There were numerous skirmishes and troop movements in this part of Stafford County during the Civil War, but one of the most memorable was surely “The Mud March.” In January of 1863, Union General Burnside ordered his three Grand Divisions to march up the north side of the Rappahannock to Banks Ford and U.S. Ford with the idea of crossing to attack Fredericksburg—again. The weather defeated him. On January 20, “a violent rain-storm set in, making the roads impassable for artillery and wagon trains.” An officer put in a request for “50 men, 25 feet high, to work in mud 18 feet deep.”
After enduring two more days of rain, General Burnside gave up and ordered his troops back to camp. It was one of the most humiliating and miserable experiences the Union Army faced. The drenching misery was captured in a battle sketch by Alfred R. Waud entitled, “Winter Campaigning.” Burnside lost his command on January 26 to General Joseph Hooker.
Less than a month later, on February 25, Confederate commander Fitzhugh Lee—Robert E. Lee’s nephew—used cavalry charges to inflict casualties and take approximately 150 Union soldiers prisoner from their picket line at Hartwood Church. As one Northern observer noted, “considering the [poor] conditions of the roads, [the Federals] made very good time to the rear.” Newly-appointed General Hooker was livid and became even more determined to reform the Union cavalry:
“We ought to be invincible, and by God, sir, we shall be! You have got to stop these disgraceful cavalry ‘surprises.’ I’ll have no more of them. I give you full power over your officers, to arrest, cashier, shoot—whatever you will—only you must stop these surprises. And by God, sir, if you don’t do it, I give you fair notice, I will relieve the whole of you and take command of the cavalry myself.”
The Union Cavalry did do rather better at Kelly’s Ford in March. Although General Hooker lost at the Battle of Chancellorsville in late April and early May of ‘63, he is credited with greatly strengthening the Union cavalry. The lesson learned at Hartwood Church carried over to the rest of the war.
It is certain the ordinary Union soldiers’ lives were dreary during those many months but they tried to entertain themselves, as a letter John Marshall Brown of Portland, Maine, to his sister Ellen (Nellie) from a camp in Hartwood (November 21, 1862) tells:
“…it rained all night & nearly all day-to-day. It has cleared up at last, though, and tomorrow we move. If you could have peeped into our “dining room” last night after night supper you would have seen a queer sight all of us were sitting around the table telling ghost stories until late in the night. It was raining great guns & we had to do something to pass away the time & with the mud an inch deep on the floor of the tent you can imagine that we were thankful at being able to keep ‘jolly.’”
On a more somber note, the arrival and occupation of U.S. troops were welcomed by the vast majority of the area’s enslaved people who put down their work and made their way to freedom.