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    Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania

    National Military Park Virginia

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Battle of Rappahannock Station

The text below is from a park brochure on the Battle of Rappahannock Station (November 7, 1863) including a summary of the battle, directions to the battlefield from the Fredericksburg area and a suggested tour route. The visitor centers at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville have free copies of the brochure which includes a map of the tour route.

After the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the Union and Confederate armies drifted south and for three months sparred with one another on the rolling plains of northern Virginia. Little was accomplished, however, and in late October General Robert E. Lee withdrew his Confederate army behind the Rappahannock River, a line he hoped to maintain throughout the winter.

A single pontoon brigade at the town of Rappahannock Station was the only connection Lee retained with the northern bank of the river. The bridge was protected by a bridgehead on the north bank consisting on two redoubts and connecting trenches. Confederate batteries posted on hills south of the river gave additional strength to the position.

The bridgehead was an integral part of Lee's strategy to defend the Rappahannock River line. As he later explained, by holding the bridgehead he could "threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part." The Union Army of the Potomac's commander, Major General George G. Meade, divided his forces just as lee expected. He ordered Major General John Sedgwick to attack the Confederate position at Rappahannock Station while Major General William French forced a crossing five miles downstream at Kelly's Ford. Once both Sedgwick and French were safely across the river, the reunited army would proceed to Brandy Station.

The operation went according to plan. Shortly after noon on November 7th, French drove back Confederate defenders at Kelly's Ford and crossed the river. As he did so, Sedgwick advanced toward Rappahannock Station. Lee learned of these developments sometime after noon and immediately put his troops in motion to meet the enemy. His plan was to resist Sedgwick with a small force at Rappahannock Station while attacking French at Kelly's Ford with the larger part of his army. The success of the plan depended on his ability to maintain the Rappahannock Station bridgehead until French was defeated.

Sedgwick first engaged the Confederates at 3 p.m. when Major General Albion Howe's division, Sixth Corps, drove in Rebel skirmishers and seized a range of high ground three-quarters of a mile from the river. Howe placed Union batteries on these hills that pounded he enemy earthworks with a "rapid and vigorous" fire. Confederate guns across the river returned the fire, but with little effect.

Major General Jubal Early's division occupied the bridgehead defenses that day. Early posted Brigadier General Harry Hays's Louisiana brigade and Captain Charles A. Green's four gun Louisiana Guard Artillery in the works and at 4:30 a.m. reinforced them with three North Carolina regiments led by Colonel Archibald Godwin. The addition of Godwin's troops increased the number of Confederate defenders at the bridgehead to nearly 2,000.

Sedgwick continued shelling the Confederates throughout the late afternoon, but otherwise he showed no disposition to attack. As the day drew to a close, Lee became convinced that the movement against the bridgehead was merely a feint to cover French's crossing farther downstream. He was mistaken. At dusk the shelling stopped, and Sedgwick's infantry rushed suddenly upon the works. Colonel Peter Ellmaker's brigade advanced adjacent to the railroad, preceded by skirmishers of the 6th Maine Volunteers. No Union regiment gained more laurels that day nor suffered higher casualties. At the command "Forward, double-quick," it surged over the Confederate works and engaged Hays's men in hand-to-hand combat. Without assistance, the 6th Maine breached the Confederate line and planted its flags on the parapet of the easternmost redoubt. Moments later the 5th Wisconsin swarmed over the walls of the western redoubt, likewise wresting it from Confederate control.

On the right, Union forces achieved comparable success. Just minutes after Ellmaker's brigade penetrated Hays's line, Colonel Emory Upton's brigade overran Godwin's position. Upton reformed his lines inside the Confederate works and sent a portion of the 121st New York to seize the pontoon bridge, while the rest of his command wheeled right to attack the confused Confederate horde now massed at the lower end of the bridgehead.

Confederate resistance dissolved as hundreds of soldiers threw down their arms and surrendered. Others sough to gain the opposite shore by swimming the icy river or by running the gauntlet of Union rifle fire at the bridge. Confederate troops south of the Rappahannock looked on hopelessly as Union soldiers herded their comrades to the rear as prisoners of war. In all, 1670 Confederates were killed, wounded, or captured in the brief struggle, more than eighty percent of those engaged. Union casualty figures, by contrast, were small: 419 in all.

For the North the battle had been "a complete and glorious victory," an engagement "as short as it was decisive," reflecting "infinite credit upon all concerned." Major General Horatio Wright noted that it was the first instance in which Union troops had carried a strong entrenched Confederate position in the first assault. But perhaps the highest praise came from Harry Hays, who claimed to have been attacked by no less than 20,000 to 25,000 Union soldiers -- a figure ten times the actual number.

The battle had been as humiliating for the South as it had been glorious for the North. Two of the Confederacy's finest brigades, sheltered behind entrenchments and well supported by artillery, had been routed and captured by an enemy force of equal size. Colonel Walter Taylor of Lee's staff called it, "the saddest chapter in the history of this army," the result of "miserable, miserable management." An enlisted soldier put it more plainly. "I don't know much about it," he said, "but it seems to be that our army was surprised."

Lee would later call on subordinates to submit reports on the battle in an effort to determine what had gone wrong, but on the night of November 7th more pressing matters demanded his attention. Loss of the bridgehead destroyed his plans for an offensive and left his army dangerously extended on a now indefensible front. Meade, acting quickly, might pin Lee's army against the Rapidan River just as Lee had tried to pin John Pope's army against the Rappahannock River one year earlier. Lee immediately canceled his plans for an attack on French and within hours had his army marching south.

As the weary gray troops trudged through the dark night, some may have reflected upon the army's recent failures. Not since the great Jackson had fallen at Chancellorsville had the Confederate infantry scored a victory. Were Lee's generals still capable of leading the army? Could the Confederates win without Jackson?

DIRECTIONS TO THE BATTLEFIELD

Rappahannock Station is today known as Remington and lies about halfway between Warrenton and Culpeper. This small town covers much of the battlefield making a visit difficult. Please respect the rights of property owners. To reach the battlefield from Fredericksburg, take Rt. 3 west to Culpeper, then take Rt. 15/29 north from Culpeper toward Warrenton. Approximately 7 miles north of Culpeper you will see a sign directing you to Remington via Business Rt. 15/29. Pull off the road at this point.

Stop 1 - Confederate Artillery. Directly across the highway as you stand at the intersection of Rt. 15/29 Bypass and Rt. 15/29 Business is a hill on which stood the guns of Captain Archibald Graham's Rockbridge Artillery. General Robert E. Lee observed the fire on Union batteries from the hill on the afternoon of November 7th.

Return to your car and take Rt. 15/29 Business across the Rappahannock River into Remington. Shortly before crossing the bridge, you will pass a hill on the right on which stood three guns of Captain Willis J. Dance's Powhattan Artillery. Late in the afternoon Lee joined Jubal Early on this hill. Misled by Sedgwick's seeing inactivity, Lee wrongly concluded that the demonstration at Rappahannock Station was simply a feint in favor of French's forces down river.

Park your car at a safe spot north of the river and walk back to the bridge. Use extreme caution when walking along the road.

Stop 2 - The Bridges. Just upstream from the modern span, near the bend in the river, stood the pontoon bridge linking Hays's and Godwin's brigades to the rest of the Confederate army. A quarter mile below the modern bridge is a modern railroad trestle. This bridge was destroyed early in the war and was not standing at the time of the battle.

Walk back toward Remington. When you reach the first street on your right (Rt. 1202) turn around and face the river. (Note: This road enters Rt. 15/29 at a sharp angle and is difficult to see.)

Stop 3 - Railroad Embankment. You are now facing in the direction of the Union attack. Colonel Peter Ellmaker advanced at dusk with his left flank on the railroad embankment, still visible less than 0.25 mile to your left. In front of Ellmaker stood two Confederate redoubts. The enclosed, eastern redoubt stood directly ahead of you, between the railroad and Rt. 15/29 Business. The open western redoubt stood across Rt. 15/29 Business, to your right front.

To reach the site of the eastern redoubt, follow the side street ahead of you (Rt. 1202) to the top of the hill.

Stop 4 - Confederate Redoubt. In the front yard of the last house on the left side of this street is a small shelf of earth -- the remains of the enclosed redoubt or perhaps an adjacent trench. This fortification protected two guns of the Louisiana Guard Artillery. As you look back down the street, the battery's other two guns stood in a large, open redoubt approximately 200 yards to your left, where the white farmhouse now crowns the hill. The 6th Maine Volunteers broke the line of the 9th Louisiana Volunteers near this spot. general Henry Hays tried to rally the Louisianans and retake the redoubt, but Union forces surrounded the regiment and forced it to surrender. Hays saved himself by galloping across the pontoon bridge amid a hail of bullets.

Return to your car and drive north into town. The first major intersection you will come to is Rt. 651. Turn left there and proceed 0.4 mile to Rt. 15/29 Bypass.

Stop 5 - Upton's Assault. As you stand at this intersection and face the highway, Upton's brigade charged from your right-front towards the Confederate works located 0.3 mile to your left-rear. Unfortunately, no traces of the works remain.

To head south toward Culpeper and Charlottesville, turn left on Rt. 15/29. To go to Warrenton, Manassas, or Washington, D.C., turn right and follow Rt. 15/29 north.

This concludes your tour. The battlefields of Cedar Mountain, Bristoe Station, Kelly's Ford and Brandy Station are also in this area. Written guides are available for these and other nearby battlefields at the visitor centers at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

Return to Civil War Battlefields in Virginia.

 
Map of Rappahannock Station Tour Route
Map of Rappahannock Station Battlefield Tour Route
 
Rappahannock River at Rappahannock Station
Rappahannock River at Rappahannock Station

Did You Know?

Chatham Manor Gardens

Both Ellwood and Chatham were owned by the Lacy family during the Civil War. Both houses are part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.