The History of Fleetwood Hill


Why was Fleetwood Hill important in the American Civil War?

Fleetwood Hill is without question the most fought over, camped upon and marched over real estate in the entire United States.[1] From March 1862 to May 1864, Fleetwood Hill—especially the southern terminus—witnessed continual, hotly-contested actions and heavy troop occupation as both Blue and Gray armies jockeyed for control of the strategically significant “Rappahannock River Line.”[2]

Scooped from the broad flood plain of the Rappahannock, Fleetwood Hill—geologically, the residual “beach” of a primeval inland sea—is situated three miles southwest of the river and parallels this major Piedmont waterway for three miles on a northwest-southeast axis.

It is a point worth making at the outset that Fleetwood Hill was militarily important simply because the ridge represents the first high ground a commander encounters when advancing troops south of the river toward Culpeper Court House. And when considering experienced tactical commanders anchor onto the military axiom that “whoever controls the high ground wins the battle,” one can then appreciate the role Fleetwood Hill played throughout the Civil War.

Resembling a reclining green giant when viewed toward the north, Fleetwood achieves its highest elevation at its northern terminus (the “head”), and steadily descends to a southern knoll (the “feet”), just above present-day Highway 29. A smooth Triassic plain, flat as a lake, extends north to the river, “…the finest country for cavalry fighting I ever saw,” wrote a Confederate staff officer.[3]

Increasing its strategic import for military commanders, Fleetwood hovers above the hamlet of Brandy Station, three quarters of a mile distant, with the hillock controlling (by artillery fire) five important road junctions that converge in the village from all directions. (An early name for the village was “Crossroads.”)

Of even greater significance, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad—entered Culpeper in 1853—careened straight as a gunshot toward Culpeper Court House, while slicing past the southern base of the hill.[4]

Importantly as well, the famous “Carolina Road” (present day 685), the major north-south Piedmont thoroughfare of the Colonial and Civil War eras, bisects the southern terminus of the ridge. The importance of this roadway to commanders cannot be over-emphasized as the venerable “Rogue’s Road” enabled artillery and ammunition wagons (and ambulances) to quickly rush to the front in support of attacking troops.

Two waterways flow at the base on both sides of the southern slope of Fleetwood: Herring’s Spring on the north; and Flat Run, a perennial stream, on the south. Both waterways were crucial in helping to treat and keep alive the many hundreds of soldiers wounded in the various cavalry battles for control of Fleetwood Hill. And it is a fact that the southern end of Fleetwood witnessed more mounted combat, more often, than any other piece of ground in our country. During the Battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863, for example, more than 7,000 troopers fought for control of southern Fleetwood—a startling number of compressed troops and horses viciously grappling to the death atop a relatively small knoll.

The initial Federal attack by Wyndham’s Brigade poured north across Flat Run from Brandy Station and headed up Fleetwood, only to be ultimately beaten back south of Flat Run by counter-attacking Confederates. Many soldiers penned vivid accounts of the intense fighting at the southern base of Fleetwood, along Flat Run.[5]

Wartime descriptions of Fleetwood Hill

It is noted that Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown Stuart, Confederate cavalry commander, never referred to the threshold battle on June 9, 1863 as the “Battle of Brandy Station.”

Rather, he termed the largest cavalry battle of the war in official reports and letters as either the “Battle of Fleetwood Heights,” or the “Battle of Fleetwood,” as did his staff officers. Stuart also termed his headquarters position on southern Fleetwood Hill as the “Fleetwood Front.”[6]

Following are select descriptions of Fleetwood Hill (by veterans):

• “Fleetwood Heights is a beautiful location. Being an elevated ridge…it commands the country and roads leading north and south from Brandy Station…there was no movement of troops across the borders of Culpeper that artillery did not blaze from its summits, and charging squadrons, on its slopes and around its base (italics mine), did not contend for supremacy.”[7]

• “The terrain around Brandy Station is hilly, with long ridges running in a northerly direction. The most important of these is Fleetwood Heights…It was here…that Stuart was able to hold his ground brilliantly. Fleetwood Heights slopes steadily toward the Rappahannock and merges into a wide, gently falling plateau…” The staffer termed this ground, “the famous plateau.”[8]

• In his masterful, definitive book containing a chapter on “The Battle of Fleetwood,” Major H.B. McClellan advised that Stuart spent the evening of June 8, 1863 on Fleetwood Hill, “so called from the name of the residence there situated.” Also noting, “for some time past he (Stuart) occupied this hill as his headquarters,” Major McClellan added, “It (Fleetwood Hill) commands the open plain around it…”[9]

• “The battle field was most splendidly adapted to cavalry fighting, being a range of extensive open fields…and then rising in a range of gently sloping hills…with small rivulets that head at the bottom of these slopes… (Italics mine.)[10]

A chronology of military events on Fleetwood Hill, 1862-1864

Set forth below are actions and military events wherein Fleetwood Hill played a prominent role—this list is by no means all-inclusive:

• In early March 1862, General Joseph Johnston ordered his 70,000-man army—then at Centerville—to fall back on the Rappahannock “where it would be in a better position to defend Richmond.” The Manassas line was evacuated on March 9 and Southern forces withdrew along the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad into Culpeper from Freeman’s Ford to Kelly’s Ford. A major portion of Johnston’s army passed over Fleetwood and camped on its slopes.

• Maj. Gen. John Pope assumed command of the newly christened Army of Virginia on June 27, 1862 and crafted plans to mount a massive new offensive in central Virginia. The new Federal army soon consolidated in western Fauquier County, 50,000-strong, and in early July, Union forces crossed the river and headed south through Culpeper, passing over, and camping on Fleetwood Hill.

• After the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Pope’s army retreated back across Fleetwood and re-crossed the river. Confederate forces (Jackson) took position on Fleetwood as the 2nd Manassas Campaign was inaugurated. Flat Run was Jackson’s water source as he briefly camped on the southern slopes of Fleetwood.

• After the Battle of Antietam, Longstreet’s Corps re-crossed the Rappahannock in late October and many regiments camped on and about Fleetwood Hill, with both Flat Run and Herring’s Spring providing water sustenance.

• On March 17, 1863, a Confederate cavalry brigade (General Fitzhugh Lee’s) camping on and about Fleetwood responded from Brandy Station to contest a Federal attack across the river. The “Battle of Kelly’s Ford” ensued. After the action, the Rebels fell back to Fleetwood Hill.

• In late April and May 1863, Confederate cavalry took holding positions at Fleetwood while the Chancellorsville Campaign got underway at Kelly’s Ford when Federal cavalry and infantry crossed the Rappahannock and headed toward the Rapidan.

• In mid-May 1863, General Stuart’s cavalry division was dispatched by General Robert E. Lee to Culpeper from Orange County. Southern cavalry camped on Fleetwood Hill as the “Fleetwood Front” was again established.

• On June 9, 1863, the largest cavalry battle of the war took place as the “Battle of Brandy Station” inaugurated the opening of the Gettysburg Campaign—with southern Fleetwood Hill serving as the battle’s supreme, bloody vortex. The heaviest action indeed took place on Fleetwood’s southern slopes, on and about Flat Run.

• After the Battle of Brandy Station, General Stuart of course desired to again establish his headquarters on southern Fleetwood—where they were situated prior to the battle. Stuart’s staff persuaded him otherwise as Fleetwood and its slopes were covered with dead bodies. “When we reached the place,” a staff engineer wrote, “it was covered so thick with the dead horses and men, and the bluebottle flies were swarming so thick over the blood stains over the ground, that there was not room enough to pitch the tents among them.”[11]

• Upon their defeat in Pennsylvania, Confederate forces retreated in late July back across the Rappahannock into Culpeper County, where many thousands of troops again camped upon and fortified Fleetwood Hill. (It seems as often as they returned to Fleetwood, Confederates viewed the ridge as a place of solemn refuge.)

• In August 1863, Federal cavalry attacked across the river, and General Lee pulled his army south of the Rapidan, leaving his cavalry on Fleetwood Hill “to keep an eye on things.”

• In early September 1863, General Meade learned through his intelligence operatives that Longstreet’s Corps was being withdrawn from Lee’s army and sent west to reinforce Confederate forces in Tennessee. Meade then boldly made the command decision to invade across the Rappahannock into Culpeper County in an effort to unmask his enemy’s activities.

• On September 13, 1863, the next invasion began as the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps “crossed the Rappahannock at several points,” followed by the Second Corps, in support. Finding only Jeb Stuart’s cavalry at their front on Fleetwood Hill, this huge Federal force lost little time in driving Stuart back over the Rapidan and taking control of Culpeper County.

• General Meade then moved his entire army—90,000 men—into Culpeper on September 16, with his initial headquarters on Fleetwood Hill, situated within the Fleetwood manor home.

• Not liking for one minute that his enemy occupied Culpeper County just across the Rapidan, Robert E. Lee thrust his cavalry across the Rapidan on October 10, and now with Jeb Stuart asserting, “turn-about is fair play,” it came time for Rebel cavalry to hurl back the Yankee horse.

• In a daring race on October 11, Rebel cavalry chased Yankee troopers northward past Brandy onto Fleetwood Hill as “a fearful clash of arms” broke out on Fleetwood’s southern slopes. Blue horsemen abruptly retreated over the river as the Confederates once more secured Fleetwood Hill with their horse artillery.

• Behind their re-invigorated troopers, the Army of Northern Virginia advanced into Culpeper, with a satisfied General Lee writing to the Secretary of War, “I have the honor to inform you that General Meade’s army has been compelled to retire north of the Rappahannock by the movements of this army on his right flank.” The Bristoe Station Campaign was now underway.

• As Lee fell behind the Rappahannock after the bitter Confederate defeat at Bristoe Station, the commanding general made plans to winter his 50,000 veterans in Culpeper County. Orders carried for winter lodges to be built, and General Lee even saw his own hut erected south of the river—which he called, “Camp Rappahannock.” (There is the strong possibility—but no evidence, yet—that Lee’s Headquarters were situated on Fleetwood Hill.)

• Confederate preferences aside, on November 7, 1863, the entire Army of the Potomac, over 100,000 strong, fanned out over the southwestern Fauquier countryside and attacked Lee’s army at both Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford in a severe action, “The Battle of Rappahannock Station.”

• This savage, courageous, evening attack against a strong Confederate Fortification (tete de pont) at Rappahannock Station resulted in heavy Southern losses—the greater part of two brigades, more than 2000 men, a Federal triumph achieved with light Union casualties.

• General Lee withdrew his army across Fleetwood and crossed the Rapidan on the night of November 8. And in so doing, the Confederates forever ceded the Rappahannock River Line—and Fleetwood Hill—to the Army of the Potomac.

• Soon after the Mine Run Campaign (Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 1863), the Army of the Potomac—with its rolls soon climbing to 120,000 soldiers—entered their long winter encampment in Culpeper County.[12]

• The Third Corps of the Federal army, about 16,000 men, camped for over five months on and about the slopes of southern Fleetwood Hill, and their commander, Maj. Gen. William Henry French utilized “Fleetwood” as his headquarters lodgment. As a perennial stream, Flat Run was the Third Corp’s principal water source for five months in 1863-1864. (Italics mine).

• General George Gordon Meade established Army Headquarters on a northern spur of Fleetwood, and it was on Fleetwood Hill in April 1864 that General Ulysses S. Grant and General Meade developed plans to embark upon the “Overland Campaign.”

• On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac departed Culpeper and Fleetwood Hill forever as the soldiers of this great army entered a dark forest called, “The Wilderness.”


The above narrative purports to provide material context illustrating the peerless historical significance of Fleetwood Hill during the Civil War. It is indeed a fact that this unpretentious little ridge has seen more military activity than any other piece of ground in American history.

It is the belief (and hope) of this writer that any further construction activity on Fleetwood be undertaken with the view that this unique, precious, national resource should be protected and preserved for future generations of Americans. How utterly callous of us to do otherwise!

Young Americans fought and died in droves on Fleetwood. And even though this historical reality doesn’t matter to some, it is fact that many of us believe it is vitally important that we recall, respect, commemorate and honor their service. And so we shall…

Clark B. Hall
August 19, 2011
Middleburg, Virginia

[1] Fleetwood Hill takes its name from a distinguished, late-1700’s home, “Fleetwood,” situated at the southern terminus of the hill. Its owner, John Strode, was a friend of Thomas Jefferson, and in January 1801, the newly elected President stopped over for the night at Fleetwood en route to his first inauguration. See, Dr. Philip Slaughter, Genealogical and Historical Notes on Culpeper County, Virginia (Baltimore, 1900), p. 137. Major James Barbour, C.S.A., owned Fleetwood during the war. He also owned nearby Beauregard and leased Fleetwood to tenant farmer Henry Miller. (Some wartime accounts characterize Fleetwood Hill as “the Miller House Hill.”) The ravages of war took its toll on Fleetwood and it was torn down in the late 1860’s and replaced by an early 1900’s home that was itself destroyed several years ago. A new, mammoth home now lurks garishly on southern Fleetwood Hill, not far from the original Fleetwood manor home site. Few people are aware there is a pre-war graveyard on this property (eastern slope, above the highway) as it has been badly damaged by insensitive mowing. Two graves conclusively located therein are those of Calhoun Barbour who died in 1841 and Montague Thompson, deceased in 1853. For a good lineage of “Fleetwood’s” successive owners, see Culpeper County W.P.A. #1 entitled “Fleetwood,” dated January 4, 1937. The writer retains many wartime images, illustrations and maps of “Fleetwood.”

[2] For a detailed discussion of the military significance of the Rappahannock River, see a paper prepared (March 2011) for the Fauquier and Culpeper County Sesquicentennial Committees, “Upper Rappahannock River Front: The Dare Mark Line,” Clark B. Hall. As quoted in this paper, an eminent historian asserts the Rappahannock River Line “achieved a distinction in the eastern theater…as great as the Mississippi River in the west.” Another historian notes the Rappahannock “played a significant role throughout the war in the strategic thinking and planning of…military commanders,” and added, “…the east-west line afforded a…strong military obstacle…”

[3] The northern crest of Fleetwood (on today’s Brandy Rock Farm) is 520’ above sea level, and the southern crest is 350’ above sea level. Chiswell Dabney to his father, June 14, 1863, Dabney papers, Virginia Historical Society.

[4] This link incorporates a “Chronology of the Orange and Alexandra Railroad” as prepared by Chuck Siegel, a fine historian.

[5] Clark B. Hall, “The Battle of Brandy Station: A Long and Desperate Encounter,” Civil War Times Illustrated, 29 (May-June 1990), 32-42, 45.

[6] Adele H. Mitchell, ed., ,i.The Letters of Major General E.B. Stuart (Richmond 1990), p. 323, 368, 377. Also see Stuart’s report, Official Records, XXVII, Pt. 2, pp. 679-685. Stuart letter August 10, 1863, Pierce M.B. Young Papers, Georgia Department of Archives and History. Also see G.W Beale, A Lieutenant of Cavalry in Lee’s Army (Boston 1918), p. 124.

[7] Major Daniel A. Grimsley, Battles in Culpeper County, Virginia (Culpeper, 1900), p. 3.

[8] Heros von Borcke, and Justus Scheibert, The Battle of Brandy Station (Winston-Salem, 1976), pp. 43-44; Von Borcke, Memoirs of the Confederate War (New York, 1938, Vol. II, p. 203.

[9] H.B. McClellan, The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J.E.B. Stuart (New York, 1885), p. 263.

[10] U.R. Brooks, Stories of the Confederacy (Columbia, 1912), p. 145.

[11] W.W. Blackford, War Years With Jeb Stuart (New York 1945), p. 217. After the battle, Stuart moved his headquarters to “Farley.”

[12] For a comprehensive overview of this winter encampment, see Clark B. Hall, “Season of Change: The Winter Encampment of the Army of the Potomac” (Blue and Gray Magazine, April 1991).

Scridb filter
Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress