[Morton’s Ford – Part 1 is just below and should be read first.]
Early on the afternoon of February 6th, 1864, the First Brigade (3rd Div., 2nd Corps) was positioned between the buildings of the Morton farm and the Confederate line of breastworks atop a low ridge in front of them. A large body of troops came out quickly from the works and attacked the First Brigade. Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays called upon the Second Brigade, which included our friends in the Fourteenth Connecticut, to go forward to support the First Brigade. Reported to be drunk at the time, Hays was seen swinging an axe wildly over his head and shouting, “We will cast them down as we do this brush!”
The addition of the Second Brigade stabilized the Federal line. As the afternoon wore on, the fighting became more intense, sometimes hand to hand. At dusk the Confederates renewed the attack on the Federal right flank, but three regiments, one of which was the Fourteenth Connecticut counterattacked and pushed the Confederates back. Everyone involved on both sides knew Federal position was untenable and Gen. Warren ordered Gen. Hays to withdraw his troops. As darkness fell, Hays’ saddle took a direct hit from an enemy minié ball. The general crashed to the ground, shaken but uninjured.
A stalemate developed when neither side wished to make any move in the darkness. Here and there small pockets of combatants fought desperate, almost private battles. At about eight o’clock the Federals began to fall back toward the Rapidan and crossed to the north bank by midnight. Federal casualties were about 254. 115 were members of the Fourteenth, 14 killed or mortally wounded, 85 wounded, 16 missing.
It was a stupid, useless affair that was poorly conceived and directed by officers who were not at their best, to say the least. Capt. William Hawley (Company K, 14th CT) didn’t mince any words in condemning those he thought responsible:
Do you know that when our Second Corps was ordered on that reconnaissance February 6th General Warren was so drunk as to be unable to be with the corps until nearly sundown? The papers say he was unwell, but the truth is he was drunk. General Alexander Hays, our division commander, had just enough whiskey in him to make him reckless and almost like a crazy man. Colonel Powers, commanding the brigade was really unfit to command by reason of liquor. I suppose I am liable to court martial for thus speaking of my superior officers, but it is the truth.
Fiction Connection: In my novel An Eye for Glory, Sgt. Michael Palmer was home on furlough during the debacle at Morton’s Ford, but his friend, Cpl. Jim Adams, returned from the foray across the Rapidan with a large Bowie knife that he had taken from an unfortunate Rebel during the desperate fighting in the dark.