The cold morning stillness was shattered as the column of riders splashed across Kelly’s Ford. Snow had come just two days before, on George Washington’s birthday. This recent burst slowed but did not deter these gray clad troopers as they continued onward across the country back roads. By sunset, the Rebels had marched five miles before going into camp.
This reconnaissance in force had been ordered by Robert E. Lee. Throughout the month of February, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia had been receiving reports of an enemy movement. This information was indeed true. The IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac had departed their winter encampment in Stafford County, bound for the Virginia Peninsula. An unexpected maneuver in the dead of winter, Lee had to determine if it was routine or a precursor of a new offensive. Lee issued orders to this cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart to send a force across the Rappahannock and assess the situation. Stuart picked one of his favorite officers, a nephew of Lee’s, Fitzhugh Lee for the assignment. In turn, Fitz assembled a conglomerate unit consisting of detachments from the 1st, 2d and 3d Virginia Cavalry. On February 24th, 1863, Lee led his men across the river. Despite the snow and treacherous roads, Lee and his men made good time. Reaching Morrisville on the Warrenton Post Road (modern Route 17), they stood poised to strike east the next day and cause a world of mischief for the Yankees.
Early the next morning Lee and his men set out for the Union lines. In the vicinity of Hartwood Church, the Rebels struck the picket line of the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry. As fate would have it, the regiment belonged to the division of Lee’s former West Point classmate and friend, Brigadier General William W. Averell.
Luck shined on the Virginians, as the 16th Pennsylvania was a novice regiment that had yet to see any major fighting. Lee’s troopers quickly made short work of their counterparts, who they sent stampeding for the rear. Taking control of the area around the church, Lee then split his force. The 1st and 2d Virginia would continue the advance along the Ridge Road which ran parallel and just north of the Warrenton Post Road. Another detachment of the Second along with the 3d Virginia would move along the Post Road itself.
During the winter of 1862-63, the Army of the Potomac had set up a cordon of cavalry pickets around their winter encampment. Unfortunately for Lee, the 16th Pennsylvania only represented the outer fringes of this ring and their work was about get much more difficult. Continuing onward, Lee’s troopers ran into the picket reserve, which consisted of the 3d and 4th Pennsylvania, another contingent of the 16th Pennsylvania along with the 4th New York and 1st Rhode Island.
Fighting immediately broke out. Charge met countercharge as troopers in blue and butternut, shot and slashed at each other through the woods and thickets between and along the Ridge and Warrenton Post Roads.
It was not long before the sounds of battle reached the lines of infantry. Moving out from their position at Berea Church (near the modern Geico building), four companies of the 124th New York Infantry came to the support of the Union cavalry. The appearance of foot soldiers on the scene was enough to convince Fitzhugh Lee it was time to draw off the fight. Surmising that the Federals would pursue and rather than returning by which he came, Lee moved off to the north and encamped that night near the old battlefield of Second Manassas.
Lee would bring word back to his uncle that the Army of the Potomac remained across the Rappahannock and that no major operation was afoot. What he left behind was a note and a bag of tobacco for his old friend Averell. In part it read “I wish you would quit your shooting and get out of my state and go home. If you won’t go home, why don’t you come pay me visit. Send me over a bag of coffee”. In a little under a month’s time, Averell would accept the invitation.
For more information on the Battle of Hartwood Church see The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863 by Eric J. Wittenberg. Brassey’s Inc., Washington D.C. 2003.
For more information on Hartwood Church see the blog’s previous post Hartwood Church: An Unassuming Brick Chapel