Everything was brown: the barren trees, the fallen leaves, the river itself as it pushed between the high banks on either side. Even the crushed gravel of the path was somehow brown as it wound down the hillside from the parking lot to the river’s edge.
My youngest son, Maxwell, and I have come to the old site of Germanna Ford along the Rapidan River.
Today, modern Route 3 bridges the river between its two high banks. On this date in 1863, Federal engineers had to build pontoon bridges to facilitate crossing. Stymied by high water, they had to improvise even as some of the infantry waded through the frigid chest-high water to establish a beachhead on the southern bank.
Maxwell and I stand on that bank, about a hundred yards upstream of the modern bridge, which, in turn, crosses just upriver from the site of the pontoon crossings. Temps today tapped 68 degrees by mid-afternoon—downright balmy compared to the mid-thirties on the day the army crossed. By nightfall, temps would dip so low water would freeze in the soldiers’ tin cups.
It’s the anniversary of the opening day of the Mine Run Campaign. As is my custom whenever I can, I visit the area battlefields on the anniversaries of the battles, moving from day to day across the battlefields in the footsteps of the actions that once took place there. The other two crossing sites are not publicly accessible, so I content myself with a trip to this brown, leaf-cluttered riverbank where I can contemplate the first day’s actions, the opening of the campaign, and the swirling water as it rushes across the Virginia countryside in its long winding way to the far-off sea. Such is the route thoughts are wont to wind sometimes.
Mine Run, usually overlooked and not formally protected by the National Park Service, deserves a place among the other four major battlefields in the neighborhood (Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania). Perhaps because Mine Run has been historically overlooked, it has a particularly special place in my heart.
Maxwell has spent a lot of time in his two-and-a-half years on this battlefield with me. I started writing my book The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign shortly after he was born, and I brought him with me on trip after trip as I collected photos. He bushwhacked with me (often in an off-road stroller) as I mapped parts of the field. When I finished the book, I dedicated it to him. He’s been on many other battlefields with me, but Mine Run has achieved special status.
We watch the river and pretend there are dinosaurs in the water, and I tell him about the soldiers that once crossed here. They did not, I assure him, get eaten by any of the dinosaurs. “They would shoot them,” Maxwell says. Indeed, they might.
In 1863, Thanksgiving day fell on November 26; for us, it’s still two days away. But I’m thankful for the chance to be on this riverbank with my son, remembering the men who crossed here 156 years ago and creating a history of our own.
Check out Chris’s talk on Mine Run, presented at the Sixth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, on C-SPAN 3.