150 Years Ago This Week: Gen. Stuart’s close shave

November 1862

The Federal Army of the Potomac, concentrated in Fauquier County around Warrenton, on Saturday, Nov. 8, was rocked by the news of Gen. George McClellan’s dismissal as their commander. “Little Mac” was loved by all of his troops. This feeling made the job difficult for the new army commander, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside – a competent, rather stodgy, definitely uncertain officer who had no desire to command the army and, in fact, tried to decline it. There was another command change on Nov. 8 as well: Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks – the commander who had been bested several times by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley – was assigned command of the Department of the Gulf, based in New Orleans, replacing Maj. Gen. Ben Butler. Gen. Butler’s dictatorial rule in New Orleans had brought charges and countercharges of cruelty, speculation, dishonesty and theft. Gen. Banks’ orders were clear: “The president regards the opening of the Mississippi River as the first and most important of our military and naval operations.” The same day he was relieved of command, Gen. Butler ordered all breweries and distilleries within his area of authority closed.

Gen. Burnside assumed command of the Army of the Potomac on Nov. 9 at Warrenton, the same day that Federal cavalry under Ulrich Dahlgren made a surprise raid into Fredericksburg, Va. On Nov. 10, Gen. McClellan took an emotional and spectacular farewell of the Army of the Potomac at the Warren Green Hotel in Warrenton, and rode through columns of cheering troops lining both sides of the Warrenton Turnpike on his way to Washington. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and his Confederate cavalry were in Rappahannock County, screening the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia moving towards Culpeper.

Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart
Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart

At Corbin’s Crossroads, about a mile south of Amissville, Gen. Stuart’s men came upon Union cavalry, commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasanton, occupying the high ground just north of the crossroads. In the highly spirited fight between the Northern and Southern horsemen, two Confederate infantry regiments commanded by Col. Carnot Posey of Mississippi faced three regiments of Union infantry commanded by Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis providing support for the cavalry. (During the previous summer, Gen. Sturgis eloquently said of his Army of Virginia commander, “I don’t care for John Pope one pinch of owl dung.”) The overwhelming numbers of Union troops and the high ground they occupied proved too much for the Confederates, and they withdrew south toward the Hazel River. As the fighting closed, one of Gen. Stuart’s staff, Maj. Heros von Borcke (a Prussian officer fighting for the Confederacy, and said to be one of the tallest men in Confederate service) was near Gen. Stuart when he heard a bullet whiz by his face. At about the same moment, Gen. Stuart turned to look at Maj. von Borcke, and the major observed the Federal bullet clip off half of Gen. Stuart’s luxurious moustache just as closely as if it had been trimmed by an experienced barber. Had Gen. Stuart not turned his head, the bullet would have drilled into his cheek and most likely killed him. It was a literal close shave.

That same Nov. 10, Gen. Robert E. Lee reorganized the cavalry corps, giving Gen. Stuart an additional brigade of cavalry. The news of the reorganization was bittersweet: Gen. Stuart received a letter from his wife in Lynchburg, saying that their five-year old daughter, Flora, had died of an illness on Nov. 3. Near Warrenton, as the week closed, Gen. Burnside reorganized the Army of the Potomac into three Grand Divisions, the Left, Center and Right. On Nov. 14, Gen. Burnside’s plan for another drive on Richmond was approved by President Lincoln.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.