Rappahannock Station (November 7, 1863)


Artist Alfred Waud called this drawing "Capture of the fortifications on the Rappahannock at the Railway Bridge--by the right wing commanded by Genl. Sedgwick" (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

Artist Alfred Waud called this drawing “Capture of the fortifications on the Rappahannock at the Railway Bridge–by the right wing commanded by Genl. Sedgwick” (Library of Congress). Click to enlarge.

In his letter of November 7, 1863, Theodore Lyman describes the Army of the Potomac’s small but unexpected triumph at a spot called Rappahannock Station. Today the small village alongside the river is called Remington, but it’s been a place of many names. First a riverside gristmill gave it the name of Millview. In 1850 it became Bowenville, after a prominent resident. Three years later the arrival of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad rechristened it Rappahannock Station. In 1890 the post office requested a change because of confusion with a town called Tappahannock. A Captain Remington was supposedly a popular conductor on the railroad, so the residents decided to name it after him.

Back in 1863 Meade’s plan called for William French and the III Corps to cross the Rappahannock River downstream at ever-busy Kelly’s Ford. At the same time John Sedgwick, in overall command of the V and VI Corps (with Brig. Gen. Horatio Wright taking immediate command of Sedgwick’s corps), would attack the rebel breastworks at Rappahannock Station. Most of the Confederate army lay in wait on the other side of the river, but the rebels had constructed a strong advance position on the north bank, using entrenchments that Union soldiers had constructed earlier in the war. For once, not only did everything go according to plan, but everything went better than anyone dared hope. On the morning of November 7 French successfully crossed the river at Kelly’s Ford. At Rappahannock Station, the VI Corps approached the Confederate works to the right of the railroad, with the V Corps to the left. Then the men of the VI Corps began charging the rebel lines at double-quick and rushed over the works like a tsunami. The first man over the Confederate breastworks was supposedly a sergeant from the 6th Maine, who looked around, realized he was surrounded by rebel troops, and shouted that he surrendered. Then he saw other men from his regiment jumping over the works behind him. “I take it back!” he cried and snatched up an enemy flag. The fighting was fierce and concentrated until elements of the V Corps attacked from the flank and rear, shattering the rebel defenses. Night fell and the battle was over. It was a sudden and unexpected victory, with the Federals having killed, wounded, or captured more than sixteen hundred Confederates.

 . . . This morning, forward march! horse, foot, and artillery, all streaming towards Dixie; weather fresh and fine, nothing to mar but a high wind, and, in some places, clouds of dust. Everyone was hearty; there was General [Alexander] Hays, in bed with rheumatism, but he hopped up, and got on his horse, remarking that, “if there were any Rebs to catch, he was all well.” Our last Headquarters were on the Warrenton branch railroad, half a mile north of it and three miles from Warrenton Junction. This morning, about 8.30, when all the troops were reported under way, the General started and rode, first to Warrenton Junction, and then down the railroad, towards the Rappahannock. At a rising ground, where a smoke-stained chimney marked the ruins of “Bealton,” we halted. Hence we could see a considerable distance, in both directions, and here was canny [Gouverneur] Warren, waiting while his corps filed past, his little black eyes open to everything, from the grand movements of the entire army down to the inscription on my swordguard, which he immediately detected, and read with much gravity. The last I saw of him he climbed on his big white horse and remarked with a wink: “As soon as I get there, I shall bring on a general action, right off.” It was here that I had quite a surprise. Looking through my glass at General [Alexander] Webb’s division, I detected two civilians, in English-looking clothes, riding with the Staff. As they approached, it seemed to me that the face of one was familiar; and as they rode up, behold, to be sure, the Hon. Mr. Yorke, who was our fellow passenger and played on the fiddle and admired the baby! He was in the Royal Artillery, you know, and had come down to see what he could. And there he was, much covered with dust, but cheerful and pleasant to the last.

A view of the modern railroad bridge across the Rappahannock at Remington. In 1863 this was Rappahannock Station and the bridge had been burned (Tom Huntington photo).

A view of the modern railroad bridge across the Rappahannock at Remington. In 1863 this was Rappahannock Station and the bridge had been burned (Tom Huntington photo).

It was a fine sight to see the great, black columns of infantry, moving steadily along, their muskets glittering in the sun (for the day was quite perfect as to clearness), and then the batteries on the flank, and, in the rear, the train of ambulances preceded by their yellow flag. As the masses drew near, they resolved themselves, first into brigades, then into regiments, and then you could distinguish the individual soldiers, covered with dust and bending under their heavy packs, but trudging manfully along, with the patient air of old sojers. And so we kept on to these Headquarters; but we were only half way (at 1.30), when bang! bang! we heard the cannon, in the direction of Rappahannock station. It was General Sedgwick attacking the enemy’s works on this side of the river. We had not got a mile, when whang! whang! in another direction, announced General French preparing to force Kelly’s Ford. For, at these two points, among others, we proposed to cross and wake up our Uncle Lee. The gallant General did not wait to play long shots or throw pontoon bridges. An entire division took to the water, forded the river, in face of the enemy, and, charging up the opposite bank, took 300 prisoners. The Rebs threw forward a supporting division, but the crafty French had established guns on this side of the river, that suddenly opened on them and drove them back. All the afternoon Sedgwick has been engaged against the rifle-pits and a redoubt, that the enemy held on this side of the river. Quite late, we got a despatch that he had driven them from their rifle-pits, and we thought he had done pretty well for an afternoon. But, just at dusk, the distant roll of musketry indicated that he was assaulting; and a telegraph has just come, that he has taken the redoubt with four cannon, and some prisoners; I do not yet know how many. So we go to sleep, encouraged and hopeful. Our losses I do not know, but they can hardly be much, as but a portion has been engaged. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 42-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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