from the service a few days later.
On the other hand, Robert E. Lee was quite pleased when he heard the results of the expedition. Hampton’s foray confirmed to him that Burnside still remained opposite Fredericksburg. “The arrangements made by General Hampton, and the manner in which he carried them into execution, reflect great credit upon himself and his command” Lee wrote Stuart. “Be pleased, general, to communicate to General Hampton my appreciation of the service he has rendered, and of the energy and good conduct that characterized the entire movement.” Stuart shared Lee’s congratulations with his subordinate, adding that Hampton deserved “the highest praise for this handsome affair.” On December 2, Lee forwarded the two guidons captured by Hampton to Secretary of War James Seddon. Despite the praise, Hampton was frustrated by his inability to continue the raid due to the number of prisoners. He would not have to wait long before for another opportunity.
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