Washington County will bleed at Rappahannock Station, part 1

Charles Clark, the young adjutant of the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment, participated in the Nov. 7, 1863 nighttime assault on a Confederate bridgehead at Rappahannock Station, Va. His account is one of the more detailed reports of the battle that destroyed his regiment.

Washington County will bleed this Saturday, Nov. 7, 1863.

Partially concealed in a thick forest just north of the Rappahannock River, the men of Co. D, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment, check their gear as Capt. Reuel Furlong awaits the signal to form his company into line and advance toward the enemy.

Wherever Furlong stands, his men can see him; at 6 foot-6, he towers above a regiment well-known for its tall, muscular lumberjacks, farmers, mill workers, sailors, and fishermen. Furlong was a Calais schoolteacher when local men formed Co. D in early summer 1861.

Elected lieutenant, Furlong has served well with Co. D. Despite his intimidating height, his pleasant disposition earned him the nickname “Gentle Giant.” In the past year he has fought at Fredericksburg (twice) and Chancellorsville and has seen the aftermath of Gettysburg, where the 6th Maine arrived too late to fight.

But the regiment must fight this pleasant November day deep in central Virginia. Bobby Lee pulled his boys south across the Rappahannock last month. The only Rebels this side of the river hold a bridgehead on the river’s north bank at Rappahannock Station, a nondescript whistle stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

Union Gen. George Gordon Meade dispatches his V and VI corps to eliminate the bridgehead. Commanded by Lt. Col. Benjamin Harris of Machias, the 6th Maine belongs to the 3rd Brigade led by Col. Peter Ellmaker. The brigade belongs to VI Corps’ 1st Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. David Russell.

Departing its camps near Warrenton about 7 a.m. on Nov. 7, the division marches south “a distance of a dozen miles or such matter,” says 6th Maine adjutant Charles Clark of Sangerville.

The 3rd Brigade reaches the tree line north of the Confederate defenses between noon and 1 p.m. Ellmaker soon orders Harris to deploy his 6th Maine boys as skirmishers; “then I knew we were in for it,” 2nd Lt.. John Honey of Co. B and Amherst informs his father later.

Splitting the regiment, Harris tells Maj. George Fuller of Corinth to take five companies and probe the Confederate defenses. From west to east (or right to left), companies A, F, D, I, and C debouche from the trees; “we advanced over a broad and open plain,” Clark says.

Skirmishers from the 4th New York Infantry Regiment approach Confederate defenses at Rappahannock Station, Va. in this sketch by artist Edwin Forbes. The 6th Maine Infantry deployed in similar fashion toward these defenses on Nov. 7, 1863. (Library of Congress)

As they move south, Furlong and his Co. D boys gaze across rolling terrain stretching about a mile to the redoubts. The veterans in the ranks don’t like what they see.

To the left (east), Co. C brushes against the torn-up railroad, the de facto boundary between the V and VI corps. The railroad angles southwest to the Rappahannock; there, on the river bank just west of the burned railroad bridge, the 6th Louisiana Infantry defends trenches that extend west to two redoubts.

The 9th Louisiana Infantry holds the eastern redoubt, the 8th Louisiana the western redoubt. From the redoubts’ ramparts peer four rifled cannons belonging to the Louisiana Guard Artillery, commanded by Capt. Charles Green.

Beyond the western redoubt, the Rappahannock curves southwest; additional rifle pits and trenches parallel the river and end where it gradually curves northwest. Two more Louisiana regiments, the 5th and 7th, defend these positions.

A pontoon bridge connects the bridgehead to the south bank.

The bridgehead’s defenders belong to the “Louisiana Tigers” brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays. Lee believes the troops now enveloping Rappahannock Station represent a feint, so Hays need not worry about a serious attack.

The 6th Maine skirmishers advance about 2:30 p.m. Muskets pop and gun smoke swirls as the Confederate and Union skirmishers trade shots and casualties.

Even as “the enemy were steadily pressed back toward their entrenchments,” Clark sees the 6th Maine’s line falling apart; some companies move faster than others, and gaps open among them.

Spotting the sloppy skirmish line, an irritated Russell tells Clark to ride “out to rectify the poor alignment.” Confederates target him; “my horse was shot under me and I was only too glad to make my way back on foot after accomplishing my mission,” Clark admits.

A Confederate shell hits Co. C; Harris will later report Pvt. James Bradbury as “killed” and privates William Elderkin and Jeremiah Hennessey as “severely” wounded. Skirmishing steadily through the afternoon, the 6th Maine boys reach a position some 400 yards from the redoubts, or so 1st Sgt. William Coan of Co. H and Dexter estimates.

Sometime during the afternoon, the Co. C boys discover that the nearest V Corps skirmishers beyond the railroad bed belong to the 20th Maine and that Capt. Walter Morrill commands them. He has already earned martial immortality at Gettysburg, where Morrill and Co. B emerged from the woods just east of Little Round Top and fired an accurate volley into retreating Alabamians.

Other Mainers are here at Rappahannock Station, too. The 121st New York anchors the 6th Maine’s right (west) flank, and beyond the New Yorkers spreads the 5th Maine.

Reports filter across the river to the nervous Hays; at 4 p.m. he crosses the pontoon bridge to join his Tigers. At 4:30 p.m. the North Carolina brigade commanded by Col. Archibald Godwin crosses the Rappahannock to reinforce the bridgehead.

Daylight wanes, and soldiers in blue and gray expect the fighting to fade with nightfall. Hays has Lee’s assurances that Meade’s main assault will fall elsewhere; the pesky Yanks potshotting at the Louisianans will surely withdraw after dark.

Then, “just at dusk” Russell “received orders to assault the entrenchments,” the startled Clark learns. “The other wing of our regiment (companies B, E, G, H, and K) was deployed with those already on the skirmish line[,] making a double line of skirmishers.”

He estimates that the Confederate defenders number “more than two thousand infantry,” plus the “four field pieces.” Clark knows the 6th Maine numbers only 342 men (321 enlisted men and 21 officers) today. Looking across the darkening plain, he realizes that no other Union regiment has deployed to support the undermanned 6th Maine, which must attack the redoubts alone.

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.