Lincoln Travels to Gettysburg

November 18, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln boarded a special train to attend the dedication of the new Gettysburg National Cemetery.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By the morning of the 18th, Lincoln had contracted varioloid, or a mild smallpox, and his son Tad was very ill. But the president refused to cancel his trip. First Lady Mary Lincoln, having lost two young sons already, became hysterical at the prospect of losing a third while her husband was away.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had scheduled a special train to take Lincoln to the ceremony and bring him back to Washington on the day of the event, but Lincoln told him, “I do not like this arrangement. I do not wish to so go that by the slightest accident we fail entirely; and, at the best, the whole to be a mere breathless running of the gauntlet. But any way.”

Stanton instead booked a special four-car train to leave Washington at noon on the 18th, the day before the ceremony. Lincoln left with his three most conservative cabinet members–Secretary of State William H. Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and Interior Secretary John P. Usher. Other travelers included Lincoln’s secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s black manservant William Johnson, Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, and Benjamin B. French, who had written a hymn for the event. Military officers, foreign dignitaries, newspaper correspondents, the Marine Band, and the Invalid Corps also joined the presidential party.

The train stopped at Baltimore, where it had to be pulled by horses from Camden Station to Bolton Station. It then continued to Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, where Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin boarded. During a brief stop at Hanover, Lincoln posed for a photo by Mathew Brady and addressed a gathering crowd:

“Well, you had the rebels here last summer. Did you fight them any? I trust when the enemy was here, the citizens of Hanover were loyal to our country and the stars and stripes. If you are not all true patriots in support of the union, you should be.”

As the train was about to leave, Lincoln said, “Well, you have seen me, and, according to general experience, you have seen less than you expected to see.” The train reached Gettysburg around 6 p.m., where it was greeted by event organizer and local attorney David Wills, and keynote speaker Edward Everett. They handed Lincoln an encouraging telegram from Stanton: “Mrs. Lincoln informed me that your son is better this evening.” Lincoln went with them to Wills’s mansion, where they would be spending the night.

The town was crowded with visitors fueled by patriotic enthusiasm. Word quickly spread that Lincoln and other Washington luminaries were in town, and people soon gathered to serenade the president, joined by the 5th New York Artillery Band. When they called on Lincoln to give a speech, he came out and said:

“I appear before you, fellow-citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.”

A man shouted, “If you can help it!” Lincoln continued, “It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further.”

The group then moved on to Seward, who came out and obliged them with a speech. Seward lauded the United States as “the richest, the broadest, the most beautiful, the most magnificent, and capable of a great destiny, that has ever been given to any part of the human race.”

Some time that night, Lincoln finished writing the address he would deliver the next day.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 342-43; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9827-49; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 830; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 373; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 307; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 434-35

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The Siege of Knoxville Begins

November 17, 1863 – Lieutenant General James Longstreet expected to renew the fight at Campbell’s Station, but Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federals had fallen back to Knoxville.

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

As the day began, Longstreet realized he only faced Federal cavalry, as the rest of Burnside’s 5,000-man detachment from Loudon had withdrawn. Longstreet wrote General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Chattanooga, that there had been a “severe skirmish and artillery duel” the previous day, and added, “The enemy seems to have gone into Knoxville. We have not been able to bring him to battle yet.”

The Federal cavalry, consisting of about 700 troopers under Brigadier General William P. Sanders, fought a delaying action, falling back each time the Confederates began flanking them. The Federals made their last stand just outside Knoxville, along the edge of a deep ravine that would delay the Confederate pursuit. Meanwhile, Burnside’s men inside Knoxville strengthened their defenses. Sanders agreed to try holding out against Longstreet as long as possible, or until the defenses were completed.

To the southwest, Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal reinforcements arrived at Bridgeport, poised to reinforce the Federals in Chattanooga. Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, wrote Burnside:

“I have not heard from you since the 14th. Sherman’s forces commenced their movement from Bridgeport, threatening the enemy’s left flank. This alone may turn Longstreet back, and if it does not, the attack will be prosecuted until we reach the roads over which all their supplies have to pass, while you hold East Tennessee.”

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Burnside reported how he had delayed Longstreet’s advance and was now behind fortifications in Knoxville. Grant wrote, “So far you are doing exactly what appears to me right. I think our movements here must cause Longstreet’s recall within a day or two, if he is not successful before that time.” Burnside replied, “Shall hold this position to the last.”

Meanwhile, Sanders’s troopers continued holding the Confederates off about a mile from Fort Loudon, in the northwest section of forts built by Confederates to defend Knoxville before the Federals took over. Sanders held off 15,000 Confederates for several hours and was mortally wounded. His men successfully allowed Burnside to finish his defenses, and Fort Loudon was later renamed Fort Sanders in honor of the fallen cavalry commander.

As Burnside’s Federals positioned themselves behind strong fortifications, Longstreet’s Confederates began surrounding them. Grant heard nothing from Burnside for several days, and Brigadier General Orlando Willcox, commanding Federals at Cumberland Gap, could not contact him either. Grant wired Willcox and asked him to break Longstreet’s siege.

Willcox replied, “I will try it, and endeavor to subsist on the country. It would be a desperate attempt, as the roads are bad and the country pretty much fed out along the route.” Addressing rumors that Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry intended to invade Kentucky, Willcox wrote, “Cumberland River is up, and if we have more rain there is no danger of Wheeler getting into Kentucky.”

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote Grant, “The President feels very anxious that some immediate movement should be made for his (Burnside’s) relief,” especially if rumors were true that Longstreet’s force was “larger than was supposed.”

Skirmishing occurred at various points along the siege line over the next week. Longstreet began preparing to launch a general assault on Fort Sanders, but then he received a message from Bragg stating that “nearly 11,000 reinforcements are now moving to your assistance.” Bragg gave Longstreet the option to either attack now or wait for the reinforcements to arrive. Longstreet opted to wait.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 344; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 839; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 372-74; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 109, 112; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 436; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 108-09, 420-21; Williams, Frederick D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 278

The Campbell’s Station Engagement

November 16, 1863 – Elements of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate corps and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio clashed as both forces raced to get to Knoxville first.

Longstreet’s 15,000-man force, having been detached from General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, crossed the Tennessee River west of Loudon and moved northeast toward Knoxville. In eight days, the Confederates covered just 60 miles due to the harsh terrain and supply delays. Burnside, fearing that his 25,000-man army was outnumbered, pulled his 5,000-man detachment out of Loudon and prepared to abandon Knoxville.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Burnside initially planned to fall back to Cumberland Gap, but Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Burnside’s superior, wrote him from Chattanooga on the 14th:

“(William T.) Sherman’s advance has reached Bridgeport. If you can hold Longstreet in check until he gets up, or by skirmishing and falling back can avoid serious loss to yourself, and gain time, I will be able to force the enemy back from here and place a force between Longstreet and Bragg that must inevitably make the former take to the mountain passes by every available road to get back to his supplies.

“Every arrangement is now made to throw Sherman’s force across the river, just at and below the mouth of Chickamauga Creek, as soon as it arrives. (George H.) Thomas will attack on his left at the same time, and together it is expected to carry Missionary Ridge, and from there push a force on to the railroad between Cleveland and Dalton. (Joseph) Hooker will at the same time attack, and, if he can, carry Lookout Mountain. The enemy now seems to be looking for an attack on his left flank. This favors us.”

Thus, Grant hoped for Burnside to hold Longstreet in check long enough for Grant’s Federals to break out of Chattanooga. Once that was done, Grant would send Sherman’s four divisions northeast to help Burnside defeat Longstreet. Grant told Burnside that he planned to attack on the 19th, adding, “Inform me if you think you can sustain yourself until that time. I can hardly conceive of the enemy’s breaking through at Kingston and pushing for Kentucky.”

Based on this, Burnside began reconsidering his plan to retreat to Cumberland Gap. He was further emboldened to hold his ground when one of his officers reported that “the rebel soldiers were all through the country for food. They said they must get to Kentucky or starve.” Burnside decided to fall back to his fortifications inside Knoxville and conduct a delaying action against Longstreet.

Meanwhile, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck sent a message to Grant that seemed a bit redundant since he did not yet know about Grant’s plan:

“He (Burnside) ought not to retreat. Cannot Thomas move on Longstreet’s rear and force him to fall back? A mere demonstration may have a good effect. I fear further delay may result in Burnside’s abandonment of East Tennessee. This would be a terrible misfortune, and must be averted if possible.”

Grant followed up with a second message to Burnside: “Can you hold the line from Knoxville to Clinton for seven days? If so, I think the whole Tennessee Valley can be secured from all present dangers.” Burnside’s Federals began falling back to the northeast along the railroad line at 4 a.m. on the 15th. Burnside hoped to reach Campbell’s Station, a strategic crossroads just before Knoxville, ahead of Longstreet.

The Confederates advanced on the Hotchkiss Valley Road, a parallel route about a mile west of the Federals and separated by a bend in the Tennessee. Longstreet hoped to flank the enemy, but the Federals were moving too fast. Both sides spent the day racing for Campbell’s Station in heavy rain and mud.

Major General Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry, detached by Longstreet to ride ahead and seize the heights outside Knoxville, approached that day but was blocked by Federal cavalry under Brigadier General William P. Sanders. Wheeler finally broke through, but when he reached the Holston River south of Knoxville, he discovered the Federals had the heights heavily guarded.

Burnside’s Federals rested at Lenoir’s Station and resumed their rush to Campbell’s at 2 a.m. on the 16th. Longstreet’s troops continued moving as well, using a shorter route that a Confederate sympathizer had shown them. As the troops raced through heavy rain, Burnside left much of his wagon train and some artillery behind to gain speed.

The Federals began arriving at the intersection of the Kingston and Concord roads in front of Campbell’s Station around noon, just 15 minutes before Longstreet’s vanguard. Both sides deployed in line of battle, with Longstreet sending Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division against the Federal right-center. The Federals repelled two attacks.

Longstreet then sent Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s brigade around the enemy flank to try getting between Burnside and Knoxville. However, Burnside anticipated this maneuver and fell back a half-mile, under the cover of his artillery, to repel it. Colonel E. Porter Alexander, Longstreet’s artillery commander, recalled that a 20-pound shell “cut both arms and one leg off a man”:

“He was kneeling behind a limber on his right knee, facing to the right, and was putting a fuse in a shell placed on the ground, and using both hands. This shot struck one of the wheel horses in the chest, ranged through the length of his body a little downward, wrecked the splinter bar of the limber, and passed just under the axle and struck this poor fellow’s left leg above the knee, his left arm above the elbow, and his right arm at or below it leaving all three only hanging by shreds.”

By nightfall, the Federal line held and Longstreet disengaged, expecting the fight to continue the next day. The Federals sustained 318 casualties (31 killed and 211 wounded, and 76 missing), while the Confederates lost 174 (22 killed and 152 wounded). Having won the race, Burnside had no intention of fighting again the next day; he began falling back into the Knoxville fortifications.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 341; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 838; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 371-72; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 106-07, 109; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 434; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 108-09, 420-21

Charleston: The Federal Bombardment Continues

November 12, 1863 – Federal batteries opened a new bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The fort had already been reduced to rubble by this time, but the defenders still refused to surrender.

Federal forces had finally taken Morris Island in September, but they had not been able to capture the symbolic Fort Sumter, in the harbor north of the island. The Confederates at Sumter had prevented the Federals from clearing the torpedoes (i.e., mines) and obstructions from the harbor. The Federals positioned mortars and rifled cannon on Morris Island and, coupled with the gunboats blockading the harbor, tried bombarding Sumter into submission.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor | Image Credit: Learnnc.org

November opened with the Federals firing 786 rounds into the fort. The next day, President Jefferson Davis arrived at Charleston as part of his southern tour. A delegation of military officers and city officials welcomed Davis as he came off the train. This included General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses in the city, despite his strained relationship with Davis. It also included Colonel Robert B. Rhett, whose Charleston Mercury had been highly critical of Davis’s policies.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

According to a correspondent of the Charleston Courier, as Davis rode from the train station to city hall, “The streets along the line of procession were thronged with people anxious to get a look at the President. The men cheered and the ladies waved their handkerchiefs in token of recognition.”

Davis delivered a speech from the portico of city hall, where he recalled that his last visit to Charleston had been to attend the funeral of legendary statesman John C. Calhoun 13 years ago. Davis announced, “He who would attempt to promote his own personal ends; he who is not willing to take a musket and fight in the ranks, is not worthy of the Confederate liberty for which we are fighting.”

Noting the Federal bombardment that could be heard in Charleston Harbor, Davis said that although the city “was now singled out as a particular point of hatred to the Yankees,” he “did not believe Charleston would ever be taken.” Rather than surrender the city, Davis preferred that the “whole be left one mass of rubbish.” As Davis spoke, the Federals launched another 793 rounds into Fort Sumter.

City officials held a reception for Davis in the council chamber, where attendees noticed that Davis said nothing positive about Beauregard’s efforts to defend Charleston. Beauregard did not attend a dinner held in Davis’s honor that night at the home of former Governor William Aiken, explaining that he had a strictly official relationship with the president.

That night, Lieutenant Commander Greenleaf Cilley of the U.S.S. Catskill observed Confederate movements in the harbor that indicated a potential Confederate counterattack:

“Two boats under sail were seen moving from Sumter towards Sullivan’s Island. About 11 p.m. a balloon with two lights attached rose from Sumter and floated towards Fort Johnson… At midnight a steamer left Sumter and moved towards Fort Johnson. At sunrise… observed the three rams and the side-wheel steamer anchored in line of battle ahead from Johnson towards Charleston, and each with its torpedo topped up forward of the bows.”

Federal artillerists fired another 661 rounds into Fort Sumter on the 3rd. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, watched the bombardment from his flagship and said that he “could plainly observe the further effects of the firing; still, this mass of ruin is capable of harboring a number of the enemy, who may retain their hold until expelled by the bayonet…”

Davis left the next day after inspecting the Confederate defenses on James Island and the batteries close to Charleston. The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter continued, with Dahlgren reporting on the 5th, “The only original feature (of the fort) left is the northeast face, the rest is a pile of rubbish.”

As Davis arrived at Wilmington, North Carolina, on the 6th, Dahlgren began using a new kind of torpedo to remove obstructions from Charleston Harbor. The device, invented by John Ericsson, held 600 pounds of explosives in a cast-iron shell about 23 feet long and 10 inches wide. It was attached to the bow of the U.S.S. Patapsco and suspended by two long booms. The torpedo proved ineffective because it interfered with the ship’s movements, and the explosion sprayed water onto the deck. Dahlgren returned the device to Ericsson for refinement.

By the 10th, Davis was back at Richmond and Dahlgren reported that his squadron had fired 9,036 rounds into Sumter over the past two weeks; in the span between the 7th and the 10th, the Federals hurled 1,753 rounds into the fort. The Confederates, having suffered minimal casualties during the bombardment, still refused to surrender.

The Federals began a new artillery barrage of Sumter on the 12th, launching another 2,328 rounds over the next three days. On the night of the 15th, the Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie responded by firing on the Federal guns at Cummings Point, on the northern tip of Morris Island. Dahlgren notified his squadron commanders to keep a close watch on Cummings Point in case the Confederates decided to land and attack the Federal batteries there.

The U.S.S. Lehigh ran aground while patrolling Cummings Point, and the Confederates opened fire on her at dawn on the 16th. Crewmen from the U.S.S. Nahant attached a line to the Lehigh under heavy fire to tow her off the bar. The Lehigh was rescued, and Landsmen Frank S. Gile and William Williams, Gunner’s Mate George W. Leland, and Coxswain Thomas Irving were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their action.

Meanwhile, Beauregard issued a report explaining why the Confederate gunboats in the harbor were no match for the Federal land batteries or ironclads:

“Our gunboats are defective in six respects: First. They have no speed, going only from 3 to 5 miles an hour in smooth water and no current. Second. They are of too great a draft to navigate our inland waters. Third. They are unseaworthy by their shape and construction… Even in the harbor they are at times considered unsafe in a storm. Fourth. They are incapable of resisting the enemy’s XV-inch shots at close quarters… Fifth. They can not fight at long range… Sixth. They are very costly, warm, uncomfortable, and badly ventilated; consequently sickly.”

In the last two weeks of November, the Federals fired nearly another 4,000 rounds into Fort Sumter, which had become little more than rubble. A landing party of 200 Federals tried to capture the fort on the 19th, but they withdrew when the Confederates discovered their approach. Despite these efforts to pound Sumter into submission, the defenders showed no sign of giving up the fort.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 338-41, 343, 345; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 822-23; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 366-68, 370-76, 378; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 428-35, 437-39; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q463

Activity Slows in Northern Virginia

November 10, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia returned to the south side of the Rapidan River, settling into the defensive positions they had left when they began moving against the Federals on October 9.

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac had fought its way across the Rappahannock River and moved south to confront Lee’s Confederates. President Abraham Lincoln wired Meade regarding his strategy so far, “Well done.”

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee’s two corps fell back on the 8th, then took up battle positions the next day within the “V” of land between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan. But when Meade did not advance on the morning of the 10th, Lee resumed his withdrawal.

Recognizing that keeping his army between the two rivers was dangerous, Lee opted to fall back to the line along the Rapidan he held before launching his Bristoe campaign in October. As the Confederates withdrew, Federal cavalry probed their flanks but were stopped at the Rapidan. The Confederates crossed that river at 9 p.m., and by morning, they were back in their old camps.

Meade informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “It will be necessary before I make any farther advance to repair the railroad to the Rappahannock, which the engineers say will take five days.” As the Federals entered the abandoned Confederate camps north of the Rapidan, Meade reported:

“From the number of huts, the corduroyed roads, and information derived from citizens, it is evident the enemy contemplated wintering between the Rappahannock and Rapidan, and did not expect a resumption of active operations on my part.”

Meade explained to his wife how he was worried that the Confederate defenses on the Rappahannock might be too strong to overcome. He wrote:

“Thanks, however, to their being entirely deceived as to my capacity to move, and to the gallantry of my men, we were enabled to carry their strong works and to force the passage of the river (considered one of the most critical operations in the war), with a comparatively small loss, and with great éclat, as we captured four guns, eight battle flags, and nearly two thousand prisoners.

“The operation being successful, the army is in fine spirits, and of course I am more popular than ever, having been greeted yesterday as I rode through the ranks with great cheering; and my having forced the passage of the Rappahannock and compelled Lee to retire to the Rapidan, will I trust convince the intelligent public that my retreat to Centreville was not to avoid battle, and that Lee, who was not outflanked, or had his communications threatened, but was attacked in front, and yet withdrew, is really the one who has avoided battle.

“I certainly expected he would fight, and can only now account for his not doing so on the ground that he was deceived as to my strength and construed my sudden and bold advance into an evidence that I had been strongly reinforced and greatly outnumbered him. I must say I was greatly disappointed when I found Lee refused my offer of battle, because I was most desirous of effecting something decisive, and I know his refusal was only a postponement of a question that had to be met and decided.”

As Lee’s Confederates settled back into their camps along the Rapidan, Lee informed his superiors at Richmond that many men lacked adequate clothing or footwear for the upcoming winter. Also, only three pounds of corn per army horse had been received in the last five days. Lee warned that “unless the amount can be very much increased, we shall lose many horses and mules this winter.” President Jefferson Davis issued orders to send forage to Lee’s army ahead of any other supplies.

By mid-November, Meade had received reports that Lee was falling farther back beyond the Rapidan, to Orange Court House or maybe even as far as Spotsylvania. But while Meade was at a conference in Washington, his chief of staff, Major General Andrew Humphreys, informed him that Confederate infantry was moving toward Raccoon Ford on the Federal right, and Confederate cavalry passed through James City, also on the right.

Meade responded, “I do not like the reported passing through James City of a brigade of cavalry and the reported movements of infantry from Raccoon Ford. This has the appearance of an advance.” However, Federal scouts soon discovered that the Confederate movements were merely reactions to the Federals, and there were no indications of any offensive activity. Both sides settled back into their camps, confident there would be no major fighting for a while.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 340; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 801; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 370; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6488; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 615; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 432

Northern Virginia: The Rappahannock Engagement

November 7, 1863 – Elements of the Federal Army of the Potomac tried crossing the Rappahannock River, while General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates were determined to stop them.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Lincoln administration pressured Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, to launch one more offensive before winter. Since the administration ruled out a move on Fredericksburg to the east, Meade planned to retake the ground between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers to his south and west.

Most of Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was south of the Rappahannock, but some forward units held a mile-long defense line on the north bank, from Kelly’s Ford on the right to Rappahannock Station on the left. Lee received word around noon on the 7th that Federals were advancing toward this line in two columns:

  • Major General William French led I, II, and III corps toward Kelly’s Ford, which was defended by a Confederate regiment on the north bank of the Rappahannock and Major General Robert Rodes’s division to the south.
  • Major General John Sedgwick led V and VI corps toward Rappahannock Station, where Major General Jubal Early’s division guarded a bridgehead consisting of two redoubts and entrenchments to protect the pontoon bridge spanning the river.

According to Lee, the Rappahannock Station bridgehead could “threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part.” Lee planned to hold the bridgehead while allowing French to cross at Kelly’s Ford, where his Federals would fall under a massed attack.

Expecting a fight, Meade ordered his corps commanders to distribute 40 rounds of ammunition to each man and bring up their ambulances. Meade instructed French that once the Federals crossed the Rappahannock, “the two columns will move forward to Brandy Station.”

If Sedgwick’s smaller column could not break through at Rappahannock Station, he was to follow French across the river at Kelly’s Ford. Meade directed, “You will attack him vigorously, throwing your whole force upon him, should it be necessary, and drive him from his position, and secure your own upon the high ground.”

French’s men approached Kelly’s Ford in early afternoon, with Federal artillery quickly driving the Confederate regiment across the river. French reported, “The terrific fire of my batteries ran down to the river bank (old style), and the 4 1/2-inch paralyzed the enemy.” Rodes fell back, enabling the Federals to lay a pontoon bridge and cross the Rappahannock, just as Lee wanted.

Sedgwick’s men approached the Rappahannock Station bridgehead around 3 p.m. Since Lee needed to prevent a crossing here, Early moved nearly 2,000 Confederates forward to hold the fortifications on the north bank. Federal artillery came up around 5 p.m. and began pounding the enemy lines until dark. The Federal infantry showed no signs of attacking during this time, leading Lee to believe that this was just a diversion for the main crossing at Kelly’s Ford. However, Brigadier General Harry Hays, commanding the “Louisiana Tigers,” wrote, “It was then, under cover of the darkness, that a simultaneous advance was made of the entire force of the enemy.”

Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding VI Corps, reported, “Under most circumstances, I should have hesitated in ordering the assault of so strong a position, and believed its success hopeless.” But the “darkness, which was fast approaching, was favorable to the attack. The remaining daylight enabled the troops to see what they had to do before reaching the works, while the succeeding darkness would prevent the enemy on the opposite bank from firing where they could not distinguish friend from foe.”

The Federals advanced through defilements, breastworks, and other obstructions to get to the enemy. Wright stated that “over every hindrance, in face of a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, the storm party pressed on with bayonets fixed and never pausing to fire a shot. A desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued, the foe was overpowered and the works were ours.”

But the Confederates regrouped. Brigadier General David A. Russell, commanding a division in the assault, recalled, “Furious, but as yet futile, endeavors were made from the rifle pits to retake the larger redoubt.” Even with reinforcements, the Federals “were not strong enough to carry the rifle-pits and stay the fire from them, which still greatly annoyed our men.”

Colonel Emory Upton’s Federal brigade launched a bayonet charge that finally overran the bridgehead. Some Confederates tried escaping by swimming across the river. Upton reported, “The enemy, supposing a vastly superior force was advanced upon him, and also aware that his retreat was intercepted, laid down his arms.” Federals captured four cannon, eight battle flags, and 1,303 prisoners in their first successful night attack of the war. VI Corps netted the army’s largest Confederate prisoner grab in one action.

When Lee returned to headquarters, he learned the Federals had captured parts of two regiments at Kelly’s Ford, laid a pontoon bridge, and moved a large force across the river. Then Early sent news that the Federals had captured the whole Confederate force at the vital bridgehead north of the river. This engagement wrecked Lee’s plan to hold the ground between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, and possibly launch another offensive.

Just as Lieutenant General A.P. Hill had been criticized for his actions at Bristoe Station last month, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell was criticized for retreating in this action since the divisions of Rodes and Early were part of his corps. Lee quickly fell back to a point two miles northeast of Culpeper Court House, which guarded the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and blocked the road from Kelly’s Ford to Stevensburg. Lee reported:

“The loss of this position made it necessary to abandon the design of attacking the force that had crossed at Kelly’s Ford, and the army was withdrawn to the only tenable line between Culpeper Court House and the Rappahannock, where it remained during the succeeding day.”

French continued advancing on the 8th, crossing the Brandy Station battlefield. Sedgwick advanced as well, linking with French around 9 a.m. Skirmishing occurred among the pickets at various points throughout the day, as Lee braced for an attack on the 9th.

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Sources

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 648-49; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19145-53; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 339; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 799-801; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 369; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6476-88; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 411, 615; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 431-32

The Droop Mountain Engagement

November 6, 1863 – An engagement occurred as part of Brigadier General William W. Averell’s Federal raid on Confederate supply lines in West Virginia.

Brig Gen W.W. Averell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

On the 1st, Averell led 5,000 Federals (two mounted infantry regiments, four cavalry regiments, and an artillery battery) southward from Beverly toward Lewisburg in the Greenbrier River Valley. His goal was to destroy the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, which Major General Samuel Jones, commanding the Confederate Department of Southwestern Virginia, used to transport troops and supplies between Virginia and the west. Two days later, Brigadier General Alfred N.A. Duffie led 1,700 Federals out of Charleston, West Virginia, to link with Averell at Lewisburg.

Averell’s Federals advanced on the Staunton Pike to Greenbrier Bridge, and then moved through Camp Bartow and Green Bank. Under continuous harassment from Confederate partisans, the Federals reached Huntersville around noon on the 4th. Averell dispatched two cavalry regiments to destroy a 600-man Confederate force guarding Marling’s Bottom.

Colonel William J. Jackson led the Confederates. He was a cousin of the late Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, but he did not have his troops’ respect and was thus nicknamed “Mudwall.” Jackson’s men fell back to Mill Point, where Jackson requested reinforcements from Brigadier General John Echols, who commanded an infantry brigade at Lewisburg.

Averell tried cutting Jackson off the next day but failed, and the Confederates withdrew to the crest of Droop Mountain. Echols led his 1,700 troops and six cannon out to reinforce Jackson; they arrived on the 6th and Echols assumed overall command. This combined Confederate force ascended the summit of Droop Mountain and formed a line of battle at 9 a.m., with infantry on the right (eastern) flank, artillery in the center, and Jackson’s cavalry on the left. According to Averell’s report:

“On the morning of the 6th, we approached the enemy’s position. The main road to Lewisburg runs over Droop Mountain, the northern slope of which is partially cultivated nearly to the summit, a distance of 2 1/2 miles from the foot. The highway is partially hidden in the views from the summit and base in strips of woodland. It is necessary to pass over low rolling hills and across bewildering ravines to reach the mountain in any direction.”

Averell opted not to attack directly. He instead sent his infantry and a cavalry company around the Confederates’ left to attack their flank and rear. Meanwhile, the artillery would demonstrate against the rest of Echols’s force. A guide failed to lead the flanking troops around Jackson’s horsemen, and they began trading fire around 1:30 p.m.

Averell brought up his dismounted cavalry to link with the infantry’s left. He also brought up the rest of his artillery as Echols moved his Confederates behind breastworks. After holding about an hour, the Confederates, outnumbered two-to-one, broke around 3 p.m. and fled down the south side of the mountain.

Averell directed a pursuit, but it was halted by darkness. The Federals captured a cannon and a battle flag in their victory. Echols raced to get back to Lewisburg before Duffie’s Federals could get there; Echols had to move 28 miles before Duffie moved 10. Echols won the race nonetheless, passing through Lewisburg on the 7th and escaping. Averell arrived at the town at 2 p.m. and learned from Duffie, who had just arrived, that Echols was gone.

The Federals sustained 140 casualties (45 killed, 93 wounded, and two captured), while the Confederates lost 255 (33 killed, 100 wounded, and 122 missing). The Federals destroyed vast amounts of Confederate supplies and, on Sunday the 8th, they advanced toward Dublin based on intelligence that Echols’s men were regrouping there. The pursuers soon found their path blocked by felled trees and other obstructions.

Averell and Duffie, their men exhausted even without having cleared the road, agreed to end their expedition. Although the Federals scored a victory at Droop Mountain, they did not accomplish their main goal of destroying the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad. And as soon as they withdrew from Lewisburg, the Confederates returned.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 339; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 366-67, 369; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 430-31; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 228, 707-08