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Historic Crossings of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers (Volume 32 #3)


by Eric Nelson

Civil War campaigns in and around Fredericksburg, Va., required an advancing army first to jump the Rappahannock River. As a consequence, river crossings loomed large at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. At Fredericksburg in 1862, the pontoon bridge sites became the initial points of contact and men died as engineers struggled to build their floating bridges under fire. The hard lesson was that bridges were best built when an army controlled both sides of the waterway. During the Chancellorsville Campaign in 1863, the Union army again crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, but sent assault forces over first to seize the opposite shore before the bridge building began. These crossings in the tidal part of the Rappahannock River were a diversion from the advance of the main Union force, which occurred far upstream. Where the upriver fords remained usable and lightly picketed, an advance guard could splash across and secure the crossing site. Some fords, however, had become altered by dams and canals, and establishing military crossings there posed additional challenges.



This article primarily examines the river crossings upstream from Fredericksburg that are associated with the Battle of Chancellorsville, though many other crossings receive attention, as the Civil War armies criss-crossed the area throughout 1862-64. The names of the Rappahannock crossings at Banks’ Ford, United States Ford, and others are familiar to students of the Civil War, but they are remote places to visit. Modern bridges at Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River and at Ely’s and Germanna Fords on the Rapidan River, are still part of the modern transportation system, but there are no transverse roadways between those upriver crossings and the interstate highway bridges at Fredericksburg. The road networks that made places like Banks’ Ford and United States Ford known locations are long gone and the river corridor in that region has become a protected natural area that invites canoeing, camping, hunting, and bird-watching. The historic crossings are also there, hidden in the landscape, waiting for ardent battlefield explorers to find them.


Banks’ Ford on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, VA.


The Rappahannock River flows 184 miles from the mountain spring that is its source to the waters of Chesapeake Bay. It drains a watershed of 2,848 square miles. With removal of a hydroelectric dam at Fredericksburg in 2003, the Rappahannock became the longest free flowing river on the East Coast of the United States.

Its headwaters are found 1,720 feet above sea level in a mountain spring below Chester Gap in Shenandoah National Park. The small stream descends the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains and flows as a quiet pastoral river across the Piedmont Plateau. Between Chester Gap and Kelly’s Ford the river is narrow and slightly entrenched. At Kelly’s Ford, however, the Rappahannock crosses the first of a series of erosion-resistant rock formations and its character changes from a slow moving stream with a mud bottom to an entrenched river with pools, rapids, and riffles.

Between Kelly’s Ford and the confluence of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, the terrain becomes increasingly rugged. The river courses over a bed of sand, gravel, and boulders. Rapids and islands become more frequent. The riverscape is dominated by rock outcroppings and steep valley walls that gradually level off into the broad, flat upland surface.

The Rapidan River also originates as a mountain stream on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its headwaters are 4,600 feet above sea level, considerably higher than those of the Rappahannock. In the Piedmont, the Rapidan’s shoreline is predominantly farms and forest land, but at the confluence and beyond, the river runs through a heavily wooded valley, its long deep pools occasionally interrupted by erosion-resistant rock ledges.

At the fall line, the Rappahannock River becomes tidal as it passes out of the Piedmont region. Fredericksburg is located in this transition zone, where the river encounters the less resistant beds of sand and clay of the Coastal Plain sediments. At the fall line, the river drops 25 feet over a distance of about a mile. This falling water creates a tremendous\ energy source that attracted entrepreneurs since the town’s founding.


Before European settlers put names on the land, the river crossings had been used by native peoples for thousands of years. A people called Manahoac inhabited the upper Rappahannock River basin from as early as 7000 B.C. Their contact with Europeans came early, but remained brief. In the summer of 1608, Captain John Smith worked a vessel upstream to the falls of the Rappahannock River while exploring the far reaches of Chesapeake Bay.

He and his crew encountered a Manahoac hunting and fishing group, but the chance meeting proved hostile and within a few days the Englishmen withdrew. Smith interrogated a wounded and captured warrior through an Algonquian interpreter and gained information about the area beyond where he had landed. A map he drew in 1624 shows five Manahoac settlement sites in a region where he never set foot.

Subsequent field investigations 300 years later revealed that Smith’s chart was surprisingly accurate. A settlement site labeled Hassuiuga corresponds with the Richards’ Ford area on the Rappahannock. We do not know if the name that Smith used refers to the site itself or to the name of a chief, but artifacts recovered there include projectile points, stone tools, and fabric impressed ceramics. Another settlement site, near what later became United States Ford, could potentially be the village labeled Shackaconia. The large quantities of pottery sherds and projectile points found there also suggest an extended period of occupation.

The place that would become Fredericksburg was as far west as John Smith ever penetrated into the interior reaches of Virginia. After 1608, the Manahoacs would have no further contact with Europeans. Those Siouan speaking people living in the Piedmont region of Virginia were separate from the Algonquian speaking tribes that occupied the Virginia Tidewater. The Tidewater tribes had also formed a powerful native confederation under Powhatan and later Opechancanough, which effectively blocked the English from the Rappahannock valley. Not until this alliance had been militarily defeated in the 1660s was the way clear for English explorers to again travel up the Rappahannock River. In 1670, when the English explorer John Lederer traveled west through the river valley, the earlier inhabitants were no longer there. The Manahoacs had likely been dispersed by enemy tribes from the north or perhaps succumbed to disease.


This wartime sketch by Edwin Forbes shows Federal troops crossing the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford during the 1864 campaign


Spotswood’s Iron The Manahoacs were the last aboriginal culture to occupy the Rappahannock valley, but the Virginia frontier still held danger from marauding tribes. The Great Warrior Trail extending north and south through the Shenandoah Valley still brought war parties into the Rappahannock region. In 1713, Colonel Alexander Spotswood, who had arrived in Virginia in 1710 as the lieutenant governor, toured the frontier to determine what might help defend it from these occasional raiders. While thus engaged, he chanced upon iron ore deposits on the south side of the Rapidan River and that discovery generated a renewed interest in the production of Virginia iron.

A Virginia iron industry held great promise, but had initially met with disaster. In the early 17th century, English iron makers were using up the forests of that island nation at an alarming rate. Enormous quantities of wood were needed to provide the charcoal that fired blast furnaces and North America had mature hardwood trees in notable abundance. Shortly after the Jamestown colony had been established, the investors in the London Company thought to establish an iron furnace in Virginia and company workers carefully built a furnace at a place called Falling Creek.


Click for Larger Image

Iron production never began because tribes of the Powhatan confederation massacred many of the Europeans living in Virginia in 1622, including virtually all of the skilled iron workers. The loss proved catastrophic to the London Company, which dissolved shortly thereafter. The Crown decided that England would subsequently populate and exploit the New World through agricultural enterprises and made huge grants of land for that purpose. The English would supplement domestic iron production by importing additional iron from Sweden.

As others carved out farms and plantations, Alexander Spotswood used his position as lieutenant governor to acquire considerable amounts of property that included timber, water, ore deposits, and access to a port—all of the ingredients needed to support a self-sufficient ironmaking enterprise. After finding iron ore deposits near the Rapidan, he had asked the London Board of Trade for permission to establish an iron forge. This request was flatly denied, but Spotswood pressed his case with the Crown. He finally received authorization to form his Iron Mine Company in 1719. By then his preparations had extended over several years and he was able to begin operations as early as 1720.6 Other investors had also been receiving permission to settle skilled workers in British North America. In 1714, a group of nine German iron workers and their families, comprising a group of 42 persons, arrived in England for an enterprise in North Carolina. Upon learning that the settlement to which they were destined had been wiped out during a frontier war, a well meaning investor in London, who fancied himself one of Spotswood’s partners, diverted this group of Germans to Virginia. When they arrived, Spotswood was probably aghast to learn he was responsible for their travel expenses, but he quickly took advantage of these immigrants who had the critical iron-making skills he needed. He moved them to a bend in the Rapidan River and had them construct a fort. The Manahoacs were long gone, but the Iroquois were known occasionally to raid through there. The frontier area where the Germans settled, near a river ford, became known as Germanna.

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