Weighing Options in Northern Virginia

Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, left his Centreville headquarters to attend a meeting at Washington to discuss what, if anything, could be done to confront General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Meade arrived at the capital around 2 p.m. on October 22, where he met with President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck.  

Recalling the days after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln asked Meade, “Do you know, General, what your attitude toward Lee for a week after the battle reminded me of?” Meade said, “No, Mr. President, what is it?” Lincoln said, “I’ll be hanged if I could think of anything else than an old woman trying to shoo her geese across a creek.”  

As always, Lincoln hoped for Meade to take the offensive, but he accepted Meade’s explanation that he could not because Confederates had destroyed the Orange & Alexandria Railroad as they retired over the Rappahannock River. Without the railroad supply line, the army could not survive in that war-torn region of northern Virginia. Meade suggested moving the army to Fredericksburg and seizing the railroad linking that town to Aquia Creek, but he would have to hurry before the Confederates discovered the movement and destroyed that railroad as well. Halleck opposed this plan.  

During the meeting, a message arrived from Major-General John G. Foster, commanding the Federal department based at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. Foster cited reports from Richmond newspapers describing “Lee’s intention to retire to a position near Richmond, having failed to bring General Meade to battle… all interest is now centered in the operations of the armies at Chattanooga.”  

The Federal high command already guessed this, considering that Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s corps had left Lee’s army to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. They even expected that Lee might send Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s corps to Bragg’s army as well. The meeting ended with the next move still undecided. Meade wrote his wife, calling Lincoln “considerate and kind… He found no fault with my operations, although it was very evident he was disappointed that I had not got a battle out of Lee.” Lincoln ultimately agreed that “there was not much to be gained by any farther advance.”  

Maj-Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Meade returned to Virginia, where his army slowly moved back south. The engineers and troops repaired the railroad as they went, while the cavalry probed ahead to the Rappahannock. Colonel George Sharpe, deputy provost marshal in Alexandria, sent a report from his spies to Meade stating that Ewell’s corps had recently gone to reinforce Bragg at Chattanooga. Meade forwarded this intelligence to Lincoln, who combined it with other reports and wrote:  

“Taking all our information together, I think it probable that Ewell’s corps has started for East Tennessee by way of Abingdon, marching last Monday, say, from Meade’s front directly to the railroad at Charlottesville. If you have a plan matured, I have nothing to say. If you have not, then I suggest that with all possible expedition, the Army of the Potomac get ready to attack Lee, and that in the meantime a raid shall, at all hazards, break the railroad at or near Lynchburg.”  

The railroad at Lynchburg lay 140 miles south of Meade’s army and supplied the western Confederacy. To succeed, Halleck wrote, the troops “must mainly subsist upon the country.”  

During this time, Federal cavalry skirmished with Confederates near Bealeton Station and north of Rappahannock Station. A Federal reconnaissance in force was repelled by one of Ewell’s divisions under Major-General Jubal Early. Two Confederate deserters identified themselves as belonging to Ewell’s corps, which indicated that Ewell had not gone west to reinforce Bragg as the Federals thought.  

Meade informed Washington that he could do little more than conduct cavalry raids at this time, stating that he would be “more likely to succeed with small than large numbers.” He also noted that Brigadier-General John D. Imobden’s Confederate cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley was falling back, possibly to “resist such expeditions as we now propose, or perhaps to operate on my rear, should I advance.” The Federal high command continued weighing their options, with little more than scouting and skirmishing taking place into November.  

On the Confederate side, Lee tried to look to the needs of his men and animals as best he could in the war-ravaged countryside. He also dispatched two infantry regiments “to scour the counties of Rappahannock, Page, Madison, and Greene for deserters.” In a letter to Secretary of War James A. Seddon, Lee weighed in on the Davis administration’s recent decision to pardon several army deserters:  

“I fear that pardons, unless for the best reasons, will not only make all the blood that has been shed for the maintenance of discipline useless, but will result in the painful necessity of shedding a great deal more. I am convinced that the only way to prevent (desertions) is to visit the offense, when committed, with the sternest punishment, and leave the offender without hope of escape, by making the penalty inevitable.”  


  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.

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