“A spectator would have said that the opponents were afraid of each other”: The Battle of James City

Federal Signal Station at Mount Pony, Courtesy of Library of Congress
Federal Signal Station at Mount Pony (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

As Lee’s infantry made its way westward to Madison Courthouse, Stuart took Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton’s cavalry division (Hampton was still recovering from wounds suffered at Gettysburg) ahead to screen the infantry’s movements. Stuart knew that Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalry division was located just east of Madison Courthouse. Kilpatrick was sent there by Meade to protect his western flank and to feel out towards Madison for Lee’s infantry.

Stuart also had another mission; to capture the Federal signal station atop of Thoroughfare Mountain. The signal station was one of several that were crucial to Meade to provide information on the Confederates south of the Rapidan River. Just the day before the signal station messaged Meade “the enemy is moving in force on two roads toward Madison Courthouse.” It was crucial for Lee to quiet these signal stations.

After sending Col. Oliver Funsten north with the infantry, Stuart took the remaining two brigades under Brig. Gen. James Gordon and Brig. Gen. Pierce Young. These brigades were made up of North Carolinians, Mississippians, Georgians and South Carolinians. It was the first time Stuart led an all non – Virginia cavalry force.  Kilpatrick had two brigades under Brig. Gen George Custer and Brig. Gen. Henry Davies. These units were spread out over a 6 mile area with Brig. Gen. Henry Prince’s division of infantry nearby for support. Covering Russell’s Ford along the Robinson River were the 5th NY and 5th MI cavalry regiments.

As Stuart approached the Robinson River, the Federals quickly pulled back. Many leaving meals behind they were preparing. The cavalry pulled back east to James City, forgetting to inform a supporting infantry regiment of their departure. The 120th NY was part of Prince’s Division of the III Corps. The 120th NY was positioned a few miles directly east of Russell’s Ford along the road to Culpeper at Bethsaida Church.

Modern Day Bethsaida Church, Photo by Chris Mackowski
Modern Day Bethsaida Church, Photo by Chris Mackowski

In command of the 120th NY was Capt. Abram Lockwood. Soon Lockwood was confronting two brigades of Confederate cavalry. Barely having time to form into line, the Confederates nearly surrounded the New Yorkers. As Lockwood stated in his report “the cavalry pickets were soon driven in, the enemy advanced in heavy force, attacking on both flanks and in my front.” Of the 211 men in the 120th NY, 114 men were casualties. The remaining were lucky to run back to James City.

Stuart had cleared the fords over the Robinson River that the infantry needed to continue the flank march around Meade’s western flank. Now he moved east towards James City to deal with Kilpatrick’s cavalry and keep them busy as Lee’s infantry columns moved northward. After a short exchange of fire, Kilpatrick pulled back from James City to the other side of nearby Crooked Run to a hill overlooking the river bottom. This movement also forced the Federals to abandon the Thoroughfare Mountain signal station.

Stuart assessed the situation and saw that Kilpatrick also had the support of Prince’s

Thoroughfare Mountain from Bethsaida Church
Thoroughfare Mountain from Bethsaida Church

Division of the III Corps. Knowing that he was outnumbered and his mission was only to screen the infantry and keep the Federal cavalry busy, he was satisfied to establish a defensive position along the ridge at James City and wait.   For most of the afternoon only the opposing artillery batteries exchanged fire.

During a lull in the artillery firing, Stuart and his staff laid down on the ground with their headquarters flag nearby. Soon the flag and the collection of men near it attracted the attention of a Federal gun crew. A white puff of smoke was seen from the once quiet artillery and a shot whistled toward the group landing in the ground and exploding. Though no one was hurt, Confederate staff officer John Esten Cooke wrote he was “covered in dirt where he lay…striking within three or four feet of his head, the incident was highly pleasing.” Soon Stuart and his staff scattered to safer locations.

Men of the 5th Michigan Cavalry began taking heavy fire from Capt. James Hart’s horse artillery. Custer, ever aggressive, decided to attempt to drive off the enemy gun battery. As men from the 5th MI charged, the 1st South Carolina Cavalry positioned to support the Confederate artillery, fired a volley along with a round from Hart’s guns, which quickly turned back the Wolverines. Kilpatrick made no other efforts in forcing the issue and Stuart was playing his role perfectly in Lee’s overall campaign strategy. As one Confederate wrote “a spectator would have said that the opponents were afraid of each other.”

Many historic buildings of James City stand today.
Many historic buildings of James City stand today.

As the firing died down around James City, Stuart was satisfied with what he accomplished. His cavalry successfully screened Lee’s infantry, cleared the Robinson River crossings for the infantry and kept the Federal cavalry busy.

That night Lee’s infantry bivouacked 10 miles west of Culpeper. Though Kilpatrick was unable to confirm Lee’s whereabouts, Meade was not taking any chances. With a handful of reports from signal stations and the heavy presence of Confederate cavalry on his flank, Meade ordered his army to withdraw northward to the northern bank of the Rappahannock River. The next morning Lee marched into a deserted Culpeper. Meade had gotten away, but Lee was not about to give up the campaign.

For more information on the Bristoe Station campaign, see the upcoming release of “A Want of Vigilance, The Bristoe Station Campaign” by Rob Orrison and Bill Backus. Available at www.savasbeatie.com

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