December 1, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac ended its short-lived campaign in northern Virginia before it ever truly began.
As December began, the Federal army and General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia remained within striking distance of each other on either side of Mine Run. Meade had aborted an assault on Lee’s right flank upon receiving word that it was too strong to break. After finding no other weak points in the line, Meade ordered a halt to his brief campaign.
The Federals would withdraw back across the Rapidan River. Lee’s Confederates remained in their defenses, waiting for the attack that they still expected to come. Lee reported, “Preferring to receive an attack rather than assume the offensive, our army remained in its position all day.”
Major General Jubal Early, temporarily commanding the Confederate Second Corps on the left, reported that the Federals were withdrawing their guns in his front. Lee guessed that they were being moved to support an attack on Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps holding the right. However, it was part of the general Federal withdrawal.
The Federals began pulling out in the early, freezing twilight of December 1 without a fight. As Lee realized the Federals would not attack that day, he resolved to launch an attack of his own the next morning. According to Early:
“Having waited in vain for the enemy to attack us, the commanding general determined to take the initiative, and for that purpose directed me on the afternoon of the 1st to extend my line during the night to the right as far as the plank road, so as to enable two divisions to be withdrawn from General Hill’s part of the line, for the purpose of attacking the enemy’s left next morning.”
Lee directed Hill’s divisions under Major Generals Richard H. Anderson and Cadmus M. Wilcox to advance against Meade’s left. But when they marched forward on the morning of the 2nd, they saw that the Federals had retreated. Regretting the missed opportunity to give battle, Lee said, “I am too old to command this army; we should never have permitted those people to get away.” The Confederates did not pursue.
The Mine Run campaign cost the Federals 1,653 total casualties, while the Confederates lost 629. Meade acknowledged that he faced “certain personal ruin” for withdrawing without giving battle, bitterly remarking that those critical of his conduct thought it “would be better to strew the road to Richmond with the dead bodies of our soldiers than that there should be nothing done.” But by not attacking such strong fortifications, Meade probably saved thousands of lives and prevented another demoralizing failure.
Meade reported to his superiors at Washington, “I am free to admit that the movement across the Rapidan was a failure, but I respectfully submit that the causes of this failure… were beyond my control.” The Lincoln administration had refused to allow him to establish a base of operations at Fredericksburg to the east, thus forcing him to try confronting Lee to the west. Also, several corps commanders did not adhere to Meade’s orders that the campaign be carried out with speed and stealth.
Anticipating an administration rebuke for not personally reconnoitering the enemy positions beforehand, Meade asserted, “It is impossible (that) a commanding general can reconnoiter in person a line over seven miles in extent, and act on his own judgment as to the expediency of attack or not.” In a letter to his wife, Meade concluded that this “fiasco” sealed his fate as army commander. But he added:
“I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing. It was my deliberate judgment that I ought not to attack; I acted on that judgment, and I am willing to stand or fall by it at all hazards. As it is, my conscience is clear. I did the best I could.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19153-62; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 349; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 876-77; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 380; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6522-34; 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. 31-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 441-42