Winter Responsibility

Throughout the winter of 1862 and into 1863, the Army of the Potomac slept. These cold months spent in Stafford County were not without activity. On February 6, 1863 new commander Joseph Hooker issued a General Order consolidating his various cavalry units into one corps under Major General George Stoneman. The most important task for Stoneman’s troopers was guarding the winter encampment and their picket line stretched across the whole of the county.

An officer in the 1st Rhode Island wrote of this tedious duty:

Our line of pickets extends from Aquia Creek to the north fork of the Rappahannock, a distance of about twenty miles. We are supported in the rear, the whole distance, by infantry. The cavalry pickets are changed every three days, allowing half a day for going out and the same for returning, making four days out. Each brigade is ordered to guard a given section of the line, to do which, proportional details are made from the different regiments. The pickets are divided into small bodies for reliefs and reserves, and have the reserve headquarters in deep wooded hollows or other concealed places, where fires are allowed, the men remaining dismounted, with the privilege of keeping themselves as comfortable as possible, but always keeping themselves girded for an attack. The horses are kept saddled and bridled, hitched to the nearest trees, that the men may instantly spring to the defensive should the men on their posts give an alarm, or be driven in.

The posts are relieved every two hours. The men on post always remain in their saddles, their horses’ heads in the direction of the enemy. Their instructions are to be vigilant, to keep their revolvers or carbines always in hand, prepared to fire instantly should it be required.

The officers of the pickets visit their line of posts frequently by day and by night, for the purpose of inspecting and encouraging the pickets, and satisfying themselves that all is right. A corporal’s relief, or patrol, passes up and down the line every hour. Everything is so systematically arranged that, in case of an attack, we could give the rebels a warm reception, holding any force at bay until we could be reinforced from the main army. If they sleep, or are negligent of duty, the whole army is in danger. The neglect of a single duty on picket is liable to the severest punishment. The officers in command of the pickets hold most important and responsible positions, having, as it were, the keys to the gates which separate the two contending armies.

A trooper on picket duty. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A trooper on picket duty. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!