Battle of Hartwood Church and the Peterhoff Incident
A cavalry clash occurred on this date of February 25, 1863 known as the Battle of Hartwood Church. On a high ground and wooded crossroads in Stafford County, Virginia stood a Presbyterian church that was constructed in 1858. The roads connected to fords on the Rappahannock River.
On the south side, Lee had many reports of Union movements, particularly of the sizeable 9th Corp’s departure from the Army of the Potomac. Burnside’s old corps – with understandable sympathies for their now banished commander, was being removed to the Virginia Peninsula. Lee needed to understand the nature of what was happening, and he sent his nephew Fitzhugh Lee to scout it out.
On the 25th, Lee’s cavalry collided with Union cavalry of the 16th Pennsylvania at the location of the brick Hartwood Church. These green Yankee horsemen were quickly dealt with, but, being merely the outer ring of forces, Lee before long ran into more cavalry and eventually Union infantry. He pulled back from this largely successful engagement, learning that the Army of the Potomac was not making moves for a large-scale action.
Fitzhugh Lee would leave behind a taunting note for his former West Point classmate and friend, Brigadier General William W. Averell, saying, “I wish you would quit your shooting and get out of my state and go home. If you won’t go home, why don’t you come pay me visit? Send me over a bag of coffee.” Nearly one month later, Averell would accept the invitation by retaliating at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford.
Though the Confederate cavalry enjoyed a definitive advantage for much of the first half of the War, the times were changing. Union horsemen would soon emerge as a force to be reckoned with. The best resource on this battle and this evolving season of the war is the lively and very colorfully readable account of Eric Wittenberg entitled The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863.
Also occurring on this date in 1863 was an event many hundreds of miles to the south in the West Indies. The U.S.S. Vanderbilt seized a British blockage-runner named the Peterhoff … in the neutral port of Saint Thomas. This was done under the command of a seriously arrogant “loose cannon” – Acting Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes (written about in one of the best books I’ve ever read – by Nathaniel Philbrick (2003), Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842). Though the papers were in order and stated the vessel was bound for Matamoras, Mexico, apparently a crew member indiscreetly said the actual destination was Brownsville, TX. This leak was seized upon as sufficient evidence to seize the boat! After the war the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this seizure as wrongful, and the owners of the ship were compensated.