The forgotten crossing–Fitzhugh’s 1863


From John Hennessy (thanks to all of you who joined us on our walk at Franklin’s Crossing on Saturday. We had 78 in attendance–an astonishing turnout–all of them good sports amidst some muddy, buggy conditions):

Click to enlarge all images.

The Union 1st Corps on the south side of the Rappahannock, looking north. That's Little Falls Run entering the river on the far side, and Sherwood Forest is marked by the cluster of trees on the distant hill.

We have prattled on extensively about Franklin’s Crossing–otherwise known as the “Lower Crossing,”–but have paid no mind so far to the forgotten crossing farther downstream at Pollock’s Mill. We received a number of questions about it during our tour last weekend, and so take a look at this crossing of the Rappahannock before we move onto other topics.

This crossing, used by the Union First Corps during the Chancellorsville Campaign, was located near the mouth of Little Falls Run, almost directly below Henry Fitzhugh’s Sherwood Forest (click here for a post on Sherwood). At least two superlative sketches of the site exist. It was interchangeably called “Reynolds’s” or “Fitzhugh’s” crossing.

The crossing site was at the mouth of Little Falls Run, about 1.7 miles below Franklin’s Crossing, below Dr. Hugh Morson’s “Little Falls” farm.

Update: this map, supplied after going to press by Noel, clearly puts the pontoon bridges just below Little Falls Run. Library of Congress.

Here, on April 29, 1863, the 6th Wisconsin and 24th Michigan of the Iron Brigade led Reynolds’s First Corps across the river, just hours after Sedgwick’s men had crossed at Franklin’s Crossing. The Union army had learned something from its horrific bridge-building experience at the upper pontoon crossing in December 1862, and this time determined to send a force across in boats to secure a bridgehead before even attempting to build the bridges. While the crossing itself has received little note from historians, in fact it was exceedingly well documented by participants. At mid-morning, the 6th Wicsonsin and 24th Michigan rushed to the boats, each of them manned with four engineers whose job was to row. Confederates of Early’s division awaited them on the other side. One man of the 6th remembered:

I confess that I never saw anything that appeared so much like certain death as this movement did….We moved forward in line until with a few rods of the river, when the order was given “By the right of companies-to the front double quick march!” On we marched with a badger” yell, down the bank, over the Brooklyn skirmishers to the water’s edge, plunged into the boats until we lay about three deep and pushed off.

The Sixth Wisconsin crosses in boats at Fitzhugh's Crossing, May 29, 1863. Rogers Collection, Vernon County (WI) Historical Society.

The scene of wild excitement which then ran high is indescribable…. “Whiz” whiz” spat” spat” their bullets struck around us. Our men rose in the boats and fired. The other regiments of the brigade which had followed us to the bank kept up an incessant roar of musketry. I never saw soldiers so enthusiastic before. The Col. of the 24th Michigan crossed over with co. “A” and could hardly keep himself in the boat he was so impatient to reach the opposite shore. Bodley Jones stood on the edge of the boat cheering at the top of his voice, and I half expected to see him fall into the river and drown. There was but one of the regiment I think who was lost in the river. A little fellow of co. “K” was seen tipping forward. A stream of blood rushing from his temple over his face showed where he as struck He sank but did not rise! Before we reached the shore the shaggy bucked butternuts began to climb for the top of the rugged bank but some came rolling down. As soon as the boats touched the shore the men sprang from them and scrambled up the steep hill every man for himself and rebel. After reaching the summit there was a large open plain before us, and we beheld the enemy fleeing before us in every direction….The regiment forward to a large brick house [certainly Smithfield] and from its roof our flag was swung at the retreating foe.*

The area of Fitzhugh's crossing today

This was a far more deadly crossing than Sedgwick’s to the north–the Iron Brigade lost 58 men killed and wounded, thrice the number who fell at Franklin’s Crossing that day. Early’s division lost more than 100 prisoners. Within hours after the initial crossing, all of James Wadsworth’s division was across the river, and soon he had made connection with Sedgwick’s men, upstream to his right.

Today Fitzhugh’s Crossing is on the grounds of the Little Falls Water Treatment Plant (the terminus of the upper crossing is likewise on such a site). The southern terminus is near the River Run subdivision, just south of the Fredericksburg Country Club (with its clubhouse at “Smithfeild”). All of this land is private property and not accessible to the public.

* One of the most useful internet projects undertaken related to the Civil War has been the publication online of much of the E.B. Quiner Collection of newspaper clippings that relate to the Iron Brigade. You can find it here.

The entire Union bridgehead, from Fitzhugh's Crossing to Franklin's Crossing

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8 thoughts on “The forgotten crossing–Fitzhugh’s 1863

  1. The image is indeed in the Vernon County Historical Society’s collection. We used that image in the essay book Giants in their Tall Black Hats quite a few years ago. There is a second image showing Reynolds and staff in the collection also. I will look for it and if it has any background of use will forward a copy to the park.

    Really enjoy the blog! Thanks for everyone’s efforts on it.

    Marc

  2. Thanks for the post, I had been confusing the Franklin’s and Fitzhugh’s crossings until the tour on Saturday. The quote I left on the previous post was apparently from this crossing, not Franklin’s.

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  4. Absolutely fascinating! There is something about these river fords/crossings that really evoke the ‘war years’. On a related subject, when I recently visited the US Ford area I saw extensive remains of what appeared to be canal locks and other stone structures. Can anyone identify what they were part of?

    • Bob, Thanks for your kind words. Those stone structures are components of the Rappahannock Navigation, an antebellum transportation enterprise that converted a 50-mile stretch of the Rappahannock River into a chain of navigatable ponds connected by short-canals. A three-page short history is here. Noel

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