Yellowhammers and Environmentalism: Following the Path of Law’s Alabama Brigade to Gettysburg

Ten Days in Culpeper

From Raccoon Ford, Joe and I drove into nearby Culpeper, A.P. Hill’s hometown. Law’s Brigade camped with Hood’s Division south-east of Culpeper, near Pony Mountain, and paralleling the Fredericksburg Pike (modern-day Virginia Route 3) from Friday, June 5th to Monday, June 15th.

People of African descent, most-likely enslaved, put on a musical theatre performance in a Confederate camp. Perhaps similar scenes appeared in the multitudes of Rebel bivouacs around the Culpeper area from June 5th to the 15th. Original sketch by Confederate soldier-artist A. C. Redwood.

Since first visiting Culpeper in the early 1990’s I could not help but feel like the town was a somewhat odd place, suffering perhaps from an identity crisis or cultural-amnesia. What is Culpeper? The town and surrounding area held a wealth of history, but it had not been tastefully capitalized on. Perhaps it was lofty idealism on my part, sprinkled with unreasonable economic thoughts. Regardless I could not help but think of the heritage-tourism potential the community had.  Steeped in Civil War history, the town had seen so much – from Joe Johnston’s evacuation of his Manassas battleline (crossing at nearby Kelly’s Ford in March 1862), to John Pope’s movements in the Second Manassas Campaign, to the death of Pelham, to Brandy Station, to Grant’s immense Federal encampment in the winter of 1863-64, etcetera. Tens of thousands of stories from our past happened here, and many are still unpublished

Kelly’s Ford – looking west, up the Rappahannock River. Photo by RLH.

Culpeper was also steeped in emerging development. In the last 30 years the county has been on the front-line of the see-saw preservation saga. Because Culpeper is located on the U.S. Route 29 highway — which provides a corridor for quicker ingress and egress into the place, thus accommodating the growing Washington DC regional population movement in that direction — developers have long salivated over exploiting the area. Traditionally, much of the Culpeper Board of Supervisors has generally not cared for their historic pearl; their voting record attests to this.

However, despite the constant development hurdles, through the yeoman service by long-term Culpeper/Brandy Station advocate, Clark “Bud” Hall, much property has been protected – even thwarting in the mid-1990’s a Formula-1 racetrack proposed for the middle of the battlefield.

Brandy Station expert and preservation leader, Bud Hall, conducting a tour for the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (www.cvbt.org) of the Culpeper area in 2012. Photo by RLH.

Prior to 1987, not a single acre of Brandy Station was saved. Since then, the Civil War Trust and others have saved 1,872 acres of the Brandy Station battlefield, including Fleetwood Hill, the site of the Stuart’s headquarters and the epicenter of the battle. Because the battle was so massive, and substantially a cavalry fight, it covers a lot of ground – over 10,000 acres. The Brandy Station preservation issue begs reoccurring questions:  How much land needs to be saved?  Why should it be saved? How does one quantify preservation?  Who benefits from it?

I feel more agricultural land and forests (which is often battlefield, and camp, land) should be protected.  Time is dwindling to save the vast historic and natural area from the advancing Washington, D.C. commuter traffic and population. The area is fragile.

A soldier in Hood’s Division wrote of the town, “Once more we stand with shattered walls of Culpeper, and again our line of operations points onward to the Potomac . . . Shaken by the shock of twenty battles, mutilated by four barbaric invasions, her sanctuaries defiled, devastated by pestilence and famine and the citizens driven from their hearths depending on God alone for food. . .”

Photos of Culpeper taken during Union General John Pope’s occupation in August 1862. Photos by Timothy O’Sullivan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In early June 1863 the Army of Northern Virginia cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, had assembled a force of 10,000-troopers around Culpeper.  The size of a mounted force that large made me wonder about the forage and logistics of the horse and mule element of Lee’s army; it was a part of military strategy I am often ignorant of.

Correspondent Peter Wellington Alexander, the popular partisan reporter from The Savannah Republican newspaper, known as “PWA”, wrote on about forage and logistics of equestrian sustenance while at Culpeper, stating, “The number of horses [and mules] in this army, including the cavalry, artillery, quartermaster’s department, and field and staff, is not far from 35,000. . . To supply these horses with the usual rations of corn and hay, would require 7,500 bushels or 420,000 pounds of the former and 490,000 pounds of the latter, per day. The labor and expense of supplying so large quantity of forage are necessarily very heavy.  Fortunately for us, as well as for the horses, neither army has occupied this part of the State since last fall, and consequently the supply of grass, clover and timothy is abundant, otherwise it would be impossible to subsist so many animals with our limited wagon and railroad transportation, and at a time of so much scarcity as the present. You will be surprised to hear, therefore, that the horses receive no hay at all, and very seldom and fodder, and only one third the usual ration of corn. And yet I have never seen them in better condition. It is reported that the grazing in the counties between the Rappahannock and the Upper Potomac is equally as good as it is in this vicinity. Many of the farms have been abandon, and much of the fencing destroyed, but it is believed that the supply of grass, though not as abundant as in times of peace, is ample for our wants, should the army advance. The farmers are allowed ten cents per day for the grazing of each horse, which would make the total cost of grazing 35,000 horses, $3,500 per day.” This account underlines the logic of necessity for Lee to move his army to another region to survive. I have often overshadowed the Confederate desire for supplies as to a major reason for their movement north in 1863, however the mathematical logic illustrated by PWA’s account partially illuminates the hard realities of supply and logistics.

On Friday, June 5th, and later on June 8th, Stuart conducted massive cavalry reviews near Culpeper. Hood’s Division attended both events; General Lee attended the latter.

A Southern soldier-reporter in Hood’s Division said of the June 5th equestrian spectacle, “It was an imposing sight. One hundred and forty-four companies passed in review in the most splendid order. I counted twenty-six stands of colors, exclusive of those belonging to Stuart’s horse-artillery.  After the review there was a sham fight, in which the artillery fired over one hundred and sixty rounds, and the cavalry made several brilliant charges. The horses were generally good, and everything indicated a good degree of discipline. Many ladies, blooming in health and beauty, were present. Gen. Hood marched his whole division out to witness the review.” Accounts like this make me wish I could go back in time to witness the spectacle. It is hard to fathom 10,000 cavalry charging — it does wet my appetite — Pavlovian.  What would the sound of 40,000 hooves thundering forward be like? Often history is a challemge to comprehend.

The iconic Virginia cavalier, James Ewell Brown “J.E.B./Jeb” Stuart. The 30-year old West Point graduate and Indian fighter would run into great difficulty in the coming days repelling aggressive Federal cavalry attacks. Photo courtesy the National Archives.

Robert T. Coles, Adjutant of the 4th, said, “On the 8th of June General Lee ordered a review of the whole of General Stuart’s Corps. The 4th Alabama was present and witnessed the grandest and most spectacular display of the largest body of cavalry they had ever seen massed on one field. General Stuart was in all his glory. Mr. [President] Davis, his cabinet, and a large number of ladies from Richmond and the surrounding country were among the spectators.” One of Hood’s Infantrymen spoke of Jeb Stuart’s grand event, “Yesterday we had a great review. Thousands of cavalry and infantry were upon the ground. The infantry rested on their arms and the cavalry pranced and maneuvered over the field to the delight of about 500 young and thoughtless beauties. The cavalry looked fine with the Prince of showy men at their head, dressed with gold and yellow trappings glistening on the plain grey surface like fire-flies on a darkening night. They were essentially a collection of pretty men, dressed in their best, while the poor, tattered, worn and tired infantry received not one smile from the light-hearted beauties who were out on that day. . . The cavalry parade was a beautiful sight, but I have no patience for such tomfooleries.” I could relate to the infantryman somewhat; in reenacting the grimy hardcore authentic types rarely got the attention of the fairer sex – but the cavalry did, especially if the wore “glittery” things.

Jeb Stuart in the Fall of 1862, drawn by the artist, Frank Vizetelly, of the Illustrated London News.

According to correspondent Peter Wellington Alexander/PWA, a Stuart critic, on June 8th, “Gen. Stuart has assembled a heavy cavalry force here . . . Some of the ladies adorned him and his horse with flowers, and in this condition he presented himself to General Lee, who, it is reported, having surveyed him from head to foot, quietly remarked:  ‘Do you know General, that Burnside left Washington in like trim for the first battle of Manassas. I hope your fate may not be like his.’ Unfortunately Stuart was too much occupied with his flowers to take the hint.”

Commander of The Army of Northern Virginia, Robert Edward Lee. In June 1863 the 56-year old was at his zenith. Lee had masterfully beaten several Federal armies in 1862. In May 1863 the momentum continued for his Southerners, routing Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville. However, after the death of Stonewall Jackson, there was a substantial paradigm shift in the organization of The Army of Northern Virginia – moving from a two wing, or corps, system to three corps. Going into the Gettysburg Campaign only one of Lee’s three corps commanders was battle-vetted in that position – James Longstreet.

Fourth Alabama Adjutant, Robert T. Coles, said after the grand review, “That evening General Stuart entertained his visitors with a sham battle. To several members of the 4th Alabama there was only one thing to mar the occasion – the absence of the dashing Alabama artillerist of Stuart’s Horse Artillery, John Pelham, who was killed leading a cavalry charge only a few miles from where we then were, on the 17th of March, 1863.”

This image is of the beau ideal; Alabamian, Major John Pelham. The 24-year old commander of Jeb Stuart’s 16-cannon horse-artillery battalion had been praised by Stonewall Jackson at Sharpsburg, and dubbed by Lee at Fredericksburg, “The Gallant Pelham”. The young artilleryman would lose his life not far from Culpeper, at Kelly’s Ford, on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1863. Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Robert Coles continued on about the Brandy Station events, “That night [Monday, June 8th] the little village of Culpeper was filled to overflowing with beautiful women and brave men, where a dance was inaugurated by the cavalry continued until long after we infantry had retired to our respective blankets.”

Confederate camp scene. By A.C. Redwood.

On the following day, Tuesday, June 9th, what would become known as the largest cavalry engagement in the Western Hemisphere erupted, the Battle of Brandy Station. During the fight Hood’s Division was held in a concealed support position, near Pony Mountain, a few miles south-east of Culpeper, on The Fredericksburg Pike (modern-day Virginia Route 3). Although the Federal horsemen were repelled after a hard-fought contest, Lee’s troop-concentration at Culpeper was partially revealed to the Yankees.

On Wednesday, June 10th, Lee ordered Richard Ewell’s 20,000-strong Second Corps and supply-train to move out of Culpeper, north-west, over The Blue Ridge Mountain, towards The Shenandoah Valley and Winchester.

A drawing of Culpeper in 1863 by Alfred Waud. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

PWA wrote, “Lee’s flank movement, like a coal of fire on the terrapin’s back, has had the effect to put his [Hooker’s Army of the Potomac] in motion . . .”

On Saturday, June 13th, A.P. Hill’s 23,000-man Third Corps and baggage train were ordered to leave the Fredericksburg area and move west to join the rest of Lee’s army after confirmation of a Federal withdrawal from the Fredericksburg front.

At 11:30 P.M. on Sunday, June 14th, Hood ordered his division in readiness to march on Monday morning the 15th. By 1 A.M. Law’s cooks were preparing two days rations for the 2,000 soldiers of the brigade.

Enslaved servants building campfires and cooking for the soldiers. Original sketch made by Confederate soldier-artist A. C. Redwood.

To be continued. . .

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4 Responses to Yellowhammers and Environmentalism: Following the Path of Law’s Alabama Brigade to Gettysburg

  1. Robert Rainey says:

    Great read! The musical theatre comment as most likely enslaved Africans is rather presumptious as there were thousands of free blacks living throughout the South.

  2. David Corbett says:

    Enjoyable read as usual -“the hell you say !”

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