Stoneman’s Raid tested the mettle of the Union’s newly formed Cavalry Corps.
Fighting Joe Hooker—the Army of the Potomac’s third commander in less than two years—spent early 1863 reorganizing and reenergizing his forces. The army had been hunkered down outside Fredericksburg, Va., on the north side of the Rappahannock River, since its demoralizing defeat the previous December. Across the river, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia dug in for the winter. When fighting resumed in the spring, Hooker was determined to steer the Union to decisive victory. “May God have mercy on General Lee,” he said, “for I will have none.”
Hooker’s most promising new weapon was his cavalry corps, 10,000 strong. For the first time, the Union detached its horse soldiers from the infantry, creating a single independent command under Brig. Gen. George Stoneman. Independent cavalry had proved invaluable to the Confederates. Hooker hoped his corps would sever Lee’s supply and communication lines, then keep the Rebels in check until the main body of the army could sweep across the Rappahannock and cut off any escape routes.
The first attempt to deploy Stoneman’s corps stalled during mid-April’s torrential rains. Two weeks later, on April 28, Stoneman received new orders to divide his force into two columns and cross the Rappahannock with each trooper carrying what rations he could. A small force under Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton would stay behind near Kelly’s Ford, where Hooker’s V, XI and XII corps were arriving from Fredericksburg.
The first column, led by Brig. Gen. William Averell, moved through Culpeper Court House and on to Rapidan Station, where it ran into Brig. Gen. Rooney Lee’s Virginia cavalry. Faulty intelligence indicating a large enemy force was nearby combined with vague orders from Stoneman to stop Averell’s advance. When Hooker learned on May 2 that Averell was stuck behind the Rapidan River, he angrily ordered the entire column of 3,500 troopers back to the Rappahannock.
Meanwhile, Stoneman and 3,500 men under Brig. Gen. David Gregg reached Thompson’s Crossroads on the South Anna River. Hooker expected Stoneman to concentrate on Hanover Junction, where the Virginia Central Railroad met the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac, Lee’s lifeline to the capital. But the general had other plans.
“We had dropped into that region of country like a shell,” he said. “I intended to burst it in every direction, expecting each piece or fragment would do as much harm and create nearly as much terror as would result from sending the whole shell.”
On May 3, Stoneman sent columns out across the country to tear up tracks, destroy bridges, cut telegraph wires and generally wreak havoc. The general set up headquarters at Thompson’s Crossroads with a small reserve. Colonel Percy Wyndham headed for Columbia on the James River; General Gregg moved down the South Anna. Both inflicted some damage, and both returned to headquarters by May 4.
Colonel Judson Kilpatrick burned the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac depot at Hungary Station and continued down the Chickahominy River, frightening Richmond residents into thinking the city would soon be overrun. But Kilpatrick had fewer than 500 men, and he eventually pulled away to race down the Virginia Peninsula to Gloucester Point, which was under Union control. Lt. Col. Hasbrouck Davis hit the RF&P at Ashland and the Virginia Central at Hanover Station before he too made for the Peninsula. He estimated that his troopers destroyed $1 million worth of property.
The New York Herald credited Stoneman’s raiders with wrecking 23 bridges, burning four supply trains, capturing hundreds of horses and mules, and breaking the railroads in seven places. It was an impressive tally, but the impact was short-lived. The railroads were running again in days.
Hooker was furious. While the cavalry was out and about, the rest of Hooker’s army was getting battered at Chancellorsville. The commander sacked Averell immediately and eventually replaced Stoneman with General Pleasonton.
Still, Stoneman’s Raid marked a significant turning point. “For the first time the cavalry found themselves made useful,” wrote Henry Pyne of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry. “It gave our troopers self-respect, and obliged the enemy to respect them.”
General Lee himself recognized the threat in a May 7 letter to President Jefferson Davis asking for more cavalry: “Every expedition will augment their boldness and increase their means of doing us harm.”
Christine M. Kreiser is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.