As November began in northern Virginia, the Federal Army of the Potomac continued its slow advance southward along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. The troops repaired damage done by the retreating Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the recent Bristoe campaign as they went. Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, needed the railroad supply line if he hoped to confront General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates before winter. By November 1, it had been repaired all the way to Warrenton Junction.
The Confederates fell back beyond the Rappahannock River, leaving a force behind to collect as much iron as possible from the wrecked railroad. Lee had just 45,614 men present for duty, largely due to illness. He did not plan to conduct any more offensive operations in 1863, which Meade had already deduced. Troops on both sides began settling into winter quarters by taking down their tents and building makeshift cabins.
Meade had been reinforced and now had 84,321 effectives. But the lack of active operations created demoralization, and desertions in the Army of the Potomac rose to nearly 5,000 per month. These numbers were replaced by draftees, whom Meade called “raw and unreliable.” This diminished the numerical disparity between the Federal and Confederate armies.
Meade wanted to launch one more offensive before winter, but he needed to pinpoint Lee’s exact location first. Assuming that the Confederate army held positions along the Rappahannock, Meade explained to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that he was considering flanking them “by a decided detour either to his left, by way of Amissville and Sperryville, threatening his communications by Culpeper or beyond, or a similar movement to his right, attempting to seize in advance the heights of Fredericksburg and opening communication with Aquia Creek.”
Moving against Lee’s left would pull the Federals away from their supply line and send them down unreliable roads. Meade, as he had stated in October, preferred to threaten Lee’s right, and he informed Halleck that he “determined to attempt the movement by his right, throwing the whole army rapidly and secretly across the Rappahannock at Bank’s Ford and Fredericksburg, and taking position on the heights beyond the town.”
Shifting the Federal base of operations from the Rappahannock to Fredericksburg would place the army on a direct path to Richmond and resolve the problem of crossing a second river (the Rapidan) immediately after the first (the Rappahannock). Although Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside had tried this and failed last year, Meade wrote, “I have every reason to believe it will be successful, so far as effecting a lodgment on the heights in advance of him; and if he follows and gives me battle, my object will be accomplished.”
Halleck shared Meade’s plan with President Abraham Lincoln, who disapproved because he feared another disaster at Fredericksburg. Halleck informed Meade, “He does not see that the proposed change of base is likely to produce any favorable result, while its disadvantages are manifest.” Meade responded:
“Your disapproval of the proposed attempt to secure a lodgment on the Fredericksburg heights of course caused an immediate abandonment of the plan. I have been since anxiously endeavoring to see my way clear to make some movement, which, by tactical maneuver on the enemy’s flank, would bring my army in contact with his, with giving him all the advantage of defense and position. As yet, I have not been able to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion, though most earnestly anxious to bring matters to termination.”
Meade expressed more frustration about Lincoln’s rejection in a letter to his wife: “Now I have clearly indicated what I thought feasible and practicable and my plan is disapproved. I think under these circumstances justice to me and the true interests of the country justify their selecting some one else to command.” Meade also confided to an aide that he hoped “the Administration would get mad at me, and relieve me.”
During this time, Major-General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s Confederate cavalry clashed with Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s horsemen as Stuart tried to destroy the railroad that would have been Meade’s supply line for a move on Fredericksburg. Had Meade gone through with the operation, he would have had to rebuild the railroad first, giving the Confederates time to fortify Fredericksburg just as they did last year.
Since the administration still expected Meade to conduct some kind of offensive before winter, Meade began planning to move his entire army across the Rappahannock. He scheduled a reconnaissance in force on the 6th, but it was suspended due to a heavy storm. Meade reported, “It will be made tomorrow, and I think with a favorable result.”
On the Confederate side, Lee continued trying to bolster his dwindling army. This included rejecting calls from Richmond to send more troops to other theaters. When a request came to send a South Carolina regiment to defend its home state, Lee wrote:
“Meade is in our front, gradually advancing and repairing the railroad, having already reached Warrenton Junction. His army consisting of five corps of infantry and three divisions of cavalry, had been re-enforced to some extent since its late retreat on Washington, and is variously estimated at from 60,000 to 80,000 effective men… I believe the troops of this army have been called upon in winter, spring, and summer to do almost as active service as those of any other department, and I do not see that the good of the service will be promoted by scattering its brigades and regiments along all the threatened points of the Confederacy. It is only by the concentration of our troops that we can hope to win any decisive advantage.”
Confederate scouts reported that Federal forces were advancing to the Rappahannock. On the day that Meade suspended his advance, Lee sent Confederates across to the north side of the river. They moved into trenches on a line from Kelly’s Ford to Rappahannock Station. The Federals would advance the next day.
- 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.