November 21, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade received intelligence that his Federal Army of the Potomac now held a major numerical advantage over General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Meade therefore looked to launch another offensive.
Following the Bristoe campaign in October, Meade had settled his army into camps between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, presumably until the spring. However, this changed when a detailed report, partly derived from information provided by Confederate deserters, stated that Lee had less than 40,000 effectives in his army, while Meade had 84,274.
Lee actually had 48,586 effectives, but Meade still vastly outnumbered him, and his Federals had been emboldened by their recent, albeit minor, victories at Bristoe and Rappahannock stations. Moreover, the report indicated that Lee’s two corps were spread out across 35 miles and unable to guard the lower fords on the Rapidan. Meade therefore planned to hurry his five infantry corps down the Rapidan, move down the Orange Turnpike, and overwhelm Lee’s right and rear before the remaining Confederates came up in support.
While Meade planned, Lee hosted President Jefferson Davis for a four-day military conference at Lee’s headquarters. Lee once more stressed the importance of having shoes for his barefooted men, as well as adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the upcoming winter. On the night of the 24th, Lee received word that Meade had requisitioned large amounts of rations for his troops, indicating he would soon be in motion again.
Lee alerted his outposts. Guessing that Meade would cross the Rapidan and try advancing through either the Wilderness or Spotsylvania toward the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, Lee prepared to move his army to block the Federals. A cavalry clash near Ely’s Ford on the 25th seemed to confirm Lee’s guess.
Meade had planned to move out on the 23rd, but rains turned the roads to mud. He announced to his corps commanders, “On account of the unfavorable appearances of the morning,” the advance would not begin until the 24th. But rain caused postponements for another two days, during which time Federal cavalry reported that the major thoroughfares were still passable. The troopers also noted that Confederates were not guarding Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan.
On the 25th, Meade issued orders for the movement to begin the next morning, Thanksgiving Day. The Federals were to make a wide swing around the Confederate right to land on the enemy flank and rear. Meade explained that speed and stealth were of the utmost importance, therefore each man would carry 10 days’ rations and leave their supply trains behind.
Major General William French’s III Corps was to cross the Rapidan at Jacob’s Ford, opposite Mine Run, with Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps following. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s II Corps was to cross farther downstream at Germanna Ford. Major General George Sykes’s V Corps would cross even farther down at Culpeper Mine, followed by Major General John Newton’s I Corps. The five corps would then unite, with French in the lead, and move west to hit the Confederate right with overwhelming force.
The Federals mobilized at 6 a.m., a half-hour before sunrise, on the 26th. A heavy fog hid their movement from the Confederates as they moved down their assigned paths to the Rapidan fords. However, French’s corps started late and experienced traffic delays. Upon reaching Jacob’s Ford, engineers did not bring enough pontoons to span the river. Consequently, French did not cross until near sundown. By day’s end, French, Warren, and Sykes had crossed the Rapidan, but the element of speed was lost, as Meade had covered only half the distance he expected to cover that day.
The element of stealth was also lost when Confederate signalmen atop Clark’s Mountain, along with cavalry, spotted the movement. Lee had expected the Federals to attack the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, but their movement against his right worked even more to his advantage. He held strong positions, and the Federal delays gave him time to shift more troops to that sector of his line.
Lee pulled elements of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps east to bolster the Second Corps under Major General Jubal Early (temporarily replacing the ailing Lieutenant General Richard Ewell) on the right. Lee directed Early to cross Mine Run and move east to face Meade’s advance.
Early’s three divisions moved along three parallel roads leading to Robertson’s Tavern, with Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s men the farthest north (the Confederate left), Major General Robert Rodes in the center, and Brigadier General Harry Hays’s men moving along the Orange Turnpike to the south. Hill’s corps moved about a mile south on parallel roads.
Meade directed the Federals to begin moving at 7 a.m., with French holding the right (unknowingly moving directly toward Johnson), Warren holding the center on the Orange Turnpike (unknowingly moving toward Hays), and Sykes holding the left (unknowingly moving toward Hill). Sedgwick and Newton were in reserve.
French and Warren were supposed to converge at Robertson’s Tavern, but French took a wrong fork in the road and had to countermarch for several hours. Warren’s corps reached the tavern unsupported, where they were confronted by Hays’s Confederates around Locust Grove. French informed Meade that he was waiting for Warren, but Meade’s chief of staff, Major General Andrew Humphreys, responded:
“What are you waiting for? No orders have been sent you to wait for General Warren anywhere upon your Route… He is waiting for you. The commanding general directs that you move forward as rapidly as possible to Robertson’s Tavern, where your corps is wanted.”
French finally came up on Warren’s right and met resistance from Johnson’s Confederate division near Payne’s Farm. French deployed his lead division under Brigadier General Joseph B. Carr to face Johnson as both he and Hays began linking with Rodes in the middle.
The Confederates repelled two Federal charges and then counterattacked. As Johnson reported, “The resistance of the enemy was stubborn, but he was steadily driven back for a considerable distance through the woods and pursued across an open field.” The Confederates soon advanced into heavy woods and became disorganized. They were then hit by heavy Federal canister fire. Johnson ultimately withdrew and repelled more Federal attacks before nightfall ended the fighting.
The Confederates lost 545 men, including Brigadier Generals George Steuart and John M. Jones (both wounded). On their right, Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry barely held Sykes at bay. As Stuart’s line appeared to be breaking and the Federals were about to turn the Confederate flank, Hill’s corps arrived to link with Early and drive the Federals back. Lee then pulled his main force back to defenses on a ridge along the west bank of Mine Run.
Federal losses were unrecorded, but this engagement ruined the element of surprise that Meade so desperately needed. Meade blamed French for his delays crossing the Rapidan on the 26th and taking the wrong road on this day. With Lee entrenched behind Mine Run, Meade now could only attack (and most likely fail) or retreat.
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