A scenic drive will take you to often-forgotten sites of Civil War drama along the Rappahannock River.
The First Battle of Rappahannock Station (White Sulphur Springs/Freeman’s Ford) was a series of skirmishes fought from August 22-25, 1862 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. John Pope and Confederate forces commanded by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet around Rappahannock Station, Virginia during the American Civil War. This inconclusive battle allowed the Confederate army to outflank Union forces and win the Second Battle of Bull Run three days later. It resulted in 225 total casualties.
In July 1862, Maj. Gen. John Pope’s newly formed 51,000-man Union Army of Virginia began to consolidate across northern Virginia. After a bruising at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9th, Pope withdrew his army behind the Rappahannock River, where he skirmished with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s 48,500-man Army of Northern Virginia and waited for reinforcements. Between August 22 and 25, the two armies fought minor skirmishes at Waterloo Bridge, White Sulphur Springs, Freeman’s Ford, and Beverly Ford.
On August 22nd, Union Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel directed Big. Gen. Carl Schurz to cross the river at Freeman’s Ford and ascertain or disrupt the movement of Jackson’s corps. Schurz sent the 74th Pennsylvania Regiment, which captured some supplies and sent for reinforcements. That came in the form of two regiments from Brig. Gen. Henry Bohlen’s brigade. They quickly ran into Isaac Trimble’s brigade, who with help from John Bell Hood, overwhelmed Bohlen’s men and sent them fleeing. Bohlen himself was shot in the chest and killed while directing his men back across the ford.
Meanwhile, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had sent Jubal Early’s Division to cross the river south of Sulphur Springs through a torrential downpour. When Pope learned that a detachment of Jackson’s corps was on the north bank of the Rappahannock, trapped by heavy rains and rising water, he planned to cut off their escape. On August 23rd, Jackson rushed engineers to repair the bridge at Sulphur Springs to rescue his men, personally overseeing construction until the work was done.
At Rappahannock Station, Union forces held a small bridgehead south of the river. Lee ordered Longstreet to drive them off, and Longstreet initiated a three hour artillery duel involving nearly 50 cannon. When George T. Anderson and Nathan G. Evans’ brigades went forward, however, they found only the abandoned camps of the enemy. Union troops slipped back across the river and burned the railroad bridge so neither side could cross.
Late in the day, Union Brig. Gen. Robert H. Milroy finally reached Early’s isolated men. By the time Milroy organized an attack, however, it was too dark to see. They fired ineffectively into the woods, and Early’s artillery replied with a blast of canister that sent Milroy’s men fleeing. Jackson’s engineers finished their work, and Early’s men crossed the river to safety before sunrise.
Several days of heavy skirmishing along the river had come to nothing. Union forces failed to destroy Jackson’s isolated beachhead, and both sides withdrew from the Rappahannock River to fight another day. Confederates lost 53 killed or wounded to the Union army’s 172 killed or wounded. The fighting bought time for Jackson’s corps to flank Pope’s army and destroy his supply base at Manassas Junction, setting the stage for the Confederate’s stunning victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run less than a week later.
Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery, the legality of secession, and the primacy of the Federal government. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most of the war’s battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.
One inanimate casualty of the First Battle of Rappahannock Station was the Pavilion Hotel, centerpiece of Fauquier White Sulphur Springs. The grand hotel, complete with towering columns and a 4,000 square foot ballroom, was struck by a Federal shell on August 25 and burnt to the ground. Today, the Fauquier Springs Country Club stands in its place. Otherwise, there are few if any signs or markers to commemorate the battle. A historic marker on Lee Highway south of Waterloo briefly mentions “Strategic Rappahannock River Crossings.”
There is no formal battlefield or tour route for these skirmishes. The American Battlefield Trust owns property along the Rappahannock River in what is today the town of Remington, Virginia, but it is not yet open to the public. Freeman’s Ford is located along Freeman’s Ford Road at GPS coordinates 38.58317, -77.8755. The battlefield is west of there along Clover Hill and Lakota roads, but it is all private property. White Sulphur Springs is located near the intersection of Springs and Opal Road near GPS coordinates 38.64875, -77.87088.