Engagement on the Rappahannock

November 7, 1863 – Movements by both the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia that had begun in October continued, leading to a severe clash on the Rappahannock River.

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

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

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, proposed to his superiors in Washington to move his supply base down the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg. But President Abraham Lincoln quickly disapproved, remembering the horrific Federal defeat there 11 months ago. It did not matter that Meade’s army outnumbered General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, 84,321 to 45,614.

Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates had set up a mile-long bridgehead north of the Rappahannock near Rappahannock Station. Lee received word around noon on the 7th that Federals were advancing in two columns: one toward the bridgehead and one toward Kelly’s Ford. Lee planned to hold the bridgehead while drawing the Federals across the river at Kelly’s Ford and then attacking in force there.

That night, the Federal VI Corps under General George Sykes charged the bridgehead earthworks at Rappahannock Station, with darkness hiding their advance. Savage fighting ended with the Confederates either fleeing across the bridge or swimming across the river. Federals captured four cannon, eight battle flags, and 1,303 prisoners in their first successful night attack of the war.

Lee heard firing at dusk but it soon stopped, convincing him the action had merely been a demonstration. But when he 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 General Jubal Early sent news that the Federals had captured the whole Confederate force at the bridgehead north of the river.

This engagement wrecked Lee’s plan to launch another offensive. Sykes’s corps netted the army’s largest Confederate prisoner grab in one action. Just as Confederate General A.P. Hill had been criticized for his actions at Bristoe Station last month, General Richard Ewell received criticism for retreating in this action.

Hours after receiving Early’s report, Lee began retreating two miles northeast of Culpeper Court House, which guarded the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and blocked the road from Kelly’s Ford to Stevensburg. As the Federals continued advancing on the 8th, skirmishing occurred at Warrenton, Jeffersonton, Rixeyville, Muddy Creek, Brandy Station, and Stevensburg. Lincoln wired Meade as his army continued advancing, “Well done.”

On the 9th, Lee stopped between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers and arranged his lines to meet a Federal attack. But when no attack came, Lee resumed his withdrawal, crossing the Rapidan the next day and establishing the same positions he held before the Bristoe Campaign began in early October.

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Sources

  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19145-53
  • 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
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6476-88
  • 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
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