General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had evaded all Federal efforts to trap and destroy him, skirting around the southern flank of Major-General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac and moving east to safety near Culpeper Court House. Meade, having missed opportunities to destroy Lee’s army in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and now Virginia, moved his army to Warrenton. He reported that he had 105,623 officers and men, including about 13,500 cavalrymen, present for duty. Lee had about 59,178 officers and men, including some 9,000 horsemen.
Confederate scouts correctly located each of Meade’s seven corps in the Warrenton area, but they could not determine their sizes. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis, “Although our loss has been so heavy, which is a source of constant grief to me, I believe the damage to the enemy has been as great in proportion. This has shown by the feeble operations since.”
He forwarded intelligence to Davis that Meade was being reinforced, adding that “their means are greater than ours, and I fear when they move again, they will much outnumber us.” Lee proposed possibly withdrawing behind the Rapidan River, which was where Meade believed he already was. Lee wrote, “The enemy now seems to be content to remain quiescent,” while “prepared to oppose any offensive movement on our part.”
Lee was wrong. Washington continued prodding Meade into launching another offensive, with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck reminding Meade that “Lee’s army is the objective point.” Meade replied on July 28, “I am making every effort to prepare this army for an advance.” He continued, “I am in hopes to commence the movement tomorrow, when I shall first throw over (the Rappahannock River) a cavalry force to feel for the enemy, and cross the infantry as fast as possible.”
However, Meade added, “No reliable intelligence of the position of the enemy has been obtained,” and the Confederate “pickets” along the railroad to Fredericksburg “seem to be mere ‘look-outs’ to warn him of my approach.” Various reports placed Lee’s army at Gordonsville, Culpeper, Cedar Mountain, Staunton, and even beyond the Rapidan on its way to Richmond. Meade told Halleck, “My plan is to advance on the railroad to Culpeper and as far beyond as the enemy’s position will permit.” He sought to cut the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, Lee’s supposed supply line to Richmond, to determine “the practicability of maintaining open such a long line of communication.”
Later that day, Meade received word that Lee’s army was at Culpeper Court House. He also forwarded a report that “Lee has been re-enforced by D.H. Hill, reported with 10,000 men, and that he intends to make a stand at Culpeper or in its vicinity.” While it was true that Lee was at Culpeper, Major-General D.H. Hill had not reinforced him (Hill had instead gone to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee). Nevertheless, Meade planned to advance on the 29th, even if his army was not ready, if only to appease his superiors’ call for immediate action.
But now that Lee had reached Culpeper, President Abraham Lincoln no longer saw the need for Meade to immediately attack. The president wrote Halleck on the morning of the 29th, stating that Meade’s plan “causes me to fear that he supposes the Government here is demanding of him to bring on a general engagement with Lee as soon as possible. I am claiming no such thing of him.”
Lincoln had pressed Meade to attack in Pennsylvania and Maryland, but now the Federals were back in Virginia, where Lee had consistently defeated the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln told Halleck, “If he (Meade) could not safely engage Lee at Williamsport, it seems absurd to suppose he can safely engage him now, when he has scarcely more than two-thirds of the force he had at Williamsport, while it must be that Lee has been re-enforced.”
Lincoln continued, “True, I desired General Meade to pursue Lee across the Potomac, hoping, as has proved true, that he would thereby clear the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and get some advantage by harassing him on his retreat,” despite Halleck telling Meade at the time that he had greatly dissatisfied the president. Lincoln concluded, “I am unwilling he should now get into a general engagement on the impression that we here are pressing him.”
Halleck passed this message on to Meade, who responded the next day: “The impression of the President is correct. I have been acting under the belief, from your telegrams, that it was his and your wish that I should pursue Lee and bring him to a general engagement, if practicable.” Meade clarified that he had not failed to attack at Williamsport, Lee had just retreated before the attack began; he also declared that, contrary to Lincoln’s estimation, the army was at full strength, not two-thirds the size it was at Williamsport.
Meade wrote that his army’s current position was vulnerable to flank attacks, therefore it should advance against Lee before Lee advanced first. Halleck shared Meade’s message with Lincoln, then replied that the Federals should stay north of the Rappahannock for now. More troops might be needed from the army if the northern draft riots got any worse, Halleck explained.
Meade responded, “In my judgment, if there were no other considerations than the relative strength and position of the two armies, I should favor an advance.” But Halleck wrote, “Keep up a threatening attitude, but do not advance.” Meade confided in his wife, “The Govt for some reason unknown to me (this is confidential) has directed me to cease pursuit of the enemy, so I suppose we will have a little quiet for the present. I was in favor of advancing and trying the chances of another battle with Lee.”
Instead, Meade would stay put. But to do so safely, he needed to secure the Rappahannock crossings in his front. Brigadier-General John Buford’s cavalry and the Twelfth Corps cleared Confederates away from Kelly’s Ford on the 31st, and they moved upriver to clear Rappahannock Station the next day.
Confederates patrolled the region between Rappahannock Station and Fredericksburg, guessing that if a Federal attack came, it would come from that area. On the last day of July, Lee submitted his official report on the Battle of Gettysburg to Davis, reiterating that the soldiers were not responsible for the defeat:
“The conduct of the troops was all that I could desire or expect, and they deserved success so far as it can be deserved by heroic valor and fortitude. More may have been required of them than they were able to perform, but my admiration of their noble qualities and confidence in their ability to cope successfully with the enemy has suffered no abatement from the issue of this protracted and sanguinary conflict.”
Davis, who had been despairing over the major defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Jackson, and Tullahoma this month, confided in Lee near month’s end:
“General Johnston, after evacuating Jackson, retreated to the east, to the pine woods of Mississippi, and if he has any other plan than that of watching the enemy, it has not been communicated… this war can only be successfully prosecuted while we have the cordial support of the people. In various quarters there are mutterings of discontent, and threats of alienation are said to exist, with preparation for organized opposition. I have felt more than ever before the want of your advice during the recent period of disaster. If a victim would secure the success of our cause I would freely offer myself.”
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Longstreet, James, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. (Kindle Edition), 1895.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.