The Battle of Morton’s Ford mattered little in the grand scope of the Civil War, but to the men of the Fourteenth, it was more costly than either Antietam or Fredericksburg. And it all came to pass because one of the most despised Union generals, Benjamin Butler, then in command of the Army of the James east of Richmond, had the notion that he could take the Confederate capital, if only the Army of the Potomac pressured Lee along the Rapidan line.
The Second Corps was given the task of carrying out a “demonstration” at Morton’s Ford. Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren was reported sick and confined to quarters, so command of the corps fell upon Brig. Gen. John Caldwell. Early on the morning of Saturday, February 6th, 1864, Caldwell sent the Third Division, still under the command of Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays toward the Rapidan River.
Seeing only a thin skirmish line on the other side, the First Brigade forded the icy river at about 10:30 a.m., and under the cover of a cold rain captured some of the Rebel pickets. Then they advanced up the slope toward the buildings of the Morton farm, but the firing at the picket line had alerted the enemy of their presence. The brigade came under sporadic fire and stopped about 800 yards from the main Confederate line. Batteries of artillery were brought up to the river, and at about 1:30 p.m., the Second Brigade, under Col. Thomas Smyth and which included the Fourteenth Connecticut, was ordered to ford the river in support of the First Brigade.
The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut marched up the slope toward just as the First Brigade had done earlier. More and more Rebel troops were sent to this portion of the line. Firing increased and resistance stiffened. The men took shelter in a shallow ravine between the river and the Morton farm. Charles Page wrote the following in his history of the regiment:
The position of the Union men was a hazardous one, being exposed to an attack from the right, left and front, or from all three quarters combined by a greatly superior force, and such an attack could hardly have failed to dislodge the Union forces from the shallow ravine and drive them back in confusion upon the river. General Hays rode back and forth upon his galloping steed, his reckless manner and incoherent language indicating that he had added two or three extra fingers to his morning dram. General Warren was also indisposed the early part of the day, his indisposition lifting itself and allowing him to be on the field late in the afternoon for a few minutes. The brigade commander (Col. Charles Powers, 108th NY) was also so seriously indisposed as to be unable to sit upon his saddle or even to walk about, but sat listlessly in a large arm-chair brought from one of the neighboring houses.
Early in the afternoon a body of Confederate troops attacked the First Brigade. The Second Brigade was called to go in support and the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut surged forward into the battle.
Meanwhile, back in their camp at Stony Mountain, another group of officers’ wives had arrived from Brandy Station. Imagine their torment when, instead of enjoying sweet reunions with their husbands, they witnessed the developing battle from atop the low hill, and could only imagine what their husbands were going through.
Next Week (Feb. 7) – Part 2 of this deadly “demonstration.”