Rappahannock Rising

A week of rains has sent the Rappahannock River over its banks in the Fredericksburg, Virginia area. I can’t help but think of Brig. Gen. George Stoneman. One-hundred and fifty-one years ago, Stoneman, in charge of the Federal cavalry, was charged with raiding toward Richmond in an attempt to threaten Confederate supply lines.

But the rain came, and the river rose, and the Federal cavalry was stalled before it over got started.

I think, too, of the criticism Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside has suffered in the postwar years because he refused to wade his men across the Rappahannock in November of 1862. He lacked pontoons to make the crossing, but some of his subordinates noted that the river was shallow enough to wade across. He refused, citing worries that the river might flood. It didn’t–and so he’s been pooh-poohed for his decision.

But it could have. And as this week’s flooding reminds us, the consequences would have been devastating for any part of the Federal army trapped on the south bank of the river with no supplies, no artillery, and no chance of reinforcements. Burnside didn’t have weather radar to let him know what the forecast was, either, so he had to play it safe. Armchair generals today can criticize all they want, but Burnside made the responsible decision.

Burnside and Stoneman certainly hold their fair share of culpability for their respective failures in December 1862 and May 1863, respectively, but anyone detractors who heap scorn on them because of the river had best take a good look at the photos from this week’s news. Our ability to cross rivers at a whim thanks to modern engineering makes it easy to forget how hard–and how dangerous–it used to be.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the flooding.

2 Responses to Rappahannock Rising

  1. The moment of greatest empathy I found for Burnside came on a day while living in Fredericksburg when, on a whim, I endeavored to determine how fordable the Rappahannock was. A third of the way across good judgment got the better of me and I returned defeated.

  2. I went down to the Fredericksburg City Dock to see what the Rappanhannock River looked like on Thursday morning, May 1st (after 3 days of torrential rain). The level of the river was 22 feet above normal and the whole area looked completely different! I didn’t even recognize it anymore.
    I took a few photos and posted them on my website. http://storieswithnobooks.com/2014/05/02/rappahannock-river-rising-2/
    A few days later, the Civil War reenactment of the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse were held (May 3rd and 4th). I went there on Saturday May 3rd and took some photos. The reenactors did a great job, even though the ground was still quite muddy and the grass was wet and tall. I imagine it was much like this for the Civil War soldiers 150 years ago! http://storieswithnobooks.com/2014/05/03/virginia-civil-war-reenactment/

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