The Postponement of a Question to be Decided

General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia returned to the south side of the Rapidan River, settling into the defensive positions they had left when they began moving against the Federals on October 9. Major-General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac had fought its way across the Rappahannock River and moved south to confront Lee’s Confederates. President Abraham Lincoln wired Meade, “I have seen your dispatches about operations on the Rappahannock on Saturday, and I wish to say, ‘Well done.’”

Lee’s two corps fell back on November 8, then took up battle positions the next day within the “V” of land between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan rivers. But when Meade did not advance on the morning of the 10th, Lee resumed his withdrawal. Recognizing that keeping his army between the two rivers was dangerous, Lee opted to fall back to the line along the Rapidan he had held before launching his Bristoe campaign in October. As the Confederates withdrew, Federal cavalry probed their flanks but were stopped at the Rapidan. The Confederates crossed that river at 9 p.m., and by morning, they were back in their old camps.

Meade informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “It will be necessary before I make any farther advance to repair the railroad to the Rappahannock, which the engineers say will take five days.” As the Federals entered the abandoned Confederate camps north of the Rapidan, Meade reported, “From the number of huts, the corduroyed roads, and information derived from citizens, it is evident the enemy contemplated wintering between the Rappahannock and Rapidan, and did not expect a resumption of active operations on my part.”

Meade explained to his wife how he was worried that the Confederate defenses on the Rappahannock might be too strong to overcome. He wrote:

“Thanks, however, to their being entirely deceived as to my capacity to move, and to the gallantry of my men, we were enabled to carry their strong works and to force the passage of the river (considered one of the most critical operations in the war), with a comparatively small loss, and with great éclat, as we captured four guns, eight battle flags, and nearly two thousand prisoners.

“The operation being successful, the army is in fine spirits, and of course I am more popular than ever, having been greeted yesterday as I rode through the ranks with great cheering; and my having forced the passage of the Rappahannock and compelled Lee to retire to the Rapidan, will I trust convince the intelligent public that my retreat to Centreville was not to avoid battle, and that Lee, who was not outflanked, or had his communications threatened, but was attacked in front, and yet withdrew, is really the one who has avoided battle.

“I certainly expected he would fight, and can only now account for his not doing so on the ground that he was deceived as to my strength and construed my sudden and bold advance into an evidence that I had been strongly reinforced and greatly outnumbered him. I must say I was greatly disappointed when I found Lee refused my offer of battle, because I was most desirous of effecting something decisive, and I know his refusal was only a postponement of a question that had to be met and decided.”

As Lee’s Confederates settled back into their camps along the Rapidan, Lee informed his superiors at Richmond that many men lacked adequate clothing or footwear for the upcoming winter. Also, only three pounds of corn per army horse had been received in the last five days. Lee warned that “unless the amount can be very much increased, we shall lose many horses and mules this winter.” President Jefferson Davis issued orders to send forage to Lee’s army ahead of any other supplies.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

By mid-November, Meade had received reports that Lee was falling farther back beyond the Rapidan, to Orange Court House or maybe even as far as Spotsylvania. But while Meade was at a conference in Washington, his chief of staff, Major-General Andrew Humphreys, informed him that Confederate infantry was moving toward Raccoon Ford on the Federal right, and Confederate cavalry passed through James City, also on the right.

Meade responded, “I do not like the reported passing through James City of a brigade of cavalry and the reported movements of infantry from Raccoon Ford. This has the appearance of an advance.” However, Federal scouts soon discovered that the Confederate movements were merely reactions to the Federals, and there were no indications of any offensive activity. Both sides settled back into their camps, confident there would be no major fighting for a while.


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