A battlefield was a strange place for the reunion of old friends. The contorted bodies of men who had fallen in combat two days earlier littered the ground around the small group of picnickers who, being soldiers, were able to enjoy their outing despite its macabre setting.
The last time any of the men in the circle of friends had seen each other in peacetime, they had all been obscure, middling officers in the U.S. Army. Now, all wore stars–some on gray uniforms, others on blue. The most famous among them by far was James Ewell Brown Stuart, who little more than a year earlier had been a U.S. Army lieutenant. By the time of the meeting he was a Confederate major general and the most renowned cavalryman on American soil.
With Stuart that blistering afternoon were three Union brigadier generals: George Hartsuff, George Bayard, and Samuel Crawford. Availing themselves of the burial truce after the August 9, 1862, Battle of Cedar Mountain, they had crossed the battlefield to seek out their old army chum. Crawford and Bayard brought a basketful of lunch, a surgeon offered a bottle, and all the officers offered exaggerated descriptions of their wartime exploits (which for Stuart had been considerable, for the Yankees decidedly slim). Stuart proposed a toast to Hartsuff: ‘Here’s hoping you may fall into our hands; we’ll treat you well at Richmond!’ Hartsuff laughed, ‘The same to you.’
Inevitably talk turned to the late battle, in which the Federals had suffered a bloody defeat. Stuart suggested the incorrigible Northern press would find a way to contort Union defeat into glorious victory. Crawford exclaimed that not even the reckless New York Herald could find a way to construe this battle as a victory. Stuart offered a bet: Crawford would owe him a new hat if the Northern press proclaimed the Battle of Cedar Mountain a Union triumph.
A few days later a parcel arrived in Stuart’s camp. It was from Crawford. In it were a copy of the New York Herald and a new plumed hat.
Stuart instantly incorporated the new hat into the rakish wardrobe that had become his trademark and rode off with the rest of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to confront Union Major General John Pope. Only eight weeks had passed since Pope arrived in Virginia to take command of a new Union host, the curiously named Army of Virginia. Pope had so far accomplished little in his new role, except to instill rage in the people of the Old Dominion. Under his hand, Federal troops looted central Virginia farms and arrested civilians; for the first time, the hardships of war invaded Southern parlors. Richmond newspapers labeled Pope ‘an enemy of humanity.’
Robert E. Lee had vowed to’suppress’ the ‘miscreant’ Union general–strong rhetoric from the usually reserved Lee. He aimed not only to rid Virginia of Pope’s noxious policies, but to eliminate the military threat posed by his ever-growing army. Major General George B. McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac was evacuating the Virginia Peninsula. If McClellan’s brigades and batteries managed to join with Pope’s in northern or central Virginia, the Confederates would face daunting, perhaps unbeatable odds. Lee needed to beat Pope before the junction of the two Union armies occurred.
On August 17, 1862, just a week after the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Lee believed he had Pope just where he wanted him. Lee discovered Pope’s army wedged into the ‘V’ formed by the convergence of the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers, the Rapidan in his front, the Rappahannock to his rear. Lee proposed a plan that had potential to destroy the Union army: Stuart’s cavalry would lead the advance across the Rapidan below Pope’s left on the morning of the 18th and ride hard for the bridge at Rappahannock Station, Pope’s main retreat route. Jackson and Long-street would follow and assail Pope’s left flank. With Stuart astride his escape route, Pope would have no choice but to fight at great disadvantage or watch his army scatter.
After receiving his instructions on the evening of the 17th, Stuart rode a few miles with his staff to Verdiersville, a lonely crossroads populated only by a ramshackle hotel and a house owned by a family named Rhodes. At the Rhodes house, Stuart hitched his horse and waited for Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade of cavalry to arrive from Beaver Dam Station on the Virginia Central Railroad, about 30 miles east. Fitzhugh Lee’s troopers were already hours late, and Stuart considered their presence critical to the next morning’s advance. So anxious was he to hear from them that he dispatched a staff member, Major Norman Fitzhugh, down the road to give early word of their approach. With that, Stuart carefully arranged his new hat, cloak, and other accouterments on the porch of the house and went to sleep. He slept soundly, unaware that Union cavalry was at that moment riding toward the Verdiersville crossroads.
By sheer chance, two regiments of Union horsemen on reconnaissance had struck Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan during a brief lapse in Confederate coverage that evening. Shielded by darkness, they advanced undiscovered into Confederate lines south of the river. During their ride so far, the Yankees had encountered only two Confederates, but one of them proved to be an important catch: Major Fitzhugh, Stuart’s lookout. Major Fitzhugh was an important prize for the Federals; in his satchels were General Lee’s orders for the destruction of Pope’s army the next day.
With Major Fitzhugh tucked in the rear of their column, the Federals kept riding. In the dim predawn light they neared Verdiersville along the Orange Plank Road–the very road by which Stuart expected Fitzhugh Lee to arrive that morning.
At the Rhodes house, the rumble of horses’ hooves awoke newly paroled Lieutenant Samuel Gibson. Gibson rushed to awaken a young captain named John Singleton Mosby, who, like Stuart, lay sleeping on the porch. It was probably Lee’s troopers, said Gibson. Mosby roused Stuart, then rode with Gibson down the Orange Plank Road to meet the approaching column. Stuart, bareheaded and anxious to see the wayward Fitzhugh Lee, followed to the Rhodes’s gate. ‘There comes Lee now!’ he exclaimed. Behind him, his Prussian orderly, Heros von Borcke, puttered around the yard. In the house lay a teenage aide, Lieutenant Chiswell Dabney, still reposing.
Unwarily, Mosby and Gibson rode through the misty morning until they could see the shadowy figures of cavalrymen a few hundred yards away. But the distant cavalrymen spotted Mosby and Gibson first, approached quickly to within pistol range, then fired. ‘We knew they were not our friends,’ wrote Mosby. Yankees!
Mosby later recorded that neither he nor Gibson had their weapons, so ‘there was nothing for us to do but wheel and run–which we did–and used our spurs freely.’ The Federals charged behind them. The commotion alerted Stuart, von Borcke, and Dabney. Stuart mounted his horse (leaving his cloak and new hat on the porch), bolted across the yard and leaped the rear fence. Without so much as a glance backward, he galloped toward some nearby woods.
Von Borcke mounted and rode in the opposite direction, through the front gate (which Mrs. Rhodes held open for him), and into the road among the rampaging Yankees. ‘I came directly upon the major commanding the enemy detachment, who placed his pistol at my breast and ordered me to surrender,’ von Borcke remembered. The Prussian slapped his own horse’s head to change his direction and spurred away. The sudden movement startled the Yankee major, who flinched, giving von Borcke the wrinkle of time he needed to escape. At least a few Federals thought von Borcke was Stuart. One Union officer lamented, ‘The Gen. himself [Stuart] escaped through the stupidity of a Major, he being afraid to shoot him.’
Stuart, however, was already in the woods. Mosby, Gibson, and von Borcke were leading the Federals on a wild, mile-long chase westward on the Plank Road. Only one Confederate had yet to make his escape: 18-year-old Chiswell Dabney.
Dabney had rushed out of bed with the first shots; like the others he left all his belongings behind. Then his unique problems began. The night before he had tied his horse to the Rhodes’s fence with a hard knot. Now, with Yankees closing on him, he struggled to free his horse–probably with a good deal of muttered swearing, and surely with the vow he would never again tie his horse so. Precious seconds passed. Federals swirled past on the road and through the yard. The knot finally yielded. Dabney leapt onto his unbridled horse and followed Stuart’s course over the back fence and into the woods.
From the timber he and the general watched as the Federals milled about the Rhodes house. The Yankees seized Dabney’s pistols, bridle, and saber. Mosby, von Borcke, and Gibson lost similar caches. But Stuart lost most painfully of all. Lying on the porch–easy prey for the Yankees–were his cloak, haversack, and, most notably, his new plumed hat. Few scenes of the war so humiliated Stuart: the Yankees made off with the very symbol of the Confederacy’s ‘Bold Dragoon.’
The rest of that day Stuart rode with his head wrapped in a bandanna–perfectly stylish for most cavalrymen, but too common for Stuart. From the ranks came anonymous, jocular, but stinging inquiries: ‘Where’s your hat?’
Von Borcke later confessed, ‘We could not look at each other without laughing, despite our inner rage.’ The jibes were more than Stuart could bear. To his wife he declared, ‘I intend to make the Yankees pay for that hat.’ Four days later he would get the chance.
By far the most important outcome of the adventure at Verdiersville was the Federals’ capture of Major Fitzhugh and the orders from Robert E. Lee. Thus forewarned of the Confederates’ plan for him, Pope chose discretion and retreated behind the Rappahannock, where he could operate with a formidable river in his front and without one at his back. Lee followed and on August 20 commenced a dangerous dance with Pope, searching for a way to get at the troublesome Yankee across the river or at least trap him on the open ground to the east.
On the evening of August 21, Stuart suggested a plan that might give Lee the opportunity he sought. The cavalier would take 1,500 men, cross the Rappahannock above Pope’s right, ride to the Union rear, and cut the main Union supply line along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Stuart had built his reputation on such operations, and this one seemed to offer especial pro-mise. Such a raid, if successful, could force Pope to retreat from the river; it would also give Stuart an opportunity to avenge the loss of his trappings at Verdiersville. Lee approved Stuart’s proposal the morning of the 22d. At 10:00 a.m., adorned in a hat given him by a sutler from Georgia, Stuart led his column north. His first stop: Warrenton.
Since spring the people of Warrenton had suffered the presence of the ‘vile Yankees’ in their town. Just how obnoxious the Yankee presence had been could be measured by the delirium with which the residents greeted their Confederate liberators. ‘We were received most enthusiastically,’ wrote the young Dabney, ‘the ladies nearly going into hysterics with joy & telling us never to take a prisoner.’ The women’showered us with flowers and refreshments of all kinds,’ recorded von Borcke. A memorable afternoon it was for Stuart’s troopers.
At Warrenton, Stuart chose the next and climactic stop on his tour to the rear of Pope’s army: Catlett’s Station. There he would burn the railroad bridge over Cedar Run. This bridge was an important link in Pope’s supply line. Its destruction would disrupt the flow of supplies for days–perhaps long enough to force Pope to yield his position on the river.
As Stuart’s men rode out of Warrenton at about 5:00 p.m., bad luck descended on them in the form of torrential rains. ‘It seemed like a solid mass of water,’ wrote one man. Another remembered that the men were soon ‘as wet as water could make us.’ With sunset, the rains descended even harder, and thunder rolled across the landscape. Stuart called it ‘the darkest night I ever knew.’
About 8:00 p.m. the column approached Catlett’s Station. Stuart sent Captain William Blackford of his staff to have a look. ‘I rode all around the outskirts of their encampment,’ remembered Blackford, ‘and found a vast assemblage of wagons and a city of tents, laid out in regular order and occupied by the luxuriously equipped quartermasters and commissaries….’ More importantly, Blackford found ‘no appearance of any large organized body of troops.’ (His assessment was right. Of the perhaps 500 Yankees at Catlett’s Station, fewer than 200 were armed.) Neither did the Yankees have pickets around the camp’s perimeter.
Still better news came from a servant who had mindlessly wandered into Stuart’s lines. According to a witness, the man than told Stuart that ‘General Pope’s headquarters train was there with all of his official papers, the army treasure chest, and all the personal baggage of the General and his staff.’ (Pope himself was at his headquarters several miles away.) ‘Here was a chance for revenge for the loss of the hat and haversack at Verdiersville,’ Blackford concluded. The captured servant even offered to guide Stuart’s troops to the booty. Stuart accepted his tender, but put him under guard nonetheless, with the promise of ‘kind treatment if faithful, and instant extermination if traitorous.’
The Confederates quietly subdued the few pickets who guarded the camp. Then Stuart unveiled his plan. The 9th Virginia Cavalry under Colonel W.H.F. ‘Rooney’ Lee (Robert E. Lee’s son) would lead the assault into the main camp north of the railroad; another column would ravage the camp south of the tracks. To the men of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, under Colonel Williams C. Wickham, would go the most important task. They would burn the bridge over Cedar Run.
The Confederates took a few minutes to arrange themselves on the edge of the Union camp, their rustling obscured by falling rain and rolling thunder. Stuart rode the line, telling his men to give ‘their wildest ‘Rebel Yell.” Then he turned to his bugler: ‘Sound the charge, Fred.’
The bugler managed barely a note before the dreaded ‘yell’ and the beat of hooves obscured his call. In the Union camp a few Federals reacted to the yell with glee, or only slight annoyance. One Yankee exclaimed, ‘There must be reinforcements coming on the Railroad.’ Another yelled, ‘There must be good news!’ And yet another poked his head out of his tent and yelled, ‘Hold on you —- —-, you are shooting this way!’
The Confederates of course ignored such entreaties. They careered through the camp’scattering out pistol balls promiscuously right and left,’ recorded a jolly staff officer. ‘Supper tables were kicked over and tents broken down in the [Federals’] rush to get out, the tents catching them sometimes in their fall like fish in a net.’ Yankees scattered from their tents toward the woods, some barely dressed, and all thoroughly scared. Chiswell Dabney claimed, ‘Never have I seen any thing like it[;] men were perfectly frantic with fear.’ The scene made veteran Confederates ‘laugh until they could scarcely keep their saddles,’ remembered Blackford.
But there was more than merriment to Stuart’s mission. As the Confederates moved through the first camp, each column broke off for its assigned mission. Rooney Lee’s 9th Virginia received a ‘withering’ volley from a handful of Yankees on the platform at the depot, but it stayed the gray horsemen only briefly. The band of Federals quickly disappeared into the darkness.
Rounding the corner of the depot, Blackford heard ‘the labored puffing’ of a Yankee locomotive trying to escape. ‘I rode up alongside of the locomotive and ordered the engineer to shut off the steam,’ Blackford recorded, ‘but he would not.’ Blackford fired into the engine and threw his leg over the pommel of his saddle to jump aboard. But before he could leap, his horse plunged into a ditch, throwing him hat over boots. The train escaped to spread word of the Rebel raid.
Not far from Blackford, the Prussian aide von Borcke endeavored to cut the telegraph. Unable to climb the pole himself (von Borcke was widely noted for his size), he asked for a volunteer. A slim teenager stepped forward. Despite a steady patter of enemy bullets, von Borcke hoisted the boy onto his shoulders and watched as ‘he scooted up the pole with the agility of a squirrel and cut the wire amid the jubilant cheers of my men.’
Elsewhere, Colonel Thomas Rosser led a column toward the Union camp south of the tracks, but the commotion north of the station had alerted the Yankees south of it, and they had extinguished their lights. Pelted by rain, surrounded by pitchy blackness, and obstructed by the rail sidings and invisible ditches, Rosser’s men lost order. Confused, wet, and attracted by the sure booty they had just left behind in the main Union camp, they gave up the effort.
A quarter-mile west of the Union camps, Colonel Wickham and his 4th Virginia Cavalry attempted what Stuart called ‘the great object of the expedition.’ By now the rain had returned to its former condition; it fell, remembered Blackford, ‘not in drops but in streams, as if poured from buckets.’ Still, Wickham’s Virginians swarmed over the bridge in a futile effort to ignite the wooden supports. That failing, they tried to cut the bridge down, but the Yankees intervened. A ragged line of Pennsylvania troops formed on high ground west of the stream and distracted the bridge-breakers with a steady supply of bullets. With the waters of the creek rising fast and the demolition of the bridge both unlikely and dangerous, Stuart reluctantly called off the mission.
For a few more precious minutes the Confederates plundered the station, while frightened Yankee teamsters and staff officers watched from the surrounding woods. ‘I was so frightened,’ admitted one Federal, ‘I could not have spoken if I tried.’ Another wrote, ‘We laid in the woods and could hear all that was going on, the cursing and swearing, the breaking open of trunks, boxes, desks & safes.’
Confederate privates filled their haversacks with booty of all sorts, including canned lobster and whiskey. The presence of spirits worried many officers, but, as Blackford wryly recalled, ‘the importance of restraint was appreciated, and none took more than they could carry.’
By 3:00 a.m. the Union camp had been thoroughly rifled, and Stuart ordered his command to reform and start back toward the Rappahannock. It did so with an impressive haul of booty: 300 prisoners, 500 horses and mules (most of which escaped before the Confederates reached the Rappahannock), and more clothes than horsemen could reasonably expect to carry. Stuart’s captures went beyond supplies and prisoners, though. His troopers had also found the Yankee army’s payroll safe, which contained a half-million dollars in greenbacks and $20,000 in gold to fund the Confederate war effort. Most important of all, however, were the papers from Pope’s headquarters wagons. They would tell Robert E. Lee much about the condition of the Union army and Pope’s intentions, and would confirm Lee’s suspicion that McClellan’s army would soon arrive at Pope’s side. The information helped spur Lee to action and influenced his planning of what would become the Second Manassas Campaign.
Despite the valuable prizes it netted, when the Catlett’s Station raid is measured against what Stuart hoped to achieve at the outset, it must be judged at least a partial failure. The bridge over Cedar Run stood intact, and Pope’s supplies continued to flow unhindered. Indeed, though embarrassing to the Yankees, the raid did not affect their operations at all. It would take efforts far grander than Stuart’s to force Pope off the Rappahannock.
If Stuart felt disappointment over the raid, his spirits were lifted by one final discovery that emerged from the take at Catlett’s Station. Amid the Union headquarters baggage was a fancy hat and dress uniform coat. Inside the coat was the owner’s tag: ‘John Pope, Major General.’ During the raid, the coat had rapidly made the rounds of the Confederate cavalrymen, who derived great amusement from their find. On the ride back to camp, Fitzhugh Lee came across some friends and bade them to wait a moment–he had something to show them. He disappeared behind a tree and soon emerged wearing both the hat and coat, ‘which reached nearly to his feet…. This masquerade was accompanied by a burst of jolly laughter that might have been heard for a hundred yards.’
Soon the coat made it to Stuart’s hands. Here, at last, was payback for the humiliating loss of his hat and cloak to Pope’s marauders at Verdiersville. Stuart promptly sent it off to Governor John Letcher in Richmond as a prize of war. For the next several weeks it would be one of the Confederate capital’s great attractions, for Letcher hung it in the state library for all to see.
Before sending the coat away, Stuart could not resist one last bit of merriment. To John Pope he wrote a message and sent it through the lines:
You have my hat and plume. I have your best coat. I have the honor to propose a cartel for the fair exchange of the prisoners.
Maj. Genl. C.S.A.
John Pope never responded, but J.E.B. Stuart had his revenge.
This article was written by John Hennessy and originally published in the June 1995 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.
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