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.
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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