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Custer’s Diversionary Raid

Civil War

Custer’s Diversionary Raid

General Custer’s daring diversionary raid penetrated 60 miles behind enemy lines, wrecked Williams Wickham’s camp, and seized 50 prisoners, 100 slaves, and 500 horses.

General Custer’s daring diversionary raid penetrated 60 miles behind enemy lines, wrecked Williams Wickham’s camp, and seized 50 prisoners, 100 slaves, and 500 horses.

by Arnold Blumberg

The plan that Judson Kilpatrick presented to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton outlining his proposed raid on Richmond included only one diversionary effort: the request that Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler threaten the Confederate capital from the east while Kilpatrick moved on it from the north. When Stanton forwarded Kilpatrick’s scheme to Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade for recommendations, Meade altered the plan to include a simultaneous advance by Union infantry toward Madison Court House and a cavalry advance toward Charlottesville.

The foot soldiers would be provided by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s Union VI Infantry Corps along with Maj. Gen. David D. Birney’s III Corps infantry division. The cavalry contingent, 1,500 men strong, was to be led by Brig. Gen. George A. Custer, one of Kilpatrick’s brigade commanders. Meade chose General Custer for the assignment for two reasons: first, he was considered a bold and fearless leader who could be depended upon to handle such a dangerous mission, and second, Custer’s appointment was bound to irritate Kilpatrick, who didn’t want Custer, a rival general, involved in the raid. Meade wanted to show Kilpatrick that, as commander of the Army of the Potomac, Meade could still call the shots.

Setting Out At 2 AM

On February 27, Sedgwick’s corps initiated the planned diversion by veering toward the Confederate Army’s left flank around Madison Court House and advancing west to Robertson’s River. The next day General Custer and his command moved to join Sedgwick. The young cavalry general expressed concerns about his role in the operation. Custer’s goal was the railway bridge over the Rivanna River near Charlottesville. If his route back to the Union lines was cut by the enemy, he was to make for the Shenandoah Valley. But Custer had heard that the Valley contained over 5,000 Confederate mounted troops. He was worried that the Army was preparing to sacrifice him and his command in order to ensure that Kilpatrick succeeded.

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After listening to the cavalryman’s concerns, Sedgwick replied that he need not worry—the high command had considered all possibilities. Whether or not Sedgwick’s reassurance soothed him, Custer set out. At 2 am on February 29, he and his men waded across the Robertson River at Banks’ Mill Ford and rode south toward Standardville. The movement was immediately detected by a patrol under Lieutenant J.N. Cunningham of the 1st Virginia Cavalry.

As soon as Confederate cavalry chief Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart learned of General Custer crossing the Rapidan River, Stuart rounded up 400 horsemen and led them forward to meet the threat. He also wired news of the enemy movements to headquarters, which dispatched four infantry regiments under Brig. Gen. William Mahone on a train from Gordonsville to Charlottesville.

Sitting Ducks

Upon reaching the Rivanna River, Custer dispatched one squadron of the 1st Cavalry upriver and one from the 5th Cavalry Regiment downriver. The latter formation, under Captain Joseph Ash, rode by chance into the artillery park holding Stuart’s four batteries of horse artillery under Captain Marcellus Moorman, six miles from Charlottesville. Without any infantry or cavalry support, the Confederate gunners were sitting ducks.

Warned of the approaching enemy by Cunningham, who had been shadowing the Federals, Moorman knew that he could neither fight nor flee—all his draft horses were out to pasture. To gain time and make the oncoming enemy think a mounted force was present to protect his guns, Moorman saddled some of his artillerists and paraded them around as though they were cavalry. When the Union horsemen advanced, the Confederate artillery opened fire. Some of the Federals entered the artillery camp and pushed back the mounted skirmishers. The Federals abruptly called off their attack after two groups of them started mistakenly shooting at each other. The Confederates lost two men, seven horses, and two mules in the scrape.

Hot on Custer’s Heels

General Custer arrived on the scene expecting to find large numbers of enemy infantry present. His expectations seemed confirmed when Ash pointed out Wickham’s abandoned camp 300 yards in the distance. Custer directed his men to withdraw. As the Union forces were leaving, Stuart attempted to cut them off, but his progress was slowed by a sudden sleet storm that reduced visibility and made the ground a quagmire for horses and men. Moving as rapidly as he could, Custer divided his force into two columns. Eight miles from Standardville, he halted his force to rest and feed the artillery horses.

While Custer made camp, Stuart was hot on his heels. He reached a fork in the road and, after learning one group of Federals had already passed by, led Wickham’s men to Banks’ Mill Ford, placing his command behind a rail fence adjacent to the road to wait in ambush. When the Federals approach, Stuart’s men attacked. Custer took cover in a ravine and placed his two artillery pieces on a small slope.

A Successful Diversion

After a short covering bombardment from his guns, Custer charged, crumbling the vastly outnumbered Confederates, who fell back toward the ford. For the next two miles the two antagonists conducted charge after charge as Custer’s men raced back down the road to cross the Robertson River at Burton’s Ford. Stuart tried to follow, but his exhausted men could not keep up with the fleeing enemy. Within 20 minutes he suspended the pursuit. Soon afterward, Custer and his men were across the river and out of harm’s way.

General Custer’s diversionary raid had penetrated 60 miles behind enemy lines, destroyed the wooden bridge over the south fork of the Rivanna River, wrecked Wickham’s camp, and seized 50 prisoners, 100 slaves, and 500 horses. In exchange, he lost only one man wounded. A gratified Meade later compared Custer’s achievement to Kilpatrick’s. The former, he stated, was “perfectly successful,” while the latter was “an utter failure.” It gave Meade a large measure of satisfaction to say so.


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