Maine cavalrymen charge across a bridge and bring home the bacon

Re-enactors portraying the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment wheel their horses while maneuvering at Gettysburg in September 2014. By spring 1863, the 1st Maine Cavalry was well drilled, and its troopers were looking for a fight. They would see more than their fill from mid-April to late July. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

The first serious 1863 skirmish between the 1st Maine Cavalry and Confederate troops resulted in a 1-0 win for the Maine boys, ham-wise.

Leaving their winter camp near Belle Plain, Virginia on Monday, April 13, 1863, troopers of the 1st Maine rode almost 20 miles to camp at Deep Run, then pushed upriver on Tuesday, April 14 to Rappahannock Station on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Running from Alexandria on the Potomac River generally south by southwest to a junction with the Virginia Central Railroad at Gordonsville, the O&A spanned the Rappahannock south of the eponymous station, an antebellum whistle-stop.

Confederate troops had rebuilt the railroad bridge burned by retreating Union troops in late summer 1862. Now Southern infantrymen held a redoubt and rifle pits along the west bank near the bridge.

Outlined in gray, the Orange & Alexandria Railroad initially ran from Alexandria on the Potomac River to intersect the Virginia Central Railroad at Gordonsville. The dashes identify a proposed extension to Lynchburg that was completed in 1860. The railroad spanned the Rappahannock River in a region that became very familiar to 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment troopers.

Upon reaching Rappahannock Station, 1st Maine troopers tangled with enemy pickets in a cross-river firefight. Deciding to focus Confederate attention on the bridge while Union troops crossed the Rappahannock elsewhere, Union cavalry commander Maj. Gen. George Stoneman ordered a two-pronged Maine attack.

Two companies splashed across the downriver Cow’s Ford. Enemy soldiers opened fire; amidst the banging and smoke, Capt. Benjamin F. Tucker and 40 dismounted cavalrymen “charged across” the bridge “directly in the face of the enemy’s fire,” noted Chaplain Samuel H. Merrill of Portland, who would not join the 1st Maine until late in the war.

“The action was short, sharp, and decisive” and resulted in Tucker and his men liberating “a fine pig” slain for Southern suppers, he said. “It was hardly dead when our boys arrived to take charge of it.”

Maine cavalrymen would start skirmishing with will ’o the wisp Virginia guerrillas and far-ranging Confederate cavalry within days, and that fine pork supper would be forgotten.

Artist Adolph Metzner sketched pigs living on a Rogersville, Alabama farm on June 25, 1862. Foraging Union troops always enjoyed bringing home the bacon, whether on the hoof or already killed and cut up. Charging across a Virginia bridge in mid-April 1863 to roust Confederates defending the far river bank, 1st Maine Cavalry troopers brought back one prisoner: a slaughtered hog. (Library of Congress)

New troopers like John Parris Sheahan, a private in Co. K, received a torrential campaign baptism after officers and non-coms rousted sleeping 1st Maine troopers at their Rappahannock Station bivouac at 4 a.m., Wednesday, April 15. “A drenching rain” poured across Fauquier County as the Maine lads stood “ready to start” at 5 a.m., Corp. Edward Parsons Tobie Jr. of Co. G noticed.

“Five hours slowly passed before the word came,” Tobie groused. Men “hung around the bivouac fires, growing wetter and wetter and colder and colder every moment, trying … to keep comfortable and cheerful.”

At 9 a.m. the 1st Maine slopped forth as “rear guard for the [brigade’s wagon] train,” Tobie said. “The rain still poured, the roads were very muddy.”

Sheahan had joined the 1st Maine out of patriotic duty in August 1862. Now he learned quickly about serious campaigning on this miserable day. Horses received food and care before their riders ate and slept, and whether or not the enlisted men suffered, the generals did not care.

In time the novice Sheahan realized the dirty little Army of the Potomac secret not revealed in pro-Lincoln administration newspapers: Let the men suffer as long as the fighting brought certain ambitious officers glory and promotion.

Ordered to camp at dusk on April 15 at “the edge of some pine woods, where the trees shed more water than the skies were doing,” Maine troopers transformed “a ‘beautiful rail fence’” into “little piles … ready to be made into cheerful fires,” Tobie recalled.

An order came down from on high “to build no fires at all” lest Confederates across the river see the smoke, Tobie said. Sheahan, a faithful church attendee, probably heard “some violation of the anti-profanity order, and a right smart of growling.”

Dubbing their bivouac “Camp Misery,” Sheahan and Tobie et al proved the Maine troopers could not get so cold, so wet, so hungry, or so tired but they could laugh and sing,” Tobie chuckled.

Sources: Edward Parsons Tobie, History of the First Maine Cavalry, 1861-1865, First Maine Cavalry Association, Emery & Hughes, Boston, 1887; Samuel H. Merrill, The Campaigns of the First Maine and First District of Columbia Cavalry, Bailey & Noyes, Portland, Maine, 1866

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