Hell comes to Rappahannock Station on a dark November night: Part I

n August 1863, artist Edwin Forbes sketched the U.S. Army railroad bridge spanning the Rappahannock River at Rappahannock Station, Va. The bridge was soon destroyed as fighting occurred in central Virginia. When Confederate forces withdrew across the river in October 1863, Robert E. Lee established a bridgehead on the north bank at Rappahannock Station. (Library of Congress)

Sensing the approaching threat in the deep November darkness, an alert Confederate soldier — probably a North Carolinian — fires his musket. Comrades swarm to their protective breastworks, level their muskets, and loosen a thunderous volley.

Hideous screams suddenly erupt in the Virginia night; before the Confederates finish reloading, cold steel leaps through the swirling gun smoke to seek, slash, and pierce human flesh.

Seven days after Halloween 1863, hell has come to Rappahannock Station.

Just 24 hours earlier, after camping in “the vicinity of Warrenton” for some two weeks, the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment had received orders “to be ready to move at an early hour … the following morning,” Adjutant George W. Bicknell recalls. Senior Union officers plan to erase the bridgehead that Robert E. Lee has established at Rappahannock Station, then a whistle stop where the Orange & Alexandria Railroad vaults the Rappahannock River well upriver from Fredericksburg.

Union Gen. George Meade sends Gen. John Sedgwick and two Army corps — V and VI — to crush the bridgehead, currently defended by Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays and the “Louisiana Tigers,” a brigade comprising the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Louisiana infantry regiments. Hays holds trenches and two redoubts along the Rappahannock’s north bank; a pontoon bridge connects him with other Confederate defenders holding the south bank.

At 7 a.m., Saturday, “the [Union] columns began to move” on a “beautiful” morning “just cool enough to march easily and comfortably,” Bicknell describes the weather.

“We moved along with the usual route step,” he says.

Because “soldiers were great speculators in their minds,” the Union boys wonder where they are headed. Scuttlebutt — a term coined in a future war — sees the Maine men “conjecturing, querying, and speculating” about “the result of our enterprise this time,” Bicknell notices.

A noon halt let the weary soldiers fall out to consume “pork, bread, and coffee,” he recalls.

Then the men relaxing along the roadside leap to their feet as “the roar of artillery and the sounds of sharp musketry” erupt “some distance in our advance,” Bicknell says. Forming along the road, the Union regiments resume marching.

The not-so-distant shooting lasts about an hour; the guns suddenly fall quiet as the Union troops march through thick woods.

The rain-swollen Rappahannock River flows swiftly between its south bank (left) and north bank at Remington, Va. Although modern development has obliterated much of the Nov. 7, 1863 battlefield, visitors armed with a good map and good directions can find some landmarks. Confederate troops defended the north bank seen in this photo; 5th Maine boys might have swarmed over that terrain during their wild night charge. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Then “we found ourselves in the vicinity of Rappahannock Station” about 1 p.m., according to Bicknell. The 5th Maine halts where “an opening” stretches “away for a mile or more to our right” before ending at the river’s eastern shore.

Blending draftees, recent volunteers, and combat veterans, the 5th Maine boys stand concealed “in the edge of the woods” and study the terrain. Bicknell sees that near the river stand “one or two forts … protected by a battery of ten pound guns,” actually the four guns assigned to Capt. Charles A. Green and his Louisiana Guard Artillery.

Bicknell assesses the Confederate defenses. “Stretching out for a third of a mile upon the right, and for a short distance upon the left” of the forts “were strong lines of [enemy] breast-works and rifle-pits, all commanding the open ground in their front,” he observes.

Confederate gunners fire “a shot or two” when the Union troops appear in the tree line, Bicknell says. “With the naked eye, we could see that” the forts “were full of men, and who were no friends of ours.”

If ordered to charge “across that plain … a full mile,” the Union infantrymen would encounter “death and disaster,” Bicknell realizes. “I do not think any hearts were very light or buoyant” that Saturday afternoon.

At 3 p.m., Col. Emory Upton orders his brigade “to the front in line of battle,” the 5th Maine’s Col. Clark Edwards notes. The 5th Maine forms on the right (west), the 121st New York on the left (east), with the 95th and 96th Pennsylvania infantry regiments aligning behind them. Upton does not explain his intentions to the rank-and-file, the worried men emerging from the trees to advance “directly toward the enemy’s works,” Bicknell says.

“What could it mean?” he voices every Union boy’s thoughts in that long line “numbering less than six hundred men. “Surely, we were not expected to take the whole rebel army, or wrest some of its brightest jewels from it.

Artist Edwin Forbes painted a Union soldier on picket duty at Rappahannock Station in January 1864. After pushing Confederate pickets into their defenses at the whistle stop late day on Nov. 7, 1863, the 5th Maine deployed similar pickets to watch for an enemy counterattack. (Library of Congress)

On Nov. 10, Hays will report that “the enemy’s whole line advanced, supported … by two lines,” starting at 2:30 p.m. His attention focused on three Union corps maneuvering toward nearby Kelly’s Ford, Robert E. Lee believes the Yankees approaching his Rappahannock Station bridgehead are a feint; he does not expect a serious fight to develop there.

So Hays pulls his men into their defenses; “at 3 o’clock our skirmishers fell back on the road, distant about a hundred yards from our works,” he recalls. There the skirmishers “remained for a half hour, when they were compelled to retire by a movement of the enemy.”

As the Confederate skirmishers withdraw, “steadily our boys advanced … and, at heart, defiantly,” Bicknell says. Every yard the Union boys expect enemy artillery to open fire, first with shell, then with shot, and finally with canister if the Yankees move within sufficient range.

Confederate guns fire only “an occasional shell or shot,” the surprised Edwards notices.

With the 5th Maine’s right flank all but anchored on the Rappahannock, Upton’s regiments push southeast. This “movement of the enemy” forces Hays to shift the 5th and 7th Louisiana infantries southwest, thus thinning the Confederate defenses already threatened to the east by other Federal regiments, including the 6th Maine.

Crossing the pontoon bridge at 4 p.m., Hays “took command of the brigade” and “found heavy firing progressing between the enemy’s skirmishers and our lines.” He immediately sends for help; “about 4:30 o’clock [Brig. Gen. Robert] Hoke’s brigade, under the command of Colonel [Archibald] Godwin, crossed the river,” Hays recalls.

He inserts Godwin’s three regiments — the 6th, 54th, and 57th North Carolina infantries — into the defenses overlooking the pontoon bridge. Anchored to the North Carolinians’ left flank is the 5th Louisiana; holding the fort immediately to the east (and on the North Carolinians’ right flank) are the 8th and 9th Louisiana infantries.

Next week: Cold steel emerges through the gunsmoke

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.