previous next

Doc. 133.-General Custer's expedition toward Charlottesville, Va.

Culpeper Court-house, Va., Wednesday Morning, March 2, 1864.
General Custer's reconnoitring expedition returned to camp last night after having completed, when the time employed and the numerical force engaged is considered, one of the most daring raids of the war.

In my despatch of Monday I mentioned the fact that the expedition, which consisted of detachments from the First, Second, and Fifth United States, Sixth Ohio, Sixth Pennsylvania, First New-York, and First New-Jersey cavalry, in all, one thousand five hundred men, passed through Madison Court-House early that morning. One section of Captain French's battery, commanded by Lieutenant Porter, accompanied the cavalry.

The troops were in light marching order, and moved rapidly toward Stannardsville, distant south-west from Madison twelve miles, crossing the Rapidan at Banks's Mills Ford. At Stannardsville the enemy's pickets were discovered, who retired precipitately before our advance. Meeting with no opposition, General Custer pushed forward to the Rivanna River, crossing at Berner's Bridge, a long wooden structure spanning the river at a point distant three or four [569] miles from Charlottesville, which place he had received orders to reach if possible. The rebel pickets on the opposite bank withdrew over the hills as our force crossed, and soon after the enemy opened with artillery, without, however, doing any injury to our men, who were sheltered by the hills on the other side of the river.

Owing to the peculiar topography of the country, which was wooded and hilly, the exact location of the enemy was not at first discovered, and a squadron of the First regulars was deployed up the river on our right to reconnoitre the enemy's position, while a squadron of the Fifth regulars, under command of Captain Ash, was sent down the river on our left for a similar purpose. Discovering an artillery camp some distance down the river, Captain Ash, with his squadron, consisting of. only sixty men, immediately charged it, destroying the huts, blowing up six caissons, and burning two battery-forges, together. with a quantity of harness belonging to the battery.

Captain Ash's gallantry, and the bravery of his men in accomplishing this feat in the face of a rebel cavalry brigade (Wickham's) drawn up in the woods not over three hundred yards distant, are universally mentioned in terms of the highest commendation. The enemy seemed entirely at fault as to our strength, and for some time made no direct advance. Flanking columns of infantry were afterward seen, however, moving on our right and left, and General Custer, having ascertained to his satisfaction that Wickham's brigade of cavalry, together with a considerable force of infantry, were in his immediate front, seeing the hopelessness of advancing further in that direction, determined to recross the river. While on the other side of the river, five trains of cars were distinctly heard at Charlottesville, undoubtedly bringing up reinforcements. On crossing to the north bank of the river, the bridge, together with a large flouring-mill, was burned by order of General Custer.

The utter impracticability of reaching Charlottesville with his insignificant force being apparent, General Custer retired-his column up the Stannardsville road, halting soon after dusk to feed the horses, jaded by their march of over forty miles. Several faint charges were made on our rear-guard by a small pursuing party, but no casualties were sustained by our men.

Owing to the hilly nature of the country and the bad condition of the roads, it was found necessary to halt for the night eight miles south of Stannardsville, in order to recuperate the exhausted artillery-horses.

Lieutenant-Colonel Stedman, of the Sixth Ohio, commanding the detachment of five hundred men from General Gregg's division, being in advance of the main body and ignorant of the fact that the column had halted, continued the march toward Madison Court-House, arriving there some time during the night. Orderlies were despatched by General Custer to Colonel Stedman, directing him to return, but owing to the darkness of the night and the distance Colonel Stedman had advanced beyond the main column, they were unable to intercept him.

By this, General Custer was left with only one thousand men, nearly twenty miles from any infantry support, and in extreme danger of being intercepted and cut off by a vastly superior force of the enemy. Understanding the peril of this isolated condition, General Custer was prepared for any emergency which might arise. Should he be intercepted and find himself unable to retire by the road he went out, he was prepared to strike to the northward into the Luray Valley, returning through one of the gaps of the Blue Ridge. The skilful manner in which he subsequently completely outgeneraled the enemy, rendered this route unnecessary.

Early yesterday morning the column began its march toward Madison Court-House, being but slightly harassed by the enemy, who seemed to be manoeuvring not for the specific purpose of fighting, but with the intention of surrounding and capturing General Custer's whole party. A short distance below Banks's Mills, the point at which General Custer intended to recross the Rapidan, is Burton's Ford, from which is a road running north-west, and striking the Stannardsville road two miles from the river. At the junction of these roads, on an eminence, a large force of rebel cavalry was discovered posted. They were immediately charged and driven back in confusion on the Burton's Ford road, while our artillery, which was soon placed in position on the hill formerly occupied by them, poured in a well-directed fire upon them, the first shell killing three of the enemy.

In the first charge, thirty rebel prisoners were taken, who stated that the whole of Wickham's brigade, commanded by Stuart in person, was in our front, the major portion being at Banks's Mills Ford awaiting Custer's approach. Without a moment's hesitation, General Custer conceived and executed a plan for his extrication from his perilous situation. Ordering another charge upon the enemy on the Burton's Ford road, and leading it in person, as he is wont to do, he again drove back the rebels still further toward the Ford, until their allies at Banks's Mills, comprehending the danger of their friends' position, and believing Custer determined to cross at Burton's Ford, came down the river to their support. It was then that Custer's tactics became apparent to the astonished enemy.

Facing his battle-lines by the flank, his whole force was almost instantly moving down the road with the speed of the wind toward the Stannardsville road, which striking, he wheeled to the left, and reaching Banks's Mills Ford, recrossed the river, thus completely eluding the mass of the enemy, who seemed confident of “gobbling” his whole command. The tactical ability displayed by General Custer, is spoken of in the most complimentary terms.

There can now be no impropriety in disclosing the object of the late movement. It is doubtless generally known that the reconnaissance by Custer, supported by infantry, was a simple diversion [570] in favor of Kilpatrick, who has not yet returned from his raid in the direction of Richmond. That the attention of the enemy has, to a considerable degree, been drawn to the left wing of Lee's army by Custer's demonstration, is confirmed by rebel prisoners, who report their officers to have been in a great state of trepidation, believing a monster raid in progress on their left. Confirmation is also had in the fact that a large number of troops were concentrated around Charlottesville to resist our advance.

Among our captures are sixty prisoners and a number of valuable horses. Three flouring-mills, six caissons, two forges, a complete set of artillery-harness, and eight wagons loaded with commissary stores, were destroyed during the raid. Captain Paine, of the Topographical Engineers, accompanied the expedition for the purpose of making observations, and gained very important and valuable information appertaining to his department. We lost none in killed, and but ten or twelve wounded. We lost none in prisoners.

Another account.

headquarters Second Rhode-Island volunteers, Brandy Station, March 8, 1864.
On Friday evening, the twenty-sixth ultimo, our entire corps, the Sixth, together with the Third division of the Third, received orders to be prepared to move early on Saturday morning with five days rations and forty rounds of ammunition. All baggage, stores and tents were to be left, and the weak and sick were to remain as camp-guards. Already our pickets had been relieved by the First division of the Third corps, and the extra rations issued. We at once concluded that this was no false alarm. Saturday morning came, as bright and beautiful as ever winter saw. The roads were in splendid condition, the men in good trim, and all was propitious. Off we started at the appointed time, moving by way of Culpeper in the direction of Madison. James City, a point ten miles west of Culpeper, and sixteen miles from camp, was reached by half-past 4 P. M., and here we bivouacked for the night. The grassy plains and groves of pine around were fired, and the bands played their liveliest airs. The Sabbath dawned with promise, and the sun smiled propitiously as we moved forward to Robertson's River, which was reached by the advance at eleven A. M. Here the cavalry pickets of the enemy were met, but hastily betook themselves to the sunny side of the Rapid Ann. The Jersey brigade was pushed forward to Madison Court-House, two miles beyond the river, and our brigade thrown across to occupy the heights. The Second Rhode Island was put on picket. As upon the previous night, and all that day, large fires were built over extended tracts of country, and the bands, both at Madison and on the river, entertained the rebels resident thereabouts with national and other patriotic airs, played with full chorus and evident intention to be heard. That night at twelve, General Custer, with two brigades of cavalry and two pieces of artillery, started for Charlottesville by way of Barboursville. Charlottesville is thirty-three miles south-west of Madison. On the way a detached encampment of infantry and artillery was surprised, the camp was destroyed and seven caissons blown up. At a point about four miles north of Charlottesville a superior rebel force, consisting of one entire division of infantry, Stuart's and Fitz-Hugh Lee's cavalry, and twenty pieces of artillery was met, which permanently stopped further progress southward.

After a brief engagement General Custer retreated on the Stannardsville road. Finding himself cut off at Stannardsville by a cavalry force sent out by the enemy for that purpose, only one means of escape offered, which was to cut his way out. This was immediately resolved upon and speedily and brilliantly executed, with the loss of five wounded. About twenty prisoners were here captured, and were brought in, the entire command reaching the infantry lines at Madison about four P. M. on Tuesday. The infantry were all immediately withdrawn to the north side of Robertson's River, and the south side left to the possession of the rebel cavalry who followed closely in small numbers without attempting to molest our rear. We started home again Wednesday morning, reaching our old camp at half-past 4 P. M. Hundreds of contrabands returned along with us, men, women and children, on horseback, in all conceivable sorts of vehicles, drawn by oxen, horses, or mules, as could be obtained for the purpose, or on foot where no conveyance offered. These were “goin norf by de grace of God,” having “been in de souf long enough now.”

The ostensible purpose of the expedition was the destruction of military stores, of which Charlottesville is an extensive depot and the cutting of the railroads concentrating at that point. It succeeded only in destroying the camp and caissons, of which we spoke above, one large turnpike bridge, several flouring-mills with several hundred barrels of flour, and a few other manufactories of various kinds. But while this was the ostensible purpose, the whole character and manner of the move indicates that it was but a feint to draw attention and forces in this direction while other and more important movements are made elsewhere.

Another account.

Washington, March 2, 1864.
General Custer, with one thousand five hundred picked men, in light marching order, left Culpeper Court-House about two o'clock on Sunday afternoon.

The Sixth and Third corps marched from their winter quarters earlier in the day. The former halted at Madison Court-House, and threw out a strong cordon of pickets, while the latter bivouacked in the neighborhood of James City, and held the line of Robertson's road. About two A. M., on Monday, the raiders left their resting place near James City, and took the road for Charlottesville.

The men had been picked from Merritt's and [571] Gregg's divisions, and were well mounted. When they marched up the steep banks of the Rivanna River their coming was unknown, and altogether unexpected. Before us, the correspondent says, was a large cavalry camp, the huts arranged with mathematical precision and soldierly regularity.

On one side the horses were quietly standing; on the other six pieces of artillery were parked, with all the appurtenances neatly arranged, and in close proximity to the caissons. The Fifth regular regiment of General Merritt's old brigade led the van. Captain Ash, with one squadron, dashed among the comfortable-looking huts with reckless precipitancy, and scattered the inmates in all directions.

He ordered the men to destroy all they could, and they obeyed the instructions to the very letter. As neither axes nor rat-tailed files could be found in his command, it was impossible to spike the guns or chop the gun-carriages to pieces, so they contented themselves with blowing up the caissons and destroying the camp. In the mean time the enemy were rallying with the rapidity and zeal of Gauls, at the call of their chief.

Several pieces of artillery were belching forth their destructive notes at the audacious invaders, and the main body of Custer's command coming up, the enemy were driven a short distance, to give us a foothold on the crest of the same hill with themselves. Between our troops and the town the enemy were gathering in great force. Every thing warned us to get away as speedily as possible, lest it might be our lot to get surrounded.

They had telegraphed from Charlottesville to Orange Court-House that uninvited visitors were there, and aid was needed to expel them from the neighborhood. The answer to these despatches came toward evening, in the shape of five car-loads of infantry. There was nothing left us now but speedy retreat. Our horses were wheeled about, and toward sunset the Rivanna was crossed, the bridge burned, and all the mills that could be found in the neighborhood destroyed. In returning, the advance was given to Colonel Stedman, who commands a battalion of five hundred men chosen from General Gregg's division.

The night was dark and the rain, that continued to fall, was mingled with sleet.

Custer, who followed with a thousand men, composing the remnant of his command, got lost in thick gloom. For some time they endeavored to blunder through a deep and muddy ravine, into which they had strayed, but when they thought of two pieces of artillery, all hope of getting through with them was given up. Stedman with his five hundred men continued on their course, which, luckily for them, was correct, and about four o'clock on Tuesday morning they reached our infantry pickets, inside of Madison Court-House. Custer finding it impossible to proceed further, bivouacked that night in the woods, while he baited his horses and refreshed his men.

General Stuart, with two thousand cavalrymen of Wickham's and Fitz-Hugh Lee's brigades, was marching toward his rear. The next morning about nine o'clock General Custer marched toward the right road, and having found it and marched upon it a short distance, discovered that Stuart, with his ragged but indefatigable followers, had succeeded in getting into his rear. As they neared Stannardsville, about fifteen miles from the picturesque little village of Madison, the rebel cavalry were seen drawn in line across the road.

This meant hostility, and for some time the officers of our little command were at a loss what to do. The object of their wearisome and dangerous raid was to draw the rebel cavalry away from the Central road to Richmond, and they had no intention of drawing him so far to their rear. All that bothered our troops was the section of Ransom's battery, and that slightly impeded their progress. In general council it was proposed to throw these two Parrott guns into the nearest and deepest ditch; but Ouster protesting, declared he would fight his way through. Indeed a charge was led by himself in person. The rebels stood their ground manfully, but our two guns now opened on them, and completed their discomfiture, that was fast causing their lines to waver. They fled hastily, and our men pursued them hotly till they reached another road, which afforded no means of egress.

Three rebels were killed in this charge, and a considerable number wounded. Many prisoners fell into our hands, some of whom succeeded in making their escape.

Colonel Stedman hearing the firing in the direction of Stannardsville, and knowing it must arise from an engagement between Custer and the enemy, started back with his wearied men to the relief of the beleaguered party. They proceeded till the enemy was met and Custer discovered to be safe, when they also returned without damage.

This expedition was highly successful. The diversion created in favor of Kilpatrick could not have been greater. The Third and Sixth corps remained on the open field, exposed to all the inclemency of the weather.

At one time General Sedgwick was at a loss how to proceed. No intelligence had been received from Custer.

His troops had consumed their scanty store of supplies, while the clouds assumed a more gloomy aspect. At last every thing was discovered to be progressing favorably, and the infantry are by this time on the homeward march.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Custer (28)
Stedman (5)
Wickham (4)
G. H. Stuart (4)
Ash (4)
Gregg (3)
Ford (3)
Merritt (2)
Fitz-Hugh Lee (2)
Kilpatrick (2)
Sedgwick (1)
Robertson (1)
T. E. G. Ransom (1)
David D. Porter (1)
Parrott (1)
Paine (1)
Ouster (1)
Madison (1)
A. L. Lee (1)
P. M. Hundreds (1)
William H. French (1)
Doc (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
March 2nd, 1864 AD (2)
March 8th, 1864 AD (1)
26th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: