Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Mike Block
As the sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains about 5 P.M. on November 7, 1863, the 6th Maine Infantry and 5th Wisconsin Infantry began their climb up a steep hill to assault one of the two redoubts along the Tete-de pont on the north side of the Rappahannock River. In 30 minutes the fortunes of the Army of Northern Virginia turned as the sky turned from a bright sunset to absolute darkness. Hoke’s North Carolinian’s and Hay’s Louisianans in the trenches and redoubts on the Fauquier side of the river knew they had but one escape, a single pontoon bridge that crossed the river a few hundred yards upstream from the remains of the railroad bridge. Holding on to the north side of the river where the bridge was anchored meant survival for nearly 2000 Confederates.
The boats were originally Federal property. They had been abandoned in late June 1862 as then Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac changed bases from the York River to the James. Confederate engineers built this bridge after the Army of Northern Virginia returned to the Rappahannock following the Bristoe Campaign.[i]
Army Commander Robert E. Lee along with Division Commander Major General Jubal A. Early observed the beginning of the fight from across the river, but could not hear gunfire as the only ones firing were Rebels. The Federals charged without firing, using their loaded weapons once they were in the works. Conspiring against the two leaders were the atmospheric conditions. On November 7, a strong wind out of the south swept across the region, pushing any sound away from Lee and Early. The assault took place at sunset, and any discharge from rifles would be reasonably seen. But, with the Yankees not firing, and the Rebels firing away from the river, nothing was seen nor heard. Lee and Early rode away.
The Federal brigades of Colonel’s Peter Ellmaker and Emory Upton both got up into the works quicker than the Confederates could imagine. Ellmaker’s 5th Wisconsin and 6th Maine, went up on the Confederate right, into the redoubts, directly above the pontoons. The fighting in the works against the Tigers was bitter and personal, with rammers and rifle butts the weapons of choice. To the west, Emory Upton’s 121st New York and 5th Maine crashed over the works and occupied the trenches of the 54th North Carolina, forcing them and parts of Hoke’s brigade, under Colonel Archibald Goodwin, back toward the river. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, most fell back along the trenches to the west and away from the bridge and escape.
By 5:30 P. M., Ellmaker’s men were in full control of the redoubts overlooking the O&A bridge site and the pontoon bridge. Just to the west, Upton had occupied the trenches held by the 54th North Carolina. In the fading light Upton observed a significant number of Rebels remaining on his right. They were the 5th and 7th Louisiana Infantry and the residue of the 54th North Carolina infantry. He regained control of his men and formed the majority to the west, towards the only threat on the field. However, he ordered Major Andrew Mather, of 121st NY, with a small detachment, to rush to the north bank of the Rappahannock and secure the bridge. Mather and his men took off, hoping to take the bridge without a serious fight. But he was in for a surprise.
The 49th Pennsylvania Infantry, had followed the first wave of Ellmaker’s men into the works, and pushed on through to get behind the Rebels. Seeing the bridge, Corporal Henry B. Minnichan with 18 men rushed the site and secured the north end. Some thereafter, Major Mather arrived and asked who is in command. “Here I am,” answered Minnichan. “You!” “Yes sir, me and the bridge is safe,” responded the Corporal. The Major then said, “Well, Corporal, I will relieve you.” Mather was very much surprised to know that a corporal had charge of such an important position.”[ii]
The Federals may have held the north end, but some Rebels were still escaping, among them Brigadier General Harry Hays. In Early’s report of the disaster, he describes Hays’s escape. “General Hays owes his escape to the fact that after he was completely surrounded and was a prisoner his horse took flight and ran off, and, as the enemy commenced firing in him, he concluded to make the effort to escape across the bridge, where he was exposed to no more danger, as he had to run the gauntlet anyway”[iii]
Once it became clear to the Confederates on the south side that the bridge was no longer an avenue of Confederate escape, but one of Federal advance, attempts were made to destroy the bridge. There are two different stories of how the Rebels ‘destroyed’ the bridge.
The first one involves an artillerist in the Rockbridge Artillery. “About nine o’clock, General Early…asked our batterymen for a volunteer to burn the bridge,” recalled Private Edward Moore. “William Effinger, of Harrisonburg…promptly volunteered to undertake it; and soon had the bridge in flames, the enemy not having fired a shot. Effinger was later promoted to Lieutenant of Engineers for his actions this night.” [iv]
A more entertaining story appeared in the Confederate Veteran in 1893, as told by Captain (then Lieutenant) Samuel Buck from Company H, 14th Virginia:
“…[A]fter the enemy had been repulsed in his attempt to cross the bridge…Major Hale of General Early’s staff said, ‘General Early has sent me to you to request that you destroy that bridge. He would not order you to do so.’ Of course I felt it was a great compliment, as I was the youngest officer in the command…
“Having selected 13 volunteers,… I removed my boots, sword, coat, pistol…I left my worldly affects where I took them off…got down on my hands and knees and crawled up to the bridge, then got as close as possible to the ground, and snake like, pulled myself along and onto the flooring…crept from boat to boat…cutting every rope to within a few yards of the enemy’s side of the shore….having done this, I re-snaked my way back to my trusty fellows….Buck then tried to restart the fire from a previous attempt (probably Effinger’s).
“…being unable to get anything to start a fire with…I requested a regiment of men onto my own noble 13 to make a continuous line across the field and pass hay and anything that would make a quick fire….soon I had an abundance…I placed it in every crevice I could reach…I decided to set the hay on fire and immediately fall in the water and quietly float down to the dam.
“In a few moments I saw the sharp tongue of a blaze up from under the bridge, and in a few minutes it was enveloped in a sheet of flame…the enemy had to bring up and lay a new bridge before they could cross.[v]
While both stories make great reading and display individual heroism. That isn’t what really happened. Both undoubtedly attempted to fire the bridge, with some measure of success, but a message from Major General John Sedgwick to Meade’s Chief-of-Staff, Major General Andrew Humphreys, tells a different story.
“November 8, 7.40 A. M.
The enemy attempted to burn the bridge this morning. I think they will leave….In the event of getting the works on the other side I shall throw another bridge (emphasis added) over.”[vi]
In the end, Corporal Minnichan was right, “…me and the bridge is safe.”
[i] Springfield Republican, November 10, 1863, in part, “The bridge consisted of only five boats, and these were the same which were abandoned by the engineer brigade for want of transportation on the Chickahominy last year.”
[ii] Westbrook, Robert S. History of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1898. Introduction by Dr. Richard Sauers. Butternut and Blue, Baltimore, 1999, pp168, 170.
[iii] OR, Series I, Vol. 29, Part 1, p 623.
[iv] Driver, Robert J., The 1st and 2nd Rockbridge Artillery, H. E. Howard, Inc., Lynchburg, VA, 1987, pp 46, 64.
[v] Confederate Veteran, Volume I, 1893, pp 364-365.
[vi] OR, Series I, Vol. 29, Part 2, p 923.