In the previous post, I introduced readers to the tale of Lieutenant Henry Prince, an officer from the 4th U.S. Infantry, who, in February 1836, marched with the column that discovered the remains of the infamous Dade Massacre. Today, I’m going to talk about Prince’s Civil War experience. In this tale, the fifty-two-year-old general marched at the head of a far less successful column, the failure of which resulted in his removal from the Army of the Potomac and the tarnishing of his long, illustrious career.
In general, Prince did not have a fun time in the Civil War, serving in combat rarely and often bearing the stigma of being too slow-moving and methodical. His Civil War days began on April 20, 1862, when the War Department decided to raise him to the rank of brigadier general and assigned him to command a brigade attached to Major General Nathaniel Banks’s corps. On August 9, 1862, at Prince’s first battle, Confederate troops captured him. Just as the sun set at Cedar Mountain, Prince was walking his horse through a smoky cornfield, unaware that hundreds of soldiers belonging to the 23rd Virginia were moving through the stalks, encircling him. They leveled their muskets, and thus, Prince spent five unhappy months at Libby Prison.
The War Department did its duty, negotiating Prince’s parole and exchange, but upon his return to service, he didn’t last long in the field. He first rejoined Union forces in the tidewater, but had to request medical leave in April 1863. Later that summer, Prince returned to service yet again, transferring to the Army of the Potomac. On July 8, only a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg, Major General Andrew A. Humphreys, commander of the 2nd Division, 3rd Corps, became the Army of the Potomac’s chief-of-staff. Two days later, on July 10, the War Department appointed Prince as Humphreys’s replacement. On July 23, Prince led the 2nd Division against Confederate forces at Wapping Heights, a battle in which he exhibited noticeable caution.
However, the unfortunate event that called everyone’s attention to Prince’s conservative approach to combat occurred a few months later during the Mine Run Campaign. Prince’s corps commander, Major General William H. French, assigned him a critical role by putting him in at the head of the Union foray across the Rapidan River. This movement formed part of Major General George G. Meade’s grand plan to put the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan at two places, Jacobs’s Ford and Germanna Ford. Major General Gouvernor K. Warren’s 2nd Corps was supposed to lead the way across the latter and then advance west along the Orange Turnpike, holding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in place. Meanwhile, Major General French’s 3rd Corps was supposed to cross at Jacobs’s Ford and hit the Confederate line from the north. Nothing went as planned. Prince’s division, which led the 3rd Corps to Jacob’s Ford, failed to cross in a timely manner, and even when it did, it failed to navigate its way through the woods and rendezvous with the 2nd Corps at Robertson’s Tavern. Much of the delay and poor navigation stemmed from Prince’s lackluster leadership.
Here’s how it happened. On November 26, 1863, the day of the operation, Prince received orders to lead the 3rd Corps to the ford. General French had left detailed instructions about when to proceed, how to cross the river, and which roads to take to reach Robertson’s Tavern. For whatever reason, Prince failed to heed his superior’s advice. The march was supposed to begin at 5:20, but by 7:45, the 2nd Division had advanced only one mile beyond its starting point. What caused this slow movement? First, Prince could not be found by the 3rd Corps staff officers. Although Prince had carried out the prepatory order (the order to get his men ready to march), he did not receive his execution order until an hour after the planned start time. Second, when he finally received it, Prince moved too slowly. He received the order to advance at 6:30, but his column did not set out until 7:30. The delay infuriated General French, who wondered why the column was stuck on the road. Days later, after French had conducted an investigation of the problem, he laid the blame on Prince, by writing, “By this it will be seen . . . that although he [Prince] received the prepatory order in due time, he lost an hour from the time he received the order of execution, for which loss he has assigned no reason.”
Then, once the head of Prince’s column reached the ford, it did not cross quickly. His men encountered Confederate scouts, causing Prince to halt the column and deploy skirmishers. After his infantry cleared the banks, Prince ordered them to move off the road and make way for the engineers who planned to lay pontoons. More time passed, since Prince had taken no precaution to have the pontoons readily available. The 3rd Corps did not get across the Rapidan River until 4:00 P.M. The rest of the corps completed the crossing by 7:00 P.M., a whole day wasted.
From there, the situation only got worse. The next morning, November 27, Prince’s 2nd Division followed the road from the ford south, but had to pause at a place where the road split. The right fork headed back to the river near the Sisson Farm, the left fork headed south to the Morton’s Ford Road. Unaware that he might have to navigate his way through several confusing road intersections, Prince halted his command, sending a message back to headquarters that he now needed guide. Meanwhile, he deployed several regiments as skirmishers, sending them down each fork, hoping they might bring back proper intelligence. As Prince explained later: “Being in command of the advance, and having no guide, I conceived it to be my duty to exert my judgment as to the route, and by reconnoitering to clear up the way if I could. This I succeeded in doing by always holding the forks of roads which I came to, and reconnoitering away from them, always reconnoitering with the most strength toward the enemy.”
After due deliberation, Prince led his column down the left-hand fork. Coming upon a second fork, it became clear he had taken the wrong road. The column should have gone right, through the Sisson property, where it could have met a route to the Raccoon Ford Road, the most direct way to the tavern. Now lost, Prince paused his column yet again, holding it still for another two hours, reconnoitering both forks. As Prince’s men mingled amid the forest known as the Wilderness, they could hear the sound of Warren’s 2nd Corps fighting near Robertson’s Tavern. Clearly, the 3rd Corps had missed its important rendezvous. A disgruntled New Jersey officer assigned to Prince’s division later wrote, “A good deal of amusement arose from the fact that Genl. Prince became lost. Some say that ‘Prince of the House of David was lost with his children and wandered about the Wilderness.’ It was a hard sorry time for us.”
As the sun neared its zenith, General French finally became concerned with the sluggishness of the 3rd Corps’ forward movement. He sent a staff officer to Prince with an inquiry: “The general orders that you move on by the Robertson’s Tavern road [meaning the road that connected Robertson’s Tavern to Raccoon Ford], and he wants to know what you are going to do.” Apparently confused as to where he was and which road French meant, and lacking a better response, Prince replied, “I shall first take the road, and having obtained possession of it, shall reconnoiter and act according to circumstances.”
By late-morning, the column finally got underway, heading in the right direction. It back-tracked to the Jacobs’s Ford Road and began moving south. Sadly, the delay was fatal to Union success. A Confederate division under Major General Edward Johnson had already moved south along the Raccoon Ford Road, alarmed at the sound of the fighting started by Warren’s 2nd Corps. As it moved to the sound of the guns, it drifted into the path of Prince’s oncoming federals. At the intersection of the Jacob’s Ford Road and the Raccoon Ford Road, Prince’s two leading brigades slammed into the tail end of Johnson’s column, and a fight developed on the land owned by Madison Payne. It took hours for French to bring up the next division and come to the aid of Prince’s embattled troops. Three hours later, both sides had racked up 1,400 casualties, and neither army had driven the other from the field. Although Meade assembled his command and probed the Confederate line over the next three days, his best chance at hammering Lee’s army may have lapsed on November 27.
The aftermath of the dismal battle spelled an end to Prince’s career with the Army of the Potomac. General Warren wanted to know why the 3rd Corps had hung him out to dry, and General French—who himself was on the hot seat for accusations of being drunk at the battle—cast all the blame on his elderly division commander. In French’s mind, Prince’s tardiness had caused the debacle. French wrote: “In connection with his [Prince’s] habitual slowness of movement, as exhibited in his preparation for crossing the ford, and the want of a guide after crossing the ford to conduct the column upon the route which was subsequently followed, . . . are the causes to which are attributable the inability of the Third Corps to arrive at Robertson’s Tavern sooner than it did.”
When the Army of the Potomac downsized its command structure in the spring of 1864, it deleted several billets, including French’s and Prince’s. The crime of getting lost in the woods was bad enough, apparently, to keep Prince from ever seeing combat again.
This photograph depicts Brig. Gen. Prince in the late summer of 1863. He is surrounded by the staff of the 2nd Division, 3rd Corps.
This is Maj. Gen. William H. French, the commander of the 3rd Corps, the superior officer who insisted that Prince botched the march from Jacobs's Ford to Payne's Farm.