November 28, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade tried launching one more offensive before winter, leading his Federal Army of the Potomac against General Robert E. Lee’s formidable Confederate defenses along Mine Run.
Meade had lost both the elements of surprise and stealth, allowing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to set up strong defenses on a rough north-south line along Mine Run. But Meade was not yet ready to end his campaign. On the night of the 27th, he reorganized his lines so that Major General John Newton’s I Corps held the left (south), Major General Gouverneur Warren’s II Corps held the center, and Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps held the right (north). Meade placed III and V Corps under Major Generals William French and George Sykes in reserve.
The Federals advanced two miles west on the morning of the 28th, marching through rain along the Orange Turnpike and other parallel roads until they discovered the new seven-mile Confederate line on the high ground along the west bank of Mine Run. According to Meade:
“The western bank of Mine Run, with an elevation of over 100 feet, had a gentle and smooth slope to the creek, averaging over 1,000 yards of cleared ground. The summit, on which was the enemy’s line of battle, was already crowned with infantry parapets, abatis, and epaulements for batteries. The creek itself was a considerable obstacle, in many places swampy and impassable. A careful examination, made personally and by engineer officers, convinced me there was no probability of success in an attack in our immediate front, in the vicinity of the turnpike.”
Major General Jubal Early’s Confederate Second Corps held the left (north) of the line, while Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps held the right (south). A Confederate officer recalled, “The enemy being immediately in our front, their sharpshooters advancing, my sharpshooters were soon engaged, the enemy also using artillery. A dense fog and heavy rain here put a stop to the firing and everything became quiet. This opportunity was improved by us in throwing up breastworks.”
Warren personally inspected the Confederate defenses and found them impregnable. However, he requested permission to “make a demonstration in the enemy’s right, to threaten it, and endeavor to discover a more favorable position to assault, and finally, if this could not be done, to move on around as if to get in his rear, with the intention of making him abandon his present front.”
Meade approved, and he issued orders for the other corps commanders to reconnoiter the defenses in their fronts to determine the practicality of a frontal assault. Warren planned to conduct his flanking maneuver the next morning, but the weather turned bitterly cold overnight. Pickets were rotated in and out of duty every 30 minutes to keep from freezing.
The Confederates continued improving upon their defenses into the 29th, building elaborate fieldworks to prepare for the full-scale frontal assault that Lee expected to come. But the Federals also put up fortifications, and both sides observed each other from the safety of their defenses.
That morning, Warren pulled his II Corps out of the Federal line and began moving to find a way around the Confederate right. French’s III Corps moved up to replace Warren on the line, and Newton’s I Corps kept the Confederates occupied with skirmishing and artillery fire.
Newton’s men began building bridges to cross Mine Run, but Newton finally acknowledged that the effort was futile: “Success at the best was only probable, and must have been attended with heavy sacrifice of life.” French informed Warren, “I have looked at the ground occupied by the enemy, and cannot see a practicable point or line upon which my command, supported or unsupported, could do anything but carry in such an exhausted state, while they will be in full force to take advantage of it.”
French guessed that “a bold movement on the left in conjunction” with a successful attack by Warren on the Confederate right “would change the result, but even then there would be no decisive result to compensate.” Warren inspected the Confederate defenses and concluded that they could not be taken except by an all-out attack. Warren tried massing his men for the assault, but nightfall stopped his progress.
That night, Meade called a council of war, where he explained that scouts had discovered two vulnerable points in the Confederate defenses–one on their extreme left, and one in French’s front (though French himself disagreed). Meade announced that a general attack would begin the next morning, with Sedgwick and Sykes hitting the Confederate left, and Warren hitting the right. French and Newton would demonstrate against the center. The attack was predicated on Warren finding a vulnerable spot on the Confederate right; Meade ordered no reconnaissance of his own in that sector.
The night again turned bitterly cold, but Lee’s Confederates continued extending their lines and strengthening their defenses in anticipation of an attack. Early on the 30th, Major General Jeb Stuart informed Lee that the Federals were massing south of the Catharpin road, along Mine Run.
As orders went out among the Federals for a general assault, many soldiers wrote their names and regiments on paper for identification; some even wrote, “killed in action, November 30, 1863.” The Federals opened an artillery bombardment prior to the infantry assault, which was to begin with Warren’s II Corps, supported by some units from III Corps, hitting the Confederate right.
Warren spent the entire night getting his men into position, and as he reported, “I was thus prepared for strong and repeated assaults… no part escaped our observation.” But by dawn, he saw that Hill’s Confederates had strengthened their already mighty defenses, with “the breastworks, epaulements, and abatis perfected” and the right flank extended. Warren stated, “I at once decided not to attack, and informed General Meade.”
Meade sent a messenger to suspend Sedgwick’s advance while he went to inspect the defenses in front of Warren himself. Warren recalled, “I advised against any further attempt to outflank the enemy in his immediate front. Any further attempt to outflank the enemy in his immediate presence, with the force I then had… exposed my command to the chances of an overwhelming attack from him, and was not justifiable on any principle, nor was it proposed to me.”
Warren told Meade, “I would sooner sacrifice my commission than my men.” Although enraged, Meade reluctantly agreed to suspend the attack. Warren suggested that the Confederate right might be turned if the entire Federal army attacked it, but that would require Meade to move his supply base, so he declined.
The two armies remained within striking distance of each other, with Lee refusing to withdraw in the face of superior numbers. He wrote, “Believing that the enemy would not abandon an enterprise undertaken with so great a display of force without giving battle, I was unwilling to lose the advantage of our position…” This tentative campaign continued into December.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 346; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 379-80; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6522; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 497; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 439-40