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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.