Wherein we learn the strategic value of a forgotten tributary
On April 20, 1862, the Revenue Cutter Miami sat in Aquia Creek. The Miami was a sleek, 150 foot craft with a schooner-rigged screw-driven steamship that looked like a glamorous luxury yacht. She was. The Revenue Service (one of the forerunners of today's Coast Guard) had purchased her in January from Arthur Leary, owner of one of the largest lines of merchant vessels in the world (briefly in business with Sir Edward Cunard, son of the founder of the Cunard Line--to sneak a Titanic centennial in here, the unsinkable ship was built by White Star in response to Cunard's building of the Lusitania). Like the Harriet Lane, which had become the flagship of the Potomac Flotilla, the Revenue Service had outfitted the Miami for war.
Her arrival at the Navy Yard to receive her guns and ordnance the first week of April had drawn crows of admirers, including Abraham Lincoln, who insisted on a cruise to Alexandria with his family in her. On April 20, Lincoln was again on board, but this time with a more serious purpose. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, and a gaggle of staff of various ranks were with him, all on their way to visit the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula.
Lincoln had stopped at Aquia Creek to confer with the commander of the Department of the Rappahannock, Maj. General Irvin McDowell. McDowell had captured Fredericksburg the day before, the latest in a series of Union victories occurring everywhere except for the Virginia Peninsula (as a city on the Rappahannock, Fredericksburg is outside of the purview of this blog, but there is a remarkably exciting collection of official reports relating to the capture that are worth a read, if you like such things).
View Dept of Rappahannock, End of April 1862 in a larger map, containing details beyond the frame of this one.
Aquia (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, Ah-KWE-ya) Creek Landing would become McDowell's headquarters for the department. True to the preferences of a staffer, a lifetime vocation he was only a year removed from, McDowell picked a base of operations that was superb for his lines of communication. For one, it made it easy to keep in touch with his higher ups in Washington, Lincoln and Stanton. But logistically, Aquia Creek was the perfect place to land supplies by water to be transferred by rail in facilitation of an advance to Richmond along the railroad.
Aquia Creek first shows up in English-speaking history in the voyages of John Smith. After a year exploring along the James River--during which time Smith claims to have been rescued by Pocahontas (no Englishman but Smith was there, and apparently no one thought to ask the Powhatans)--Smith turned to mapping the Chesapeake Bay and gathering material for his fanciful history of Virginia. In that history, published while he was recuperating in England from wound received in an accidental gunpowder explosion, Smith recounts seeing "clay sand so mingled with yellow spangles as if it had been half pin-dust" along the banks of the Potomac River.
Looking for still precious metals on behalf of his bank rollers, Smith made a deal with the chief of the tribe that lived along the banks of the river.
In our return inquiring still for this antimony mine, the king of Patawomeke gave us guides to conduct us up a little river called Quiyough, up which we rowed as high as we could. Leaving the boat, with six shot, and divers salvages, he marches seven or eight miles before they came to the mine: leading his hostages in a small chain they were to have for their pains, being proud to be so richly adorned.
|Smith's Map of Virginia (1612) (Virginia Historical Society)|
The creek was also useful to the English colonists as an alternate power center to Powhatan's capital in Werowocomoco on the York River. The Aquia was the northwesternmost corner of Powhatan's territory, and the beginning of the Virginia tribes allies with his sometimes-enemies, the Potomac. The border tribes could often be induced to switch sides, depending on what the English offered and their own politics. In one such dispute, the tribes on the banks of the Aquia seized Pocahontas, who was visiting as part of a delegation to secure their help in a war against Jamestown, and sold her to the English to use as a hostage. John Rolfe was on the expedition to Aquia, and probably first spoke with his future wife there.
The tribes moved by water, but also along a great north-south trail that had been established for centuries along one of the first ridges and ran near where the Aquia widens. As the Masons, the Fitzhughs, and other of the early planters moved into the Northern Neck of Virginia, this native trail was cleared and expanded to become the Potomac Path. Eventually the road would receive Royal attention and become the King's Highway, able to be traveled from Boston to Williamsburg. George Washington did, when on his way to Yorktown to defeat the British, but the cash-crop focused residents of Stafford, Prince William, and Fairfax Counties preferred to make use of the creeks to ship out their products, and the road fell into disuse.
It was this worn, not well-kept road that McDowell had marched his army down. It would be another 60 years before much of the King's Highway north of Richmond would be rebuilt in order to be incorporated into the Jefferson Davis Highway and, eventually, U.S. Route 1. If he hadn't learned on the way to Bull Run, then he certainly learned on the march in April 1862 that the quality of the roads was the number one detriment to the functioning of his army. Fortunately, Aquia Creek Landing provided the solution to McDowell's problems.
Since 1815 a steamship from Washington City had run to Aquia Creek Landing, the preferred method of travel, given the roads. From there it was a much shorter trip to Fredericksburg, where there were plenty of larger steamships bound for points south. By 1837 Fredericksburg had an additional draw, a railroad to Richmond, where one could catch a train to Norfolk or North Carolina with equal ease. The Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad achieved its founders' dreams of reaching the Potomac in 1842 when it completed the line all the way to Aquia Creek Landing. Three years later it bought the steamboat company, and the R,F&P could boast to its customers a single itinerary from Richmond to Washington City, where one could catch a B&O train to points north and west (the railroad wouldn't be extended to Alexandria until 1872).
This railhead had been the reason that before the Confederate government had even placed soldiers at Manassas Junction it had placed a major general (Theophilus Holmes) at Aquia Creek. Today, when Aquia Creek is a little green sign barely noticed while speeding down I-95 to Fredericksburg (in one of the few places one still can move quickly on I-95), it's not apparent why the Aquia deserved its own military command. To Irvin McDowell, there was little doubt where his headquarters belonged.
With victories in the West at Shiloh and Island No. 10, and with Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks very near to driving the famed Stonewall Jackson straight out of the Shenandoah Valley, Lincoln and Stanton were ready for McClellan to make a move. He had spent months training and drilling his army in Northern Virginia, and only took action after a direct order to do something--anything. He had moved to the Virginia Peninsula at Fort Monroe and almost immediately stopped, to lay siege to the Confederate works at Yorktown.
|Aquia Creek Landing in Feb 1863|
McDowell's men had advanced through Northern Virginia to occupy the area vacated by the Confederates along two lines, one down the King's Highway and the other down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad (for accounts of the drunken debauchery of the Pennsylvania Reserves, see All Not So Quiet on the Potomac's post about preparing to leave Alexandria and then marching to Manassas Junction). One of McDowell's brigade commanders, Brig. General George Meade, had little regard for the advance, and wrote from Catlett's Station on the O&A:
Sometimes I fancy the great object in sending McDowell this way is that the country may be laid to waste, and the negroes all freed. Such certainly is the practical result of the movement, whether designed or not, and as there is no other apparent object, it is reasonable to infer this is the one designed.But Meade's trademark cynicism notwithstanding, there was a design at play. With the Pennsylvania Reserves helping to maintain communication with Banks (a military term, meaning keeping a clean line of travel between two forces, in this case Strasburg and McDowell's moving men), McDowell's other division under Brig. General Rufus King went due south towards Fredericksburg. At first intending to only capture Falmouth, when the Confederate defenders (who were outnumbered four-to-one) fell back he was clear to capture a key crossing of the Rappahannock as well.
If McDowell could rebuild the railroad bridge on the R,F&P, then he could land supplies and Aquia and move them by rail on towards Richmond. Suddenly, the Northerners had the Confederates fighting on two fronts. With the bulk of the Southern army facing McClellan at Yorktown, McDowell might even be able to capture Richmond himself. Though it's not written anywhere, McDowell surely had visions of redeeming his embarrassment at Bull Run.
The only problem was that McDowell was one division short. McClellan's temper-tantrum-by-telegraph about taking away his First Corps had lead Lincoln to agree that McDowell's First Division (under McClellan favorite Brig. General William B. Franklin) should be sent to the Peninsula. On board the Miami, McDowell was promised one of Banks' two divisions, just as soon as Jackson's rebel army had cleared out of the Valley. In anticipation for his operations on Richmond, he ordered the Pennsylvania Reserves to march, one brigade at a time, to Falmouth.