- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

In late May 1863, the opposing armies in Virginia confronted each other warily along the line of the Rappahannock River, from Fredericksburg in the east to the region around Brandy Station in the west. The great Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1 through 4, 1863) was behind them; Gettysburg lay in the near future. For the time, an uneasy calm characterized the Eastern theater as the armies recuperated and built up for the next round of major combat.

During this relatively static period, the armies’ mounted forces continued to perform their security missions, including guarding the flanks, protecting lines of communication and reconnaissance and rear-area protection. For the Federal cavalry, operating in the enemy’s territory and contending against partisan rangers such as Maj. John Singleton Mosby’s elusive band, the rear-area-protection mission was vital, as the Army of the Potomac’s lifeline, the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, traversed a wasted region in which the roads were described as “the worst to be found within … boundaries of the Western World.”

Recognizing the vulnerability of the Union Army in this area, Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart advised Mosby on April 26, 1863, that the quasi-guerilla leader had “a splendid opportunity to strike the enemy in rear of Warrenton Junction [todays Calverton]. The trains are running regularly all the time.” An attack on the railroad was feasible, Stuart continued, if Mosby struck the rail line “far enough from a [cavalry] brigade camp to give you time to get off your plunder and prisoners.”

• • •

At the time Stuart wrote, the bulk of the Union cavalry was located well forward, near Warrenton Junction, Bealton and Warrenton Springs. Such an attack, Stuart reasoned, would not only interrupt Federal communications, but also, perhaps, provide valuable information on large-scale troop movements between the front and Washington.

The idea appealed to Mosby, but his little band, though it had motive and ample opportunity, was somewhat lacking in means. As Mosby explained in his May 19, 1863, report to Stuart he had not attacked Federal railroad trains because they were well-guarded by infantry, and he had no ammunition for his carbines. He couldn’t contend against the rifles of the train guards with pistols alone.

On the other hand, Mosby wrote: “If you would let me have a mountain howitzer, I think I could use it with great effect, especially on the railroad trains. I have several experienced artillerists with me. The effect of such annoyance is to force the enemy to make heavy details to guard their communication.”

A mountain howitzer was a lightweight, highly mobile artillery piece that was designed, as the designation implies, to be employed in difficult terrain.

• • •

Toward the end of May, Stuart provided Mosby with a mountain howitzer. Having acquired the desired means, Mosby began his preparations. Forty-eight rangers were assembled on the morning of May 29, and Lt. Sam Chapman, an officer of the Dixie Artillery, hastily trained a handful of them as a gun crew. After scarcely an hour of drilling, the command set out from its Fauquier County lair for Greenwich and the rail line.

On the morning of the 30th, Mosby’s command moved by way of Squire Stone’s farm, which lay halfway between Catlett and Nokesville. The railway was about a half-mile east of the farmhouse. Local lore has it that the partisans numbered 60 men by this time, so they may have gained a dozen or so in their approach march.

Using a crowbar, the rangers prized a rail loose from the ties by removing the spikes. They then replaced the rail so it wouldn’t look as if anyone had tampered with it. A rope was fastened to the loosened rail, allowing it to be removed quickly from alongside the roadbed. While this was going on, the mountain howitzer was unlimbered and trained on the track, the telegraph wires were cut, and the partisans secreted themselves in the woods and brush nearby.

Sometime in the forenoon, the first of the day’s freights came rumbling toward the ambush site. Rounding a curve and heading into the straightaway toward Catlett, the engineer spotted a man in civilian dress standing near the level crossing of the Dumfries Road. As the engine neared the loosened rail, it was jerked aside, and the train ran off the track. At the same time, Chapman’s howitzer put a round through its boiler.

The surprise was complete and threw the train guard into a panic. A Union soldier described what happened:

“[The Confederates] removed the rails from the track which threw the train off & no sooner had the train get off the track than they sent shells & solid shot whizzing through the engine with artillery which they had concealed in the woods close by. The train was guarded by a detachment from the 15th [Vermont] regt. but they jumped off the cars & run pell mell.”

• • •

Mosby’s men quickly plundered the train, each man carrying off some little things — newspapers, mailbags, candies, hides, fresh fish. But with cavalry camps nearby, there was no time to tarry, and the train was set afire. The guerilla band made off in the direction of Greenwich. In the aftermath, local civilians descended on the scene and “got a lot of clothing, blankets and assorted equipment.”

As the Confederates attempted to make good their escape, what amounted to a rapid-reaction force (to use a modern term) was assembled quickly. A detachment of the 1st Vermont Cavalry at Kettle Run, a few miles north, had heard the fire of Mosby’s gun and moved quickly to find the raiders. The Vermonters numbered about 125 troopers of Companies C and H, commanded by Lt. Col. Addison W. Preston. Other nearby mounted units joined in: detachments of the 5th New York and 7th Michigan cavalries, which were quartered at Bristoe Station. The Michiganders set off to investigate the ambush site, while the Vermonters and New Yorkers moved west and north to intercept the most likely escape route of the raiders.

The raiders had gone but a few miles when the advance guard of the 5th New York was spotted on a hill ahead of them. The presence of the main body was supposed from the cloud of dust that rose from behind the hill. Ordinarily, Mosby might have slipped his pursuers easily, but the little howitzer once again affected how events would play out. On the one hand, it provided the rangers with the capability of hitting the Federals at a distance, hurting them and keeping them back; on the other, it impeded the overall mobility of the band — a factor that ultimately proved fatal.

Mosby’s howitzer was unlimbered and dropped a shell into the midst of the enemy, killing a horse and creating some confusion. It was the first shot in what became a running battle as the Yankees hung about the Confederates and gathered strength, while the rangers, unaware initially of the size of the force gathering against them, held the near pursuers off with the howitzer and an aggressive rear guard under the command of Ranger Willie Foster.

Finally, the rangers were brought to bay at the Warren Fitzhugh farm (Grapewood Farm) two miles southwest of Greenwich, near the south gate of present-day Vint Hill Farms. There Mosby became aware of the strength of his pursuers, and he sought a defensible position to make a stand. A position was found on rising ground “at the head of a short, narrow lane, with high fences on either side” (today’s Finch Lane). The howitzer was unlimbered and charged with canister; the rangers were under no illusions — they prepared to make the Yankees pay for the howitzer “as dearly as possible.”

• • •

The first Yankee attack was made by the advance guard of the 5th New York Cavalry, 25 men under Lt. Elmer Barker. Charging up the farm lane, his band closed to within 50 yards of the gun when it was swept by a round of canister and countercharged by Mosby. Barker’s men suffered terribly and were pushed back by the rangers; the melee continued for a half-mile. Ten Yankees went down, three of them killed; Barker was wounded but was said to have fought Mosby personally. Among the Confederates, the English soldier-adventurer Capt. Bradford Smith Hoskins was wounded badly. Hoskins was a veteran of the Crimea and Garibaldi wars in Italy, but this would be his last fight.

Mosby’s success was fleeting. Preston’s Vermonters were now up and crowded forward in compact columns: stolid, forbidding masses. Barker’s remnant joined them. Mosby’s position was attacked from its front and right flank. Colonel Preston reported: “The rebels fought their piece with desperation, firing their last shot after they were surrounded by our men, which shot passed through a horse not 20 feet from the gun and wounded several men.”

• • •

The mounted rangers recognized the futility of the struggle and fled, but for the artillerymen, it was a different matter. To abandon a gun was not in the gunners’ nature, and though they had it within their power, Chapman and his gun crew resisted fiercely with pistol and rammer. Finally, they were overcome. His enemies recognized Chapman’s gallantry, and he and others of the rangers who were too badly wounded to be moved were paroled on the field. The howitzer, so dearly bought, was driven off in triumph by the Yankee cavalrymen.

And so the little fight ended. The Federal loss was 4 killed and 15 wounded; the Confederates reportedly had 6 killed, 20 wounded and 10 captured (most from among the wounded) but actually may have had many fewer casualties.

Chapman and Hoskins were carried to the residence of Tom Green, an Englishman long residing in the States, where they were aided by Mrs. Green. Chapman remembered that he and Hoskins passed a harrowing night: “Poor Hoskins would call out to me during the night to know how I was. We tried to cheer each other up.” But Hoskins was mortally wounded; his poignant, despairing last words were: “Oh, has it come to this, that I must die in this way? No, No. That I should ever have come to this.” He was buried at Greenwich Presbyterian Church.

Mosby’s raid was a typical incident of partisan warfare. Both sides would claim success in reports and reminiscences. The dead would be buried, the wounded cared for, and within a short time, the cat-and-mouse game was resumed.

Curt Johnson is a historian and military analyst who lives in McLean, Va.

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