Culpeper County during the Civil War


With a population of 12,063, Culpeper was the forty-seventh largest of Virginia’s 148 counties in 1860. More than half of that population was African American, including 6,675 slaves. The majority of citizens in this prosperous community—its principal commercial crop being wheat—had wished to avoid war. The county voted by a margin of one vote for John Bell and the Constitutional Union party over John C. Breckinridge and the Southern Democrats in the U.S. presidential election of 1860. Like most of Virginia, however, Culpeper endorsed secession on May 23, 1861, a month after U.S. president Abraham Lincoln called on the state for volunteers to put down the rebellion. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the men of Culpeper served most prominently in five Confederate regiments: the 7th, 11th, and 13th Virginia Infantry, and the 4th and 6th Virginia Cavalry.

Culpeper Court House Street Scene

Yet, even as the county’s men joined the war, geography and circumstance insured that Culpeper itself would be a focal point for military action. Geographically, it sat midway between and slightly to the west of Richmond and Washington, D.C., and railroads linked it to both national capitals. The Orange and Alexandria ran northward from the county seat of Culpeper Court House to Alexandria; the Virginia Central connected the county to Richmond via Gordonsville. In addition, the Rappahannock River formed the county’s northern boundary, and Culpeper marked the first point on the river where an invading Union force could ford the Rappahannock during most of the year. Outside of the Shenandoah Valley, it was one of the best invasion routes in the state.

Consequently, armies from one side or the other occupied the county for most of the war. The Confederates had a training camp and army hospital at Culpeper Court House, and they established a supply base there early in 1862. The county suffered its first Union occupation when Union general John Pope‘s Army of Virginia arrived in July 1862. This led to the first major battle in Culpeper, at Cedar (or Slaughter’s) Mountain, in which Confederate troops under Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson successfully blocked a Union advance into central Virginia. Confederate general Robert E. Lee then drove out Pope during the Second Manassas Campaign (1862), and the county remained Lee’s favored staging area for the remainder of the war. He selected Culpeper for his winter quarters after the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, and a portion of his army occupied the county following the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.

Cavalry Charge at Brandy Station

Lee launched the Gettysburg Campaign from Culpeper, though not before his cavalry, under J. E. B. Stuart, faced off against Union troopers at Brandy Station in the largest cavalry battle of the war, in June 1863. Lee returned to Culpeper following Gettysburg, and would have wintered there had not the Union Army of the Potomac pushed him out in September. Lee returned the favor a month later by ousting the Union troops, only to be expelled himself in the Battle of Rappahannock Station (1863).

Culpeper remained mostly in Union hands thereafter. The Army of the Potomac wintered there from November 1863 until May 1864, when, under the new Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant, it embarked on the Overland Campaign. The momentum of war then gravitated toward Richmond and Petersburg, and Culpeper saw only occasional Union raiding parties, the largest one sweeping through the community in December 1864.

May 1861
Camp Henry, a Confederate military training camp and recruit depot, is established at Culpeper Court House.
February 1862
Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston establishes a supply depot and concentrates his army at Culpeper Court House.
May 5, 1862
Union troops make the first of many raids into Culpeper County during the Civil War.
July 12, 1862
Union general John Pope's Army of Virginia occupies Culpeper County.
August 9, 1862
Union and Confederate troops clash at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. Although outnumbered, Union troops have an advantage in the early part of the fight. Confederate reinforcements eventually counterattack and drive Union troops from the field.
August 18, 1862
Union general John Pope orders his Army of Virginia to evacuate Culpeper County on the arrival of Confederate general Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
October 1862
Confederate general Robert E. Lee occupies Culpeper County following his failed invasion of the North and the bloody stalemate at the Battle of Antietam on September 17.
January 1863
A portion of Confederate general Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia occupies Culpeper County following the lopsided Confederate victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.
March 17, 1863
The Battle of Kelly's Ford is fought in Culpeper County between Union cavalry forces under William W. Averell and Confederate troopers under Fitzhugh Lee. Surprised and outnumbered, Lee's men force the Union troopers to withdraw by late afternoon.
May 1863
A portion of Confederate general Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia occupies Culpeper County following the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
June 9, 1863
Union cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton cross the Rappahannock River and surprise, even humiliate, J. E. B. Stuart and his famed Confederate horsemen. The Battle of Brandy Station is the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War, and while Pleasanton's men are beaten back, the battle raises their morale.
July 24, 1863
Confederate general Robert E. Lee occupies Culpeper County following the failed Gettysburg Campaign.
September 13, 1863
In the Battle of Culpeper Court House, Union cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton defeat Confederate troopers under J. E. B. Stuart, opening the county to Union control before the Bristoe Station Campaign.
November 1863—May 1864
Culpeper County is occupied by the Union Army of the Potomac.
November 7, 1863, 12—3 p.m.
Union generals William H. French and John Sedgwick force their way past Confederate defenders at Kelly's Ford and Rappahannock Station, inflicting heavy losses on Jubal A. Early's division at Rappahannock Station in Culpeper County.
February 6, 1864
Union cavalry attempt to cross the Rapidan River at Morton's Ford in an effort to distract Confederate forces away from a larger raid on the Peninsula. Fighting is sporadic and the crossing is stalled by Confederate forces under Richard S. Ewell.
May 4, 1864
The Union Army of the Potomac departs Culpeper County at start of the Overland Campaign.
December 22—25, 1864
The largest of occasional Union raiding parties sweeps through Culpeper County.
  • Crick, Robert K. Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1990.
  • Gallagher, Gary W. “Brandy Station: The Civil War’s Bloodiest Arena of Mounted Combat.” Blue & Gray Magazine, 8 (October 1990), 8–22, 44–53.
  • Hall, Clark B. “The Battle of Brandy Station.” Civil War Times Illustrated, 29 (May–June 1990), 32–42, 45.
  • Hall, Clark B. “Season of Change: The Winter Encampment of the Army of the Potomac, December 1, 1863–May 4, 1864.” Blue & Gray Magazine, 8 (April 1991), 8–22, 48–62.
  • Morton, Virginia Beard. Marching Through Culpeper: A Novel of Culpeper, Virginia, Crossroads of the Civil War. Orange, Virginia: Edgehill Books, 2001
  • Sutherland, Daniel E. Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a Confederate Community, 1861–65. New York, New York: Free Press, 1995.
APA Citation:
Sutherland, Daniel. Culpeper County during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/culpeper-county-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Sutherland, Daniel. "Culpeper County during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 24 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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