The Bristoe Station Engagement

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, continued his movement intended to turn the right flank of Major-General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac. Major-General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, had reported that the path was open to Meade’s right and rear but was then forced to hide from a superior Federal force near Auburn.  

Early on October 14, Stuart and two of his cavalry brigades remained hidden, cut off from Lee’s army by the Federals. Stuart, expecting the Confederate infantry to rescue him, began firing his seven cannon but received no support as the Federal troops advanced and nearly overwhelmed him. The Confederate horsemen fought their way out, but they had to take a long detour to rejoin Lee’s army.  

Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps of Lee’s army marched to the sound of Stuart’s guns and approached Major-General Gouverneur K. Warren’s Federal Second Corps as it tried crossing Cedar Run. Warren reported, “To halt was to await annihilation, and to move as prescribed carried me along routes in a valley commanded by the heights on each side.” To Warren’s good fortune, Ewell’s attack was delayed, enabling him to withdraw the Federals to safety along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  

The rest of Meade’s army continued pulling back north toward Centreville and Manassas Junction, while Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Confederate Third Corps moved east. Hill’s advance had been delayed, giving Meade time to avoid being flanked. As the Confederates approached Broad Run near Bristoe Station, Hill saw Federal Major-General George Sykes’s Fifth Corps falling back to the north and east. Thinking this was the Federal rear guard, Hill deployed two brigades from Major-General Henry Heth’s division to attack. They did not reconnoiter the area beforehand.  

As the Confederates advanced, Warren’s Second Corps approached their right flank from the south, following Sykes on the northward retreat. Hill’s men traded shots with Sykes’s Federals, and then turned south to assault Warren, who placed his men behind the railroad embankment near Bristoe Station. Two Confederate brigades were ordered to charge Warren’s defenses.

Engagement at Bristoe on Oct 14 | Image Credit: American Battlefield Trust

The Confederate assault was easily repulsed, as the brigades were no match for an entire Federal corps. Both brigade commanders—Brigadier-Generals William W. Kirkland and John R. Cooke–were badly wounded, and both brigades were decimated (Kirkland lost 602 men and Cooke lost 700). A second Confederate attack, this time by Major-General Richard H. Anderson’s division, was also repelled.  

This 40-minute engagement cost the Confederates nearly 1,900 men (1,400 killed or wounded and 450 captured), while the Federals lost just 580. The Army of Northern Virginia had not sustained such a sharp defeat since the Battle of Mechanicsville during the Seven Days Battles of June 1862. Warren kept withdrawing north following this clash, avoiding Ewell who was advancing to reinforce Hill.  

This campaign of maneuver had been a Confederate success in that it drove the Federal army back toward Washington. But it ended with a sharp Federal victory that gave Meade time to prepare defenses around Centreville. Lee’s opportunity to move around Meade’s right and rear was lost. When Hill informed Lee of the Bristoe Station engagement, Lee said, “Well, well, General, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.”  


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