The skirmish at Rio Hill took place on February 29, 1864 north of the city of Charlottesville. The skirmish was really an attempt to distract Confederate forces away from the more important move: A raid on a Prisoner of War camp near Richmond. Union Cavalry General George A. Custer led 1,500 Union troops into Charlottesville. His goal was to pull forces away from the POW camp by destroying the Virginia Central Railroad. With only 200 Confederate men Captain Marcellus Moorman was able to force Custer to retreat, though the latter still burned down the bridge over the Rivanna River. The move to free Union prisoners was successful. This skirmish was one of a few kind of its kind to take place in Ablemarle County, VA during the Civil War. The area where the skirmish occurred is now a shopping center.
In February 28, 1864 General George
Custer led 1,500 Union soldiers toward Charlottesville. His troops found a
Confederate camp. He decided to attack them the next day, the 29th. He sent a portion of his men to
cross near cooks ford to try and flank the camp from a different angle. It was
a small Confederate camp that was led by Captain Marcellus Moorman there were
only 200 men in the camp.
When Capt. Moorman saw
that Union soldiers were coming they were caught by surprise, they had to round
up horses and get things ready to prepare to fight. They got horses to pull the
cannons they had in the camp, they had 16 total. They abandoned the camp and
moved to Rio Hill and set up some artillery. Here Capt. Moorman left just enough
men to fire the cannons at the Union troops who were know looting and burning
With Capt. Moorman’s
troops so heavily outnumbered he split the few men he had and told them to line
up like they were Calvary reinforcements. The soldiers didn’t even have rifles
just pistols, so they picked up tree limbs and stick to look like rifles. The
trick worked. At this point the Union troops that crossed near the river a
Cooks Ford were now arriving at the camp. As the approached a artillery shell
landed near the troops and exploded a artillery limber. The explosion confused
both Union troops to the point that they fired at each other. Seeing the friendly
fire the Confederates with just pistols charged and forced Custer to retreat.
During the retreat Custer would set fire to a bridge crossing the Rivanna River
so they could not be followed. The skirmish was only an hour long.
As he retreated, Custer lost about 500 of his men due to confusion as the 500 kept retreating while the rest, with Custer, rallied and rested for a time while just south of the town of Standardsville. Though with 1,000 men now, Custer still attacked a group of Confederate soldiers the town before returning to his pre-raid position. Overall, Custer lost only one man who was wounded and Moorman lost two men, who were captured.
Custer, with his commanding officer, Phil Sheridan, would return to Charlottesville and capture the city on March 3, 1865 and they would head out March 6 as the pursuit of Lee's forces continued for another month.