September 15, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade planned to advance against General Robert E. Lee’s weakened Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, but only as part of a probing action.
By this month, the armies of Meade and Lee had built defensive works on either side of the Rappahannock River, and both armies had been depleted by casualties and transfers. Meade sent some of his units north to help enforce the new draft law, and he sent a division to reinforce the Federals attacking Charleston Harbor. Lee sent a corps to reinforce the Confederates at Chattanooga, and two brigades to bolster the Charleston defenses. Meade had roughly 75,000 men, while Lee had about 45,000.
The only substantial action in early September came when Federal cavalry under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick recaptured two Federal ironclads that Confederates had seized at Port Royal, downstream from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock. As the armies remained relatively stationary, they were still within striking distance of each other, and Meade believed that Lee may be planning an attack. However, Lee’s army fell back across the Rapidan River, leaving Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to patrol the region between the two rivers.
Rumors spread on both sides about each other’s potential movements. These included an article published in the New York Herald on the 11th stating that Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps had left Lee’s army to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Because most rumors ultimately proved false, Meade was reluctant to believe this story. But then Meade received word from Kilpatrick that only Confederate cavalry remained south of the Rappahannock, indicating that Lee’s force may have indeed been reduced.
Meade reported to his superiors that, according to some scouts, Lee may be “falling back from the Rapidan.” To confirm this, Meade wrote, “I have other scouts who will endeavor to penetrate nearer Orange Court House and if I can get any evidence more positive, I will push to Culpeper and beyond a strong reconnaissance of cavalry and infantry.”
Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s Cavalry Corps crossed the Rappahannock on the 12th in three divisions, supported by II Corps under Major General Gouverneur Warren. Stuart learned of the advance and directed three brigades under Brigadier General Lunsford L. Lomax to confront the Federal cavalry divisions of Kilpatrick and Brigadier General John Buford near Brandy Station, while Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones’s Confederates took on Brigadier General David Gregg’s division farther west.
The Federals advanced on the 13th, with Gregg pushing Jones back from the north and Buford pushing the Confederates back from the east. Kilpatrick was supposed to shift south and attack the enemy from behind, but he was delayed by a swollen creek. The Federals pushed Stuart’s troopers through Culpeper Court House and back to the Rapidan. Darkness ended the fighting, with the Federals now in control of Culpeper.
Skirmishing continued over the next few days near Brandy Station, Muddy Run, Somerville, and at Raccoon and Robertson’s fords. During these limited engagements, Federals learned from Confederate prisoners that Longstreet had indeed gone to reinforce Bragg, leaving Lee with just two-thirds of his army. However, Pleasonton soon learned that the Confederates remained dangerous in their defensive works south of the Rapidan.
Meade notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:
“My judgment is that Lee’s army had been reduced by Longstreet’s corps, and perhaps by some regiments from (Richard) Ewell and (A.P.) Hill. With the amount of the force left with him, it is difficult to conjectures, but I have no doubt it is deemed sufficient by him, with the advantages of position, to check my crossing the Rapidan, at least until he can withdraw, in case he desires to do so. If Lee’s army is as much reduced as the intelligence now received would lead us to believe, when the detached troops from this army return, I ought to be his superior in number, and should be able to require him to fall back.”
Meade concluded, “At the same time, I see no object in advancing, unless it is with ulterior views, and I do not consider this army sufficiently large to follow him to Richmond (in case that should prove practicable), and lay siege to that place, fortified as we know it to be.”
Halleck responded that “preparations should be made to at least threaten Lee, and, if possible cut off a slice of his army.” With definitive information about Lee’s army still lacking, Halleck stated that Meade should not “authorize any very considerable advance.”
Meade reported on the 15th that some Confederate infantry had apparently crossed the Rapidan. To this, President Abraham Lincoln wrote Halleck:
“My opinion is that he (Meade) should move upon Lee at once in manner of general attack, leave to developments whether he will make it a real attack. I think this would develop Lee’s real condition and purposes better than the cavalry alone can do.”
Halleck forwarded Lincoln’s message to Meade with one of his own, in which he explained that since Meade could expect no reinforcements, “No rash movements can, therefore, be ventured, in manner of general attack.” Halleck suggested that Meade use his cavalry to continue scouting Lee’s positions before ordering any general advance.
Meade responded near midnight:
“I have ordered the army to cross the Rappahannock, and shall take up a position tomorrow with my left at Stevensburg and right at Stone House Mountain. I will then picket the Rapidan with infantry, and thus relieve the cavalry, and will endeavor, by means of the latter, to obtain more information.”
Meade accurately guessed that Lee’s army consisted of “not less than 40,000 or 45,000 infantry and over 5,000 cavalry.” He then reiterated his opinion regarding Lee’s intentions and his own limitations:
“I hardly think he will cross the Rapidan to meet me at Culpeper, unless he is ignorant of my actual force. If he does not, it will be a difficult problem to attack him, or compel him to fall back, as he has such advantages in the line of the Rapidan, enabling him, by means of artillery and rifle pits, to hold it with much less force than is required to force the passage. I will not make the attempt unless I can see my way clear, and I do not much expect any greater success than requiring him to fall still farther back.”
The Federals began crossing the Rappahannock on the 16th, and troops on both sides spent the next week probing and skirmishing as they tried learning more about each other’s positions.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 325; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 350; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 408-09