Joshua Chamberlain goes on a strange tramp

Soaked by the pouring rain and bogged down in the Virginia mud, Union troops cross the Rappahannock River during the infamous “Mud March” in late January 1863. Three weeks earlier, Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Infantry participated in a strange cross-river reconnaissance involving the Rappahannock. (Library of Congress)

Note: This post is adapted from the wartime biography of Joshua L. Chamberlain that I am writing for Emerging Civil War.

Not content to let his battered soldiers rest after Fredericksburg, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside sent an entire division, including Lt. Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Infantry, on a weird cross-country tramp at year’s end 1862.

After losing four men killed and 32 wounded at Fredericksburg, the 20th Maine lads had returned to their Stoneman’s Switch camp in Stafford County and built rough cabins as wintertime shelter.

Campaigning usually ended with snow and freezing temps, but a strange Ambrose Burnside order came to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (Center Grand Division). Relayed via chief of staff Maj. Gen. John Parke and dated December 29, the order directed Hooker to send a division to Richards’ Ford on the Rappahannock River’s north branch.

The division would march one brigade here and other brigades there, and “if found practicable,” a brigade would cross at Richards’ and march up the Rappahannock to “return by Ellis’ Ford.”

Marching from their camp near Falmouth (right), the 20th Maine Infantry and its division spent Dec. 30, 1862-Jan. 1, 1863 tramping to the North Fork of the Rappahannock River (left, center), crossing, and moving a few miles upriver before returning to the Union side. (The Atlas to Accompany the Official Records)

Located west beyond Union lines, Richards’ Ford lay just above the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers’ confluence. His II Corps mauled at Fredericksburg, Hooker tapped the V Corps’ 1st Division. With commander Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin unavailable, Col. James Barnes took the division upriver on Tuesday afternoon, December 30 with three days’ rations and a full supply of ammunition.”

Joined by the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery (1st Lt. Benjamin Rittenhouse), and 12 ambulances, the division marched on the Hartwood Church Road. At Hartwood Church, Barnes picked up a hundred 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry troopers sent the 2nd Brigade (Col. Jacob Sweitzer) and Battery D toward Morrisville. After clearing trees felled as Confederate roadblocks, the 1st and 3rd brigades bivouacked near Richards’ Ford at 11 p.m. “in a dense wilderness,” recalled a 118th Pennsylvania soldier.

New Year’s Eve dawned “cold, dull,” and the Union boys rousted at 5 a.m., ate breakfast, and got on the road around 8 a.m. Leaving his wheeled vehicles where more trees blocked the road, Barnes took his infantry through the thick forest and pushed forward the sharpshooters.

Gunfire erupted. Expecting to find Confederate infantry at Richards’ Ford, Barnes had scouted its approaches and discovered only eight-10 troopers from the 1st South Carolina Cavalry “occupying a house near the river.” His sharpshooters fired “some ten minutes,” and Barnes sent cavalry and the 1st Brigade across the ford.

Wading waist deep, the Union infantry emerged as “their clothing was frozen stiff” in the cold, the Pennsylvanian recalled. Retreating Southern cavalry briefly fired from “a fine old Virginia mansion, occupied by a farmer and his three daughters.”

Union infantry returned fire. A bullet struck a daughter in a thigh, a surgeon patched her up, and the Union expedition marched 6-7 miles along the Confederate-held shore to Ellis’ Ford.

Chamberlain and the 20th Maine lads would have noticed the abandoned enemy camps and heard the brief gunfire resulting in a captured Virginia mail carrier, his mail bag an intelligence gold mine. Union cavalry crossing Ellis’ Ford from the opposite shore chased off South Carolinian pickets and soon ran into Barnes’ column, which waded the cold Rappahannock about 3 p.m. Clothing re-froze before men lit fires and cooked their rations.

Some units returned to their Stafford County camps on Wednesday. Marching away with the 1st Brigade and the cavalry, Barnes left the 3rd Brigade “as a reserve” on January 1, then recalled it later that day.

During their 22-mile march, the weary 3rd Brigade boys flushed from the woods “a great flock of docks” inadvertently impersonating Confederate infantry. Reaching their Stoneman’s Switch camp, the 20th Maine lads probably scratched their heads and wondered what the reconnaissance had accomplished.

Sources: Col. James Barnes, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 21, Part 1, Chapter XXXIII, p. 742, also pp. 897, 922; History of the Corn Exchange Regiment From Their First Engagement at Antietam to Appomattox, Survivors’ Association, J.L. Smith Publisher, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1888, pp. 152-157

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Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

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