From John Hennessy:
We try not to tend toward the minute in this space. Rather, we try to focus on revelation with meaning, especially things that have never quite been understood well. But today we’ll combine minute and revelation a bit and look at an event most of you have likely never heard of, but which in April 1862 reverberated loudly across the American landscape.
One hundred and fifty years ago this week, as we have noted previously (here and here), the Union army arrived on the shores of the Rappahannock in Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg. Their arrival was tumultuous, heralded by a chaotic, deadly skirmish in the middle of the night that I have taken to calling the Battle of Arby’s, in honor of the culinary presence very near the site of the clash. As we wrote in a post the other day, the Union army clashed with the Confederate rearguard near Berea Church on the afternoon of April 17. That was not enough for Christopher Augur, commander of the Union troops in the area. He wanted to get to the crossings of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg before the Confederates still lingering on the Stafford side of the river could destroy the bridges. To do that, he decided to do something a more experienced commander might not have dared–a nighttime raid into Falmouth.
As the soon as the Union army reached Stafford County, citizens inclined toward the Union stepped forth to help. On this evening of April 17, a Connecticut-born local named Horace B. Hewitt–a farmer who owned 152 acres near Hartwood Church–came into the Union camp near Berea Church.
Hewitt had just come from Fredericksburg and had seen that the Confederates had placed a barricade across the Warrenton Road about a mile northwest of Falmouth. Hewitt promised Augur that he could lead the Union cavalry around the barricade, clearing the way for a dash to capture the Falmouth Bridge before the Confederates could burn it. Augur accepted Hewitt’s word and his services, and just before midnight ordered parts of the 2d New York Cavalry (Lt. Col. Judson Kilpatrick at the reins) and 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry (Col. George Bayard) to horse. The happily bedizened 14th Brooklyn infantry–with their red pants and kepis–joined in as support, and illuminated by a half moon, the column of 1,500 men and horses started out from Berea.
Mr. Hewitt led them not directly down the Warrenton Road, but rather to the north–along what is today Berea Church Road to Truslow Road. Eastward along Truslow the Yankees rode. Just beyond where today Truslow crosses Interstate 95, Hewitt led the column onto a farm road to the right–a now-vanished path that led back to the Warrenton Road (Route 17). Just short of 2 a.m. on April 18, the column struck the Warrenton Road. Hewitt–and hence Union officers–believed they had passed beyond the Confederate barricade, and so turned left and took up a more urgent pace toward Falmouth. But Hewitt miscalculated (some Yankees thought he purposely deceived them, but they were surely wrong about that). Just 300 yards east on the Warrenton Road, not far from today’s Arby’s, Uncle’s B’s Soul Food Restaurant, and the “Mad Crab” restaurant, Rooney Lee’s cavalrymen and men of the 55th Virginia had built a barricade of rails and brush across the road, and lay in anxious wait.
The Confederates could hear but not see the Yankees coming. The two companies of the 55th Virginia stood in the field north of the road. Men of the 9th Virginia Cavalry apparently held the barricade itself. As the Union horsemen neared, the Confederates lowered their weapons and fired. The Yankees recoiled, and then future general George D. Bayard (who would die at Fredericksburg eight months hence) led New York cavalrymen in a charge–one that a Confederate said “was enough to make one’s hair stand on end.” That charge met the same bloody fate, and the milling crowd of frightened Union horsemen withdrew up the Warrenton Road. Five Union troopers died; more than a dozen fell wounded. Only one man fell on the Confederate side.
The location of this skirmish, the opening clash in the military life of the immediate Fredericksburg area, has always been a bit uncertain. But a plow through the sources leave little doubt of its location. Most important in determining that is a 1910 letter from one who was apparently a boy at the time, and who perhaps accompanied Hewitt on his mission. This correspondent described the route outlined above, stating that the barricade stood about 300 yards east of where the Union cavalry returned to the Warrenton Road. Overlaying historic maps, it seems apparent that the Union cavalry struck the road where what appears on the maps as “Miss Payne’s”–likely the home of Eliza Payne. A 300-yard trip to the east puts the barricade between Arby’s and the Mad Crab (we concede the location lacks the cache of, say, Little Round Top or Hazel Grove).
The Union army was none too happy with Mr. Hewitt’s guiding efforts that night, and Augur immediately put him under arrest, presuming he had purposely led him into the ambush. Hewitt, a staunch Unionist who later filed a successful claim with the Federal government for items taken from his Hartwood farm, insisted that the Confederates had moved the barricade after he’d passed it on his trek to Berea. But nothing in the Confederate source material suggests this to have happened, and it appears Hewitt simply miscalculated his route in the darkness. The Federals soon recognized Hewitt’s as an honest (though deadly) mistake and released him.
In September, when the Union army abandoned the area, Hewitt left too, heading to Maryland. He returned to Stafford once again once the Union army moved back in, and here he would remain, dodging conscriptionists, for the remainder of the war.
We like things that mark the beginning and end of something, and the echoing nighttime volleys from the barricade above Falmouth emphatically marked the beginning of the Union occupation. Newspapers from the New York Herald to the Philadelphia Inquirer gave the clash extensive coverage. Both Kilpatrick and Bayard received their first public notice, though not all positive.
After dawn, the Confederates did indeed manage to burn the bridge at Falmouth (and the Chatham and RF&P railroad bridges too), but we’ll have more to say about that in our next.
[A note on sources: I have collected nearly two dozen accounts of the fight at the barricade and the Union advance on Falmouth–Confederate and Union, many from newspapers at the time. Those sources include many details not shared here, for this is not intended to be a full accounting, but rather merely enough to locate the incident and highlight its significant. At some point down the road, I’ll write (probably for a different medium) a full account using all the source material at hand. In the meantime, if you have questions, or if you know of something we do not, we’d be glad to know.]