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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.

  • Sketch of a burning bridge over the Rivanna river by Custer's men.
  • Marker displaying where the battle occurred.
  • New marker commemorating the skirmish's 150th anniversary. It is found the wall near the Subway restaurant's entrance in the shopping center.
  • Reenactors during the 150th anniversary of the skirmish.

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 the camp.

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. 

"Brilliant Maneuvering Marked Battle of Rio Hill." The Daily Progress. Web. 6 June 2015. .