Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, had settled his men into camps between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers following the Bristoe campaign in October. He had no intention of launching any further operations against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia for the time being. But this changed when a detailed report, partly based on information from Confederate deserters, stated that Lee had less than 40,000 effectives in his army, while Meade had 84,274.
Lee actually had 48,586 effectives, but Meade still vastly outnumbered him, and his Federals had been emboldened by their recent, albeit minor, victories at Bristoe and Rappahannock stations. Moreover, the report indicated that Lee’s two corps were spread across 35 miles and unable to guard the lower fords on the Rapidan. Meade therefore planned to hurry his five infantry corps eastward down the Rapidan, send them across the river below Mine Run, seize the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank road, then move west to overwhelm Lee’s right and rear “before he could prepare any defenses.”
While Meade planned, Lee hosted President Jefferson Davis for a four-day military conference at Lee’s headquarters. Lee once more stressed the importance of having shoes for his barefooted men, as well as adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the upcoming winter. On the night of November 24, Lee received word that Meade had requisitioned large amounts of rations, indicating that he would soon be in motion again. Lee alerted his outposts and prepared to move his army to block the Federals. He guessed that Meade would cross the Rapidan and try to advance through either the Wilderness or Spotsylvania toward the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad. A cavalry skirmish near Ely’s Ford on the 25th seemed to confirm Lee’s guess.
Meade had planned to move out on the 23rd, but rains turned the roads to mud. He announced to his corps commanders, “On account of the unfavorable appearances of the morning,” the advance would not begin until the 24th. But rain caused postponements for another two days, during which time Federal cavalry reported that the major thoroughfares were still passable, including Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan.
On the 25th, Meade called his corps commanders together to brief them on the movement:
- Major-General William French’s Third Corps was to cross the Rapidan at Jacob’s Ford, opposite Mine Run;
- Major-General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps would follow French;
- Major-General Gouverneur Warren’s Second Corps was to cross farther downstream at Germanna Ford;
- Major-General George Sykes’s Fifth Corps would cross even farther down at Culpeper Mine;
- Major-General John Newton’s First Corps was to follow Sykes.
The five corps would then unite, with French in the lead, and move west to hit the Confederate right with overwhelming force. According to Meade’s chief of staff Andrew Humphreys, “The plan promised brilliant success; to insure it required prompt, vigorous action, and intelligent compliance with the programme on the part of corps and other subordinate commanders.” The movement was to begin the next morning, Thanksgiving Day. Meade explained that speed and stealth were of the utmost importance, therefore each man would carry 10 days’ rations and leave their supply trains behind.
The Federals got moving at 6 a.m., a half-hour before sunrise, on the 26th. A heavy fog hid their movement from the Confederates as they moved down their assigned paths to the Rapidan fords. However, French’s corps started late and experienced traffic delays. Upon reaching Jacob’s Ford, engineers did not bring enough pontoons to span the river. Consequently, French did not cross until near sundown.
By day’s end, French, Warren, and Sykes had crossed the Rapidan, but the element of speed was lost, as Meade had covered only half the distance he expected to cover that day. Provost-Marshal Marsena Patrick noted in his diary, “Meade was very angry (& justly) at this terrible delay & carelessness… on the part of the 3’ Corps.” The delay was sure to give “full notice of our movements to Lee…”
Patrick was right: Confederate signalmen atop Clark’s Mountain and cavalry spotted the movement. Lee had expected the Federals to attack the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, but their movement against his right worked even more to his advantage. He held strong positions, and the Federal delays gave him time to shift more troops to that sector of his line. Lee pulled elements of Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps east to bolster the Second Corps under Major-General Jubal Early (temporarily replacing the ailing Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell) on the right. Lee directed Early to cross Mine Run and move east to face Meade’s advance.
Early’s three divisions moved along three parallel roads leading to Robertson’s Tavern, with Major-General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s men the farthest north (the Confederate left), Major-General Robert Rodes in the center, and Brigadier-General Harry Hays’s men moving along the Orange Turnpike to the south. Hill’s corps moved about a mile south on parallel roads.
Meade directed the Federals to begin moving at 7 a.m., with French holding the right (unknowingly moving directly toward Johnson), Warren holding the center on the Orange Turnpike (unknowingly moving toward Hays), and Sykes holding the left (unknowingly moving toward Hill). Sedgwick and Newton were in reserve.
French and Warren were supposed to converge at Robertson’s Tavern, but French took a wrong fork in the road and had to countermarch for several hours. Warren’s corps reached the tavern unsupported, where they were confronted by Hays’s Confederates around Locust Grove. French informed Meade that he was waiting for Warren, but Humphreys, responded, “What are you waiting for? No orders have been sent you to wait for General Warren anywhere upon your Route… He is waiting for you. The commanding general directs that you move forward as rapidly as possible to Robertson’s Tavern, where your corps is wanted.”
French finally came up on Warren’s right and met resistance from Johnson’s Confederates near Payne’s Farm. French deployed his lead division under Brigadier-General Joseph B. Carr to face Johnson as both he and Hays began linking with Rodes in the middle.
The Confederates repelled two Federal charges and then counterattacked. As Johnson reported, “The resistance of the enemy was stubborn, but he was steadily driven back for a considerable distance through the woods and pursued across an open field.” The Confederates advanced into heavy woods and became disorganized. They were then hit by heavy Federal canister fire. Johnson ultimately withdrew and repelled more Federal attacks before fighting ended at nightfall.
The Confederates lost 545 men, including Brigadier-Generals George Steuart and John M. Jones (both wounded). On their right, Major-General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry barely held Sykes at bay. As Stuart’s line appeared to be breaking and the Federals were about to turn the Confederate flank, Hill’s corps arrived to link with Early and drive the Federals back. Lee then pulled his main force back to defenses on a ridge along the west bank of Mine Run.
Federal losses were unrecorded, but this engagement ruined the element of surprise that Meade so desperately needed. Meade blamed French for his delays crossing the Rapidan on the 26th and taking the wrong road on this day. With Lee entrenched behind Mine Run, Meade now could only attack heavily defended positions or retreat.
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