Introduction to a series
A couple weeks ago, I shared a piece on the actions of Wade Hampton at the Battle of Trevilian Station. Hampton’s direction and subsequent victory there catapulted him to command the cavalry corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Recently, in observance of the 155th Anniversary of Fredericksburg, I was reviewing its respective volume in the Official Reports when something jumped out to me. At the time of the campaign, Hampton, then a brigade commander, was extremely active through the months of November and December, 1862. His expeditions across the Rappahannock River and deep behind Union lines caught the eye of his immediate superiors, James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart and Robert E. Lee. Although relatively small in nature, collectively the operations at Hartwood Church, Dumfries and along the Occoquon River established Hampton’s reputation as a horse soldier.
By the late autumn of 1862, Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton had commanded cavalry for less than four months. At the beginning of the conflict, the wealthy Southerner had raised his own Legion and had served in the infantry. Wounded at First Manassas and Seven Pines, Hampton received his general’s star in May, 1862. In the reorganization of Robert E. Lee’s army following the Seven Days’ battles, Hampton transferred to the mounted arm in the newly created cavalry division led by Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart. As the senior Brigadier, Hampton commanded one of Stuart’s brigades opposite Fitzhugh Lee.
While Lee moved north to confront Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Union army that summer, Hampton remained near Richmond to monitor enemy activity. Following Pope’s defeat at Second Manassas, Hampton rejoined the army to participate in Lee’s first Northern invasion. His brigade screened the foot soldiers as it moved into Maryland and skirmished heavily with Union forces as the armies moved toward and clashed at South Mountain. On September 17, they met again outside the village of Sharpsburg, however, Hampton’s brigade did not directly participate in the engagement.
A few weeks after the Battle of Antietam, Hampton rode in the vanguard of a handpicked force that splashed across the Potomac. Lee had ordered Stuart to march north to obtain information on the enemy’s disposition, upset Union supply lines, capture horses and destroy the Cumberland Valley Railroad bridge outside Chambersburg. The Confederates reached the Pennsylvania town on the night of October 10. Although unable to complete the destruction of the bridge, Stuart’s troopers raided its military warehouses. On the return trip Hampton directed the rear guard. Stuart rode through Cashtown and then entered Maryland. Hampton skillfully handled his men on the ride back to Virginia and covered the column from Union pursuers as it moved over White’s Ford. The raid demonstrated to Hampton the vulnerability of the rear areas of the Army of the Potomac and that a small force could operate there for a short period with little hindrance. These lessons would not soon be lost on the South Carolinian.
Stuart’s cavalry opposed the Union army as it moved back into Virginia. On November 5, Hampton had a sharp fight with enemy cavalry at Barbee’s Crossroads. With the onset of winter, it appeared this action might be the last of the campaigning season. The Federal high command, however, had other ideas. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, the new commander of the Potomac army, was unwilling to concede to the weather and prepared for one more drive on the Confederate capital. After weighing his options, he elected to move south along the Richmond Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. It would not be long before Hampton and his troopers were back in the field again.