Why Rivers Posed Such Problems in the East

Jericho Mills in panorama

I had the privilege of doing a program with my ECW colleague Bert Dunkerly for Richmond National Battlefield today at the Jericho Mills battlefield along the North Anna River. Bert is a ranger at Richmond and was kind enough to invite me along to help show off a portion of the battlefield not open to the public. You can watch our program here (even if you don’t have Facebook). Special thanks to Mark Wilcox for his camerawork!

While I was down at North Anna, I noticed how high the water was. Torrential rains pummeled our area earlier in the week, and the normally low North Anna was brimming at the banks! It offered the perfect illustration of why army commanders in Virginia always had to take these rivers into special consideration when planning their campaigns. The west-to-east flow made these river formidable barriers.

I shot a quick video—less than two minutes—to help illustrate this challenge. Feel free to watch on the ECW YouTube page. A link follows the page break:

10 Responses to Why Rivers Posed Such Problems in the East

  1. Bill Howard and James Morgan have both written excellent books on the critical role one Virginia river, the Potomac, played in an early Union defeat at Ball’s Bluff. Once the Union forces were broken, so many of them trying to escape down a very steep river bank ended up drowning in the river.

  2. One thing it took me a while to understand–maybe because I live near no rivers–is how torn up the ground gets when several thousand men and animals try to cross at one place. The first few may be fine, but everyone after that is in a worsening mess. After a bit the ground upon which is being walked becomes simply unpassable. Amazing! How did anyone get anywhere??

  3. This point is illustrated well on my dad’s property in rural Louisiana. They live near a creek and when the rains get heavy, their driveway is nigh impassable. Luckily, their house is on high ground. They keep a boat/canoe for these situations if they need to get out for grocery runs and the water doesn’t go down fast enough. Can’t imagine trying to get a corps or even division across that mess. That’s why fords and pontoon bridges were so important to logistics.

  4. It’s amazing to read this article and these comments – as an old Southerner, whose father knew his Confederate grandfather, the role of the rivers is the DNA of our history. It’s sweet to see ensuing generations re-discover the role of the rivers….glad to know someone cares….but forgive me for saying….”duh”.

    1. I am prolly the “duh” here, but if you read the papers, we have deserts, fires, and an ocean. No little creeks or inlets, our rivers–like the Sacramento–are large, but creeks, etc. are dry almost all the time. We also have mudslides. We live in a big country, sir! When Covid is over, come on out to Morro Bay for a week. Bliss!!

  5. I thought much the same, Meg. I too grew up in the west — in rural Arizona where our rivers are dry much of the year. I know tourists are amused by our county highway signs warning people not to camp or stop for a picnic in those lovely dry sandy stream bottoms. But anyone who has spent any time in Arizona’s back country well knows that a little thundershower upstream can, with no advance notice, turn that sandy bottom into feet of powerful raging storm water that washes all before it.

  6. Very cool. I remember I stopped at Carmel Church when I was following the route of the 6th Corps on the Overland Campaign a few years back. A pretty little church. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Chris, I was down at the North Anna Battlefield with John Kanaster and John Roos last month. We were at the same spot on the North Anna River as you were and we could have walked across the river on that day. Being in this area for the past 18 years, I can vouch for how high these rivers can get after a substantial rainfall. Just as the North Anna River overflowed its banks, the Rappahannock River flooded its banks from the same rainstorm. The Army of the Potomac, had many problems trying to cross these rivers during the war. I enjoyed the presentation from you and Bert at Jericho Mills. I remember when we were there for the Overland Campaign Live last year, that field was covered in hay about five feet high. Thanks and take care!

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