Prelude to a Star: The Urbanna Raid

part two in a series

The Army of the Potomac was in disarray when George Custer returned from Washington on May 5, 1863. Early that morning, the army began their retreat to the north bank of the Rappahannock River. This maneuver effectively brought an end to the Chancellorsville campaign and notched another defeat in the army’s belt of failure.

It probably was not long before Custer found out that his regiment was not present with the army. The 5th U.S. Cavalry was assigned to the Reserve Brigade. The brigade was in central Virginia, participating in an operation known as “Stoneman’s Raid.” The raid took its name from the commander of the cavalry corps, George Stoneman. The following day, without a regiment, Custer was assigned to the staff of Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton. A veteran cavalryman, Pleasonton headed one of the corps’ three divisions and had remained with the army throughout the recent campaign.

A photograph of George Custer and Alfred Pleasonton. Custer joined Pleasonton's staff in May 1863. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A photograph of George Custer and Alfred Pleasonton. Custer joined Pleasonton’s staff in May 1863. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Custer was torn by the new assignment. His loyalty to George McClellan ran deep and he was reluctant at first to serve another general officer. Pleasonton may have sensed Custer’s apprehension, and welcomed him on the staff with open arms. Custer often dined with Pleasonton, who had much of his fare shipped in from Baltimore. In time, Custer’s comfort level grew. He became so at ease that he worked to obtain a position for one of his friends, George Yates, on the staff. Yates carried good credentials, having served faithfully in the 4th Michigan Infantry. Pleasonton would honor Custer’s request and add Yates to his military family.

Alfred Pleasonton and his staff. This photograph was taken in October 1863 in Warrenton, Virginia. Pleasonton is seated in the center of the photgraph. George Yates is standing, second from left.
Alfred Pleasonton and his staff. This photograph was taken in October 1863 in Warrenton, Virginia. Pleasonton is seated in the center of the photgraph. George Yates is standing, second from left. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On May 20, Custer was called to Pleasonton’s tent for his first assignment under his new chief. An effort was in the mounting to send an expedition to an area of Virginia known as the Northern Neck. Encompassing the area between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, this peninsula had become a safe haven for Rebel smugglers. Custer was directed to accompany elements of the 3d Indiana Cavalry during the raid.

The following evening, Custer met the 75 men that he would accompany at Aquia Landing. The party boarded the steamers Caleca and Manhattan. Once darkness settled over the landing, the two ships set sail. The expedition landed at the mouth of the Yeocomico River the next morning. Disembarking from the transports, Custer and his troopers made the forty mile ride across the Neck to a point on the north bank of the Rappahannock across from the town of Urbanna. Custer wrote afterwards that this march lasted about five hours. To avoid detection, Custer concealed his men in some woods until nightfall. Just after sunset, the young officer observed a vessel leaving Urbanna. Leaving most of his party on shore, Custer and nine men commandeered a canoe and set off in pursuit. The smaller canoe chased the larger vessel for about 10 miles downriver. Once in range, the Yankees opened fire, compelling the ship to run aground. Striking shore, the crew jumped overboard and escaped. Boarding the vessel, Custer found that it contained a number of passengers and a stock of Confederate currency.

Leaving five men to secure the ship, Custer and the remainder of his contingent made their way to shore. Making their way through the woods, the men came upon a fine country mansion. Leaving his men behind, Custer drew his pistol and walked alone toward the house to investigate. As he walked closer, he noticed an individual sitting on the porch in a Confederate uniform. Taking the Rebel by surprise, Custer made him his prisoner. Interrogating his enemy, Custer found that there were no other Confederate troops within six miles. On a more personal level, the soldier informed Custer that he was at home on a brief leave. Nonetheless, the man was Custer’s prisoner and it now fell to him to enter the house and inform the Rebel’s sisters of the situation.

Custer wrote afterwards:

His sisters…heard nothing of what occurred until I entered and informed them it was my painful but imperative duty to take their brother away with me. They were very sorry of course, but tried to assume a very independent air at first. I could not but feel sorry that they were to be made unhappy through any act of mine. I imagined myself in their brother’s stead and thought how sorry my own dear sister would be if I were taken away under similar circumstances.

Returning to the main party, Custer rowed to Urbanna. There, the Federals captured and burned two schooners and a bridge over Urbanna Bay. The smoke over the town alerted Confederate troops on the opposite bank. Perhaps the soldier captured at the mansion was not as truthful when he told Custer of the location of his comrades. After Custer’s party reached the north bank, they ran into a contingent of Rebels. After a brief firefight, the Yankees captured twelve Confederates and thirty horses.

Although the Yankees won this fight, any other enemy forces in the area would be alerted. It was now time to return to Yeocomico and the safety of the transports. Custer and his men again rode through the night, only stopping twice, and reached the Caleca and Manhattan without further incident.
The two ships embarked and on the fifth morning of the expedition, arrived safely back at Aquia Landing. That night, an exhausted Custer sat down to write of his “expedition into Dixie” to a friend in Monroe.

2 Responses to Prelude to a Star: The Urbanna Raid

  1. I made a little road trip to Urbanna last month hoping to find traces of Custer’s raid. Alas, no signage but it is such a beautiful and historic village that I was glad I went. I drove along the river as much as possible trying to find the mansion he raided but could find no likely prospects. If it still exists I imagine it would be visible from a boat. Asked a few locals if they knew anything about it but had no luck. Thanks again for your wonderful series. I look forward to Part 3!

  2. My pleasure, thank you. Part 3 will be awhile, as it will coincide with the 150th Anniversary of Brandy Station.

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