A Minor 1863 Cavalry Action Has Numerous Interesting Trivia Issues
The Affair at Hartwood Church, 23 February 1863, began as a small cavalry raid by 400 troopers under Confederate Fitzhugh Lee, who sought to develop tactical intelligence regarding Union dispositions and intentions. The raid was motivated by the improved performance of Union cavalry as a result of Hooker’s organizational changes and the resulting lack of information desired by RE Lee. Hooker, however, was just beginning to experiment with his changed cavalry structure and was having some growing pains in the process. One was the extreme thinness due to the extended length of his picket lines north of the Falmouth encampments east of the Rappahannock and across from Fredericksburg that were manned by Union Generals Pleasonton and Averell.
Fitzhugh Lee’s raid would penetrate Averell’s line and reach past Hartwood Church to within a few yards of Sickles’infantry sentinels. Having achieved his objective of determining that the Union force had not moved, Lee headed back to his own lines but not before leaving a note for Averell saying, “I wish you would put up your sword, leave my state and go home. You ride a good horse, I ride a better. Yours can beat mine running (referring to the speed with which the pickets gave way). If you won’t go home, return my visit and bring a sack of coffee”. Averell intended to do just that!
Fitzhugh Lee was a 28 year old Confederate Major General. BG William F. Averell was 30. They were friends West Point and old army days. Averell was in the class of 1855 and Lee 1856. Both carried indian arrow heads in their backs from 1859 battles with Comanches. So Lee’s jibe to his friend deserved a proper response.
That response came in a return raid which culminated in the engagement at Kelly’s Ford on 17 March 1863. Averell’s troopers acquitted themselves well in this small action but it was rather costly to the Confederates in an unusual way. There were two southern officers who went to observe the performance of Fitz Lee’s force. JEB Stuart and his Chief of Artillery, Major John Pelham. Stuart sat his horse and observed while Pelham became so excited to participate that he joined in a cavalry charge as a volunteer and was killed. His loss was duly noted and mourned throughout the Confederacy.
Now for the trivia. The rebel cavalry was dressed in Union blue overcoats when they encountered the Union pickets and were able to capture about 150 prisoners without firing a shot. Lee’s approach was difficult because of the very deep snow. He only had 400 troopers but the Hooker’s response was to telegraph for non-existant reinforcements believing RE Lee had bigger plans and would intercept the telegram and cancel his plan based on the belief that a corps would be dispatched into his rear. Had the Union Cavalry leaders reacted aggressively they may have bagged Gen Lee and his entire force. In his excited state Hooker telegraphed Secretary of War Stanton but there is no record that anyone awakened President Lincoln regarding the perceived threat to the Army of the Potomac.
The Union cavalry continued to improve from this point onward while due to logistic and manpower reasons the Confederate cavalry began its decline.