Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, telegraphed his superiors in Washington the day after his victory at Bristoe Station: “The enemy, after a spirited contest, was repulsed, losing a battery of five guns, two colours, and 450 prisoners.” These prisoners divulged “that (A.P.) Hill’s and (Richard) Ewell’s corps, reinforced to a reported strength of 80,000, are advancing on me, their plan being to secure the Bull Run field in advance of me.”
Meade figured that General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, planned to “turn me again, probably by the right… in which case I shall either fall on him or retire nearer Washington.” The Federals continued withdrawing northeast to prevent Lee from turning their right flank or getting into their rear. Lee expected Meade to make a stand on the old Bull Run battlefield, but Meade withdrew even further. Confederate cavalry informed Lee that the Federals were building defenses on a line from Chantilly to Fairfax Court House.
Major-General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry probed the Federal line. They then tried to attack a Federal wagon train, but Brigadier-General John Buford’s Federal troopers drove them off. The remaining Confederates wrecked track on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to disrupt Meade’s supply line.
Lee saw no advantage in attacking Meade at his present position because, even if successful, he would just push Meade back into the impregnable Washington defenses. Lee hoped to at least forage for supplies in the area since his wagon train was nearly empty and Federals had destroyed the railroad bridge over the Rappahannock River. But when Lee learned that there were no supplies to be had, he was compelled to withdraw.
Heavy rain fell on October 16, and when Lee did not try to turn Meade’s right again as expected, it indicated that the Confederate army might not be as strong as the prisoners claimed. President Abraham Lincoln sensed this and wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “If Gen. Meade can now attack him (Lee) on a field no worse than equal for us, and will do so with all the skill and courage, which he, his officers and men possess, the honor will be his if he succeeds, and the blame may be mine if he fails.”
Halleck forwarded the message to Meade, which amounted to an implied offer that Meade would receive no blame if he attacked and was defeated. Lincoln shared this with his cabinet, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles noted in his diary, “This is tasking Meade beyond his ability… Where is Halleck, General-in-Chief, who should, if he has the capacity, attend to these things, and if he has not should be got out of the way.”
Since Lincoln’s suggestion was not a direct order, Meade replied, “It has been my intention to attack the enemy, if I can find him on a field no more than equal for us. I have only delayed doing so from the difficulty of ascertaining his exact position, and the fear that in endeavoring to do so my communications might be jeopardized.”
When the rains stopped on the 17th, Lee began withdrawing in the mud from Manassas Junction toward the Rappahannock fords. Lee was not willing to wait for Meade to attack. Stuart’s cavalry screened the movement, with Stuart riding with Major-General Wade Hampton’s division through Gainesville and Haymarket, and Major-General Fitzhugh Lee’s division falling back toward Manassas Junction and Bristoe Station.
The Confederates arrived at the Rappahannock around noon on the 18th after a grueling march through the mud and began crossing that night. Meade was unaware where Lee’s army had gone; he speculated that Lee might head toward the Shenandoah Valley once more. Halleck told him of reports that Lee was advancing on Harpers Ferry, adding:
“If Lee has turned his back on you to cross the mountains, he certainly has seriously exposed himself to your blows, unless his army can move two miles to your one. Fight him before he again draws you at such a distance from your base as to expose your communications to his raids. If he moves on Harpers Ferry, you must not give him time to take that place before you go to its aid. Of course, it cannot hold out long if attacked by his main force.”
Meade wrote that his cavalry reported “the enemy as having withdrawn from Bristoe, supposed toward the Rappahannock.” However, Meade still could not confirm this, and so he told Halleck that he would stay put “until I know something more definite of position of the enemy.” Halleck fired back, “Lee is unquestionably bullying you. If you cannot ascertain his movements, I certainly cannot. If you pursue and fight him, I think you will find out where he is.” Meade considered this message condescending and testily replied:
“If you have any orders to give me, I am prepared to receive and obey them, but I must insist on being spared the infliction of such truisms in the guise of opinions as you have recently honored me with, particularly as they were not asked for. I take this occasion to repeat what I have before stated, that if my course, based on my own judgment, does not meet with approval, I ought to be, and I desire to be, relieved from command.”
Halleck tried to diffuse the tension by writing the next day that “if, in conveying these wishes, I have used words which were unpleasing, I sincerely regret it.” Meade would not be so lucky as to be relieved of command. But by the end of the 18th, he decided to go by his cavalry’s reports and move south to try to find Lee near the Rappahannock.
Meanwhile, Stuart and Hampton approached Groveton, where they were attacked by Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal horsemen. The Confederates withdrew toward Gainesville, where they took up strong defensive positions and waited for Fitz Lee’s troopers to arrive. When Fitz Lee arrived later that night, Stuart approved his plan to feign a move toward Warrenton while attacking Kilpatrick’s left flank as it crossed Broad Run.
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