Fauquier Sulphur Springs

”]John Pope and Irvin McDowell are sitting by a roadside…

This sounds like the beginning of a very bad Civil War-related joke and is a strange way to begin my first posting about the 11th Corps, especially since the 11th Corps didn’t officially exist in August 1862.  However, most of the regiments were already in place in brigade and division organizations as the 1st Corps of Pope’s Army of Virginia.

By way of background, the Army of Virginia was cobbled together from various Federal units in the Shenandoah Valley and northern and central Virginia in the summer of 1862 and placed under the command of Major General John Pope.  Pope is well-known as one in a series of “loser” generals who fought Lee and Jackson.  He was full of a lot of talk and very little action; what decisions Pope did make were usually wrong ones.  Before things really got out of hand during the 2nd Bull Run campaign, however, the Army of Virginia was holding a line on the north bank of the Rappahannock River.  And there, by the Waterloo Bridge and Fauquier White Sulphur Springs in Fauquier County, Virginia, in mid-August 1862, we find Franz Sigel’s 1st Corps.

I’ve been re-reading John Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run, about the 2nd Bull Run Campaign, and there is a brief description of Jubal Early and his Confederate troops being trapped at Sulphur Springs (I will refer to the location as Sulphur Springs from now on; it was known by multiple names) by the rising Rappahannock waters followed by their seemingly miraculous escape. Incidents like this are the “stuff” for which Civil War Trails markers are made.  Yet a search of state and local websites, as well as www.hmdb.org, reveals no Civil War Trails marker at the site and a lone state highway marker on east-bound US 211 just past the Fauquier county line that mentions, in passing, all the river crossings from Waterloo to Kelly’s Ford.  Even www.fauquiercivilwar.com pays scant attention to what happened.  “Minor skirmishes” just do not sound very dramatic.

I suppose the reason for this is because “it” could have happened, but didn’t.  “It” was Jubal Early and much of his brigade being annihilated by Sigel’s corps.  So what did happen at Sulphur Springs in August 1862? 

Hennessy covers the Sulphur Springs incident quickly; Freeman, in Lee’s Lieutenants, gives a slightly more detailed version of the story; Robertson mentions it in a couple of paragraphs in his Stonewall Jackson biography; Swinton, in Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, uses two sentences.  I enjoy Freeman’s account (it’s near the beginning of Volume 2, if you are interested in reading it for yourself).  I can summarize the action, but not nearly as dramatically as Freeman did.

In an effort to seize the initiative in a potentially stalled campaign, Jackson attempted to outflank Pope by moving up (north) along the south bank of the Rappahannock, crossing the river and getting around Pope’s right flank.  Every ford and bridge was covered by Federal troops until Jackson got to Sulphur Springs on August 22.  The bridge at that location was burned by the Federals two days earlier.  Jackson wanted Richard Ewell to send his division across the river to gain a foothold for the next morning.  Two brigades were initially supposed to cross, Lawton’s by Sulphur Springs and Early’s by a dam one mile south.  As Early’s troops were crossing, it began to rain hard and the river rose so much that no more troops could cross over without a bridge.  As if this were not bad enough, Early then discovered that the 13th Georgia was the only unit of Lawton’s brigade present at Sulphur Springs.  Naturally, he consolidated his troops with the Georgia troops and anxiously awaited an end to this crisis. 

Federal cavalry was in the area; six troopers were captured near Sulphur Springs.  Perhaps the Official Records will have information on which unit or units were in the area.  With Stonewall Jackson’s input, on August 23, Early positioned himself behind a swollen creek to await what Federal infantry might try to advance on his isolated troops.  Early was certain that an advance was imminent once Federal infantry was observed arriving to support their cavalry.  He expected the worst.  That afternoon, Beverley Robertson arrived with most of a cavalry brigade and two pieces of artillery on their way back from J.E.B. Stuart’s Catlett Station raid.  The two guns were positioned near the Sulphur Springs hotel and fired on Federal ordnance wagons.  The Federals responded with shots from a six-gun battery.  Again, which unit could this have been?

On the night of the 23rd, the Federal infantry began their advance.  One volley was fired towards the Confederates from nearby woods, but then there were three cheers and something Freeman refers to as a “tiger”.  Would any readers know what a “tiger” is?  And who were these infantry?  No additional sounds were heard, but Early had canister shot at the Federals just to be safe.

A temporary bridge over the Rappahannock had been built during the night and the Confederate troops were back on the south side of the river shortly after dawn on August 24, 1862.  Even with the rest of Lawton’s brigade arriving during the night, Early was certain that any sustained Federal attack would have destroyed his command.

The Official Records should fill out more of the Federal side of the story, but it appears that two-thirds of the Army of Virginia was converging on Sulphur Springs at this time.  Sigel’s Corps was at Sulphur Springs and Waterloo in the days before Jackson arrived.  It seems likely they were still in the area.  Why did they not attack? 

Contemporary photographs show the Sulphur Springs hotel in ruins.  There seems to be some controversy over which side was responsible for the destruction of the hotel.  It was used as a field hospital by the Federals during summer 1862.  Do any of the ruins still exist?

Attached to this post is a Library of Congress image of a bridge being built at Sulphur Springs.  I understand that the abutments of the old bridge are still visible.  Sounds like a road trip may be in order in the near future…

And we’ll leave Pope and McDowell sitting by that roadside for a little while longer.

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