By the morning of October 11, Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, had correctly identified that General Robert E. Lee intended to move his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia around Meade’s right flank and rear to either give battle or drive the Federals back toward the Potomac River. President Abraham Lincoln, anxious for updates, wrote Meade, “How is it now?” Meade replied, “I am falling back to the Rappahannock (River). The enemy are either moving to my right and rear or moving down on my flank, I can not tell which, as their movements are not developed. I am prepared for either emergency.”
Brigadier-General John Buford’s Federal cavalry crossed the Rapidan River and clashed with Major-General Fitzhugh Lee’s troopers who had stayed behind to screen the Confederates’ northern advance. Buford received Meade’s order to fall back around 9 a.m., and as he did so, Fitz Lee pursued. Buford made a stand, trying to keep the enemy from interfering with the Federals’ withdrawal across the Rappahannock.
That morning, Federal infantry evacuated Culpeper Court House, heading north to block Lee’s supposed attempt to attack either their flank or their rear. Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalry skirmished with Major-General Jeb Stuart’s horsemen northwest of Culpeper, as Kilpatrick tried screening the withdrawal.
Lee’s infantry marched north to the Sperryville pike, then turned east toward Culpeper, where Lee hoped Meade would be. However, most of Meade’s army had already crossed the Rappahannock by that time. As Buford held off Fitz Lee and Kilpatrick held off Stuart, the remaining Federals got across. By the time the Confederate infantry met up with the cavalry, the Federals were gone.
The Confederates held positions northeast of Culpeper, but Lee missed his opportunity to attack Meade’s right and rear. He wrote President Jefferson Davis that he was “determined to make another effort to reach him.” Lee began planning to conduct another flanking maneuver, this time moving the army to Warrenton, and then to Manassas Junction.
The Confederates moved out of Culpeper on the 12th in two columns and headed for Warrenton, behind the Federal army. Lee relied on the strategy he had used in the Second Bull Run Campaign of August 1862 by sending Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps on a wide, westward swing around the Federals while Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps moved northward along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Lee informed Davis, “I am still moving with the view of throwing him (Meade) further back toward Washington.”
Lincoln wrote Meade, “What news this morning?” Meade, unaware that Lee was trying another flanking maneuver, sent three corps, along with Buford’s cavalry, to Brandy Station to identify Lee’s positions. Thus, his army was divided as he was in danger of being outflanked.
As Meade learned from nearby residents that Lee was moving toward Manassas Gap, he awaited word from Brigadier-General David Gregg, whose cavalry division was on the Federal right. Meade reported to Washington, “I hope during the night to get some information from him (Gregg) to confirm or disprove this report, now derived only from soldiers’ talk with citizens. In the meantime, it is proper you should be advised of this report, because, if true, Lee may get between me and Washington, and you may be annoyed then.”
That night, Gregg informed Meade that Lee was trying to turn the Federal right once more. Meade reported “that the enemy have forced the passage of the river at Sulphur Springs… There is no doubt the whole of Lee’s army is crossing on my immediate right. If I am not attacked tomorrow, I shall move toward him and attack him.” Meade issued orders for his army to concentrate at Fayetteville and east of Warrenton during the night.
The Confederates continued moving toward Manassas Junction and Washington on the 13th, with Hill’s corps in the lead. Lee accompanied Ewell on the march, where he received word that Federals were burning supplies at Warrenton Junction. Lee saw this as an opportunity to cut the Federals off at Bristoe Station, farther up the railroad line.
Stuart scouted ahead of the Confederate infantry and reported to Lee, “I believe you can reach the (Federal) rear if Hill is up.” Stuart and two of his brigades got trapped between the Federals at Auburn and Warrenton Junction. Stuart later reported, “In this predicament, I was not long in deciding to conceal my whereabouts, if possible, from the enemy.” Stuart and his men hid for the night in a small valley, while couriers slipped between the Federal lines to report the Federals’ whereabouts to Lee.
At day’s end, Lee’s army was just nine miles from the Federal rear.
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- 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.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.