Day after day in the latter half of April 1863, inclement weather and heavy rain delayed the departure of Maj. Gen. George Stoneman and his Army of the Potomac cavalry on a deep-penetration into central Virginia, behind the lines of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Only after an April 27 chewing out by Joe Hooker and a long slog through “the darkness of the night” and “a dense fog” on April 28 did the general and his troopers reach the Rapphannock River around 8 a.m. on Wednesday, April 29, Stoneman later wrote.
High water limited the cavalry to Kelly’s Ford; “by dint of great exertion we succeeded in getting all over the river by 5 p.m.,” he noted. As the daylight faded, he “assembled the division and brigade commanders, spread our maps, and had a thorough understanding of what we were to do, and where we each to go.”
Crossing the ford on a pontoon bridge, the troopers of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment reached an unofficial bivouac “about midnight” and settled down with “no fires or noise being allowed,” said Corp. Edward Parsons Tobie Jr. of Co. G. “The men in each set of fours alternated in holding the four [saddled] horses by the bridles while the other three slept” as “a cold, drizzling rain was falling.”
The cavalry incursion written into history as Stoneman’s Raid began “at daylight next morning,” he observed. As the column passed through a countryside “clothed in the brightest of spring green,” the 1st Maine rode as rear guard.
The regiment was part of the 1st Brigade (Col. Judson Kilpatrick) of the 3rd Division (Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg).
For the next several days, the Union riders ran amuck behind Confederate lines. Troopers pilfered “hundreds of fine hams” from Virginia larders and stole forage for the horses, according to Tobie. “The country was new to the boys and showed no marks of war’s devastation,” hence an abundance of food stuffs.
On May 1, companies F and K and a 2nd New York squadron went a scout that rounded up “a dozen prisoners, eleven horses, and a mule,” Tobie said. Confederate counter fire caused no casualties.
Gregg’s 3rd Division reached “Louisa Court-House, on the Virginia Central Railroad … about 2 a.m., May 2,” Stoneman noted. Weary troopers “immediately commenced tearing up” the railroad tracks and “destroying the telegraph.”
With “the whole force united” at the courthouse by 10 a.m., Stoneman dispatched Capt. Benjamin Tucker and companies B and I of the 1st Maine Cavalry “toward Gordonsville, to find out the whereabouts of the enemy.” Tucker and his men plowed into 9th Virginia Cavalry pickets and chased them almost to their regimental camp.
Some 500 Confederate troopers boiled after the retreating Mainers and trapped them on the road. A wild melee ensued; Tucker and some Mainers applied swords and revolvers to cut through the enemy and escape, and the 1st Maine suffered its only losses during Stoneman’s Raid: one trooper killed, another wounded, an officer and 23 enlisted men captured.
Splitting his command, Stoneman sent heavily armed fragments hither and yon to destroy rail and road bridges, tear up railroad tracks and telegraph lines, burn railroad buildings and trains, and cause whatever havoc necessary to lure Robert E. Lee from Fredericksburg. Sending only cavalry to pursue the Union riders, the Gray Fox focused on Hooker’s army, by now bogged down at Chancellorsville.
Plagued by the rain and enemy guerrillas, Stoneman’s exhausted riders and horses reached Kelly’s Ford late on May 7. Thursday’s dawn revealed a Rappahannock River “not over 20 yards” wide and flooded, but “we immediately began the crossing,” Stoneman reported.
The dirt-colored, fast-flowing water swept men from their swimming horses, animals floundered in that 20-yard stretch, and Stoneman expressed satisfaction at losing only “1 man and 5 or 6 horses—drowned.”
Ultimately Stoneman’s Raid produced little of strategic value. Skilled Confederate repair crews rebuilt bridges and restored rail-and-telegraph service.
Generating press coverage North and South, the raid intangibly marked its Union participants. “The First Maine Cavalry was part and parcel of this expedition,” Tobie explained. Despite hardships and a frightening lack of sleep, the Maine boys had accomplished everything expected of them.
“It was ever after a matter of pride with the boys that they were on ‘Stoneman’s Raid,’” Tobie said.
The 1st Maine troopers had found their moxie.
Sources: Capt. Charles W. Ford, Charge of the First Maine Cavalry at Brandy Station, War Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Maine, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. 2; Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg, OR, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part I, Chap. XXXVII, No. 5; Edward Parsons Tobie, History of the First Maine Cavalry, 1861-1865; Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, OR, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part I, Chap. XXXVII, No. 1
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.