For our summer issue, I was working on a layout for a poem about the site of the Battle of the Wilderness by Dr. David Sam, President of Germanna Community College. I found a couple great historic photos and drawings of the Rapidan river crossings, both from Union and Confederate photographers and artists. Then I put two and two together and realized that a Civil War canoe trip that my husband and I were scheduled for on June 13 went right through the location of the photos and sketches.
The guided canoe trip was hosted by the Friends of the Rappahannock, and led by their Community Conservationist Woodie Walker with a number of very helpful volunteers, and accompanied by National Park Service Supervisory Historian Greg Mertz, to provide the history part. We put in at Germanna Ford, and paddled about 8 miles to Ely’s Ford.
Mr. Mertz did an great job of giving a presentation (using garden hoses on the ground to display the Rappahannock and Radian rivers) on the role of the rivers in the battles of The Wilderness and Chancellorsville that gave people with somewhat limited knowledge of the intricacies of the logistics of the battles a good enough overview to understand the sites we were to see while also intriguing those that knew more. My husband and I were of the first type. There were civil war buffs that asked much more involved questions, which he also readily answered.
The day was an absolute joy-the river was clear so you could see the bottom (and some fish), if a little low for canoes in places. Enough “rapids” to make it exciting, but mostly very relaxing and just plain beautiful. It was a hot day, but there was enough cloud cover to make it just a little cooler without raining. One of the best parts of the day was watching Woodie’s grandson jump out of his canoe and swim at every stop. His love of the river was just striking, and reminded me of my childhood, always in the water in the rivers of New Hampshire. We were also able to see a bald eagle’s nest (pictured), and actually also saw 2 bald eagles, but my camera wasn’t enough to photograph them.
While I was also interested in the history aspect of the tour, my great love is the land and the rivers of the Piedmont. What fascinates me is the change in the use and topography of the land and rivers. In colonial days, fresh water rivers were crucial for everything in life. Water to drink, of course, and fishing. But necessary for farming, transportation, boats, and therefore commerce. The land was cleared for dwellings, farms, and also logged for these purposes. So, as in contemporary photos and drawings from the 1860s, the riverbanks are clear, and have houses and farms near them. The river appears wider in the vintage photos. I was able to take photos, from the Route 3 bridge over the Rapidan, of the approximately same view depicted in the historic photos and sketches. As you can see, the banks are covered with vegetation and the river looks narrower, but you can still see the upward slope of the land on the far side of the river. That is still clear, and has homes, but more of the cookie-cutter subdivision type.
At the time of the Civil War, part of the area had been allowed to reforest and had about 20 years or so of new forest growth. As we all know in Virginia, things grow fast-trees, but also the vines, brambles, and undergrowth. The area called The Wilderness was very difficult terrain to fight in, and to move armies through. According to Woodie, “The new forest growth limited visibility and contributed to the savage nature of the fighting. The men had to get very close to each other to aim accurately. In fact, the the battle was fought in May and there were still dried leaves from the previous fall on the ground. These leaves caught on fire and many wounded men died in the flames.”
All in all, the battles along the Radian near Germanna Ford were some of the most difficult battles for both armies, in no small part due to the terrain. Chancellorsville was, of course, where Stonewall Jackson received the wounds (unfortunately from friendly fire) that ultimately resulted in his death. I’m suspecting the forest and the terrain may have contributed to this unfortunate, possibly history-changing event. Some believe the loss of Jackson completely changed the course, and the outcome, of the war.
We learned about the 3 types of river fords that the armies needed-cavalry fords, which were the easiest to find, since horses can usually easily cross rivers, even if they have to swim a bit. Infantry crossings were a little harder to find-men had to walk through the water carrying their firearms which could not get wet, so ideally were shallow enough so as not to require swimming, and also had banks gradual enough for men to walk up-no cliffs or huge rocks to scale. Artillery crossings were the most difficult-they had to be able to cross cannons and large artillery as well as, the huge numbers of supply wagons, which were of of equal importance. As you might suspect, artillery crossings were hard to find, so usually involved the building of pontoon bridges (pictured in the historic photos).
Now, we don’t need the rivers for the same purposes. Not fresh water (not directly anyway), the fishing is mostly recreational. Not transportation, not commerce. The use of local rivers now is primarily for appreciation and recreation. Friends of the Rappahannock is an organization for the preservation and appreciation of the river; ecologically, environmentally, and historically, so it can be responsibly enjoyed by everyone. They have frequent events-the Civil War Paddle occurs once a year, but they have a moonlight paddle on the Rappahannock coming up on July 10 in Fredericksburg, and other events throughout the year.
In our summer issue, we will have Dr. Sam’s haunting poetry about the site of the Wilderness battle, and also a brief article and photos about “Blue Ridge to the Bay: A Rappahannock River Odyssey.” In April, FOR volunteer Brent Hunsinger paddled the length of the Rappahannock from as close to the source as he could get with a canoe to the Chesapeake Bay. His purpose was to raise awareness and funds for FOR, bringing attention to the historical, natural and cultural aspects of the river, as well as highlighting the challenges the river continues to face. He posted both photos and videos heavily on social media, so visiting his Facebook page will give you an excellent feel for his experiences, and the river itself.
Friends of the Rappahannock: http://www.riverfriends.org and https://www.facebook.com/Friendsoftherappahannock?fref=ts
Rappahannock River Odyssey: https://www.facebook.com/rappriverodyssey/timeline
Pam Kamphuis is a transplant from New England who has come to appreciate and love the Piedmont area of Virginia in the 25 years she’s been living here, largely through working for the Piedmont Virginian. She is the Production Manager and an editor for the magazine. She lives in Warrenton with her husband Jan, daughter Sarah, two dogs and a cat while also keeping an eye on two grown stepsons and a daughter-in-law at the beach in NC.