Category Archives: Virginia

Northern Virginia: The Buckland Races

October 19, 1863 – A lopsided cavalry engagement near Buckland Mills marked the end of the 11-day Bristoe campaign.

Confederate General Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry served as the Confederate rear guard as the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew toward the Rapidan River. Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division headed the Federal advance in pursuit of the Confederates. On the morning of the 19th, Kilpatrick approached Major General Wade Hampton’s Confederate division, accompanied by Stuart, on the south bank of Broad Run.

The Confederates proceeded with the plan devised by Stuart and Major General Fitzhugh Lee, in which Hampton (with Stuart) would lead a part of the force in a feigned retreat toward Warrenton, and when Kilpatrick pursued, Fitz Lee’s force would ambush his left flank.

Stuart headed off, purposely leaving the bridge at Buckland Mills open so the Federals could pursue. The Federals fell into the trap, headed by Brigadier General George A. Custer’s Michigan brigade. Stuart rode southwest through the Bull Run Mountains, with Kilpatrick adding his other brigade under Brigadier General Henry Davies to the pursuit. As Stuart drew them to Chestnut Hill, five miles away, Kilpatrick received word that a second Confederate cavalry force was to the southeast, on his left and rear.

Custer’s troopers turned to face Fitz Lee, who attacked with both his cavalry and artillery. When Stuart heard the firing, he turned his troopers around and charged Davies’s men. The Federals fell back but turned several times to fire at their pursuers. Stuart then launched an all-out charge that panicked the Federals and sent them fleeing into Custer’s brigade.

Lee then charged Custer’s line, and the entire Federal force broke. The Confederates reversed the chase and pushed the Federals back seven miles to Broad Run. Colonel Thomas Owen, commanding a brigade in Fitz Lee’s division, reported that the Federals rushed across Broad Run “pell-mell, in great disorder and confusion, to save themselves the best way they could.” The Federals crossed Broad Run, and infantry support from I Corps came up to halt the Confederate pursuit.

The Federals sustained 1,251 casualties while Stuart lost 408. The Confederates took about 600 prisoners and seized eight wagons. They also captured Custer’s tent and Kilpatrick’s horse. The “Buckland Races,” as Stuart called it, lightened Confederate spirits and boosted morale after the sharp defeat at Bristoe Station five days before.

The strength of Stuart’s attack convinced many Federals, including Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, that he had infantry support. This led Meade to believe that General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was poised to attack, as he notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck at 9:30 p.m.:

“The enemy’s infantry follow him (Kilpatrick) up, and are now in front of our infantry pickets. All the intelligence I have been able to obtain indicates the concentration of Lee’s army within the last two days at Warrenton.”

In reality, the “Buckland Races” were just a delaying action on Stuart’s part to allow the rest of the Confederate army to fall back across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. This was the last significant engagement of what became known as the Bristoe campaign. On the 20th, Stuart led the last of the Confederates back to their original camps near Orange Court House.

In this 11-day campaign, Lee’s 48,402 Confederates had pushed Meade’s 80,789 Federals back 60 miles, from the Rapidan River to north of Bull Run. The Federals sustained a total of 2,292 casualties (136 killed, 733 wounded, and 1,423 missing or captured), while the Confederates lost 1,381 (205 killed and 1,176 wounded).

The campaign ended in stalemate, as Lee had to return to his original base due to lack of supplies. But the Confederates destroyed railroad tracks and bridges as they went to slow any Federal pursuit.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 335; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 795-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 362-63; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6464; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 424; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 87-88

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Northern Virginia: Lee’s Offensive Ends

October 15, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac continued its withdrawal, preventing General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from turning its right flank and rear.

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

Meade telegraphed his superiors following yesterday’s 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 Lee 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 attacking 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 so it could not supply Meade’s Federals.

Lee saw no advantage to attacking Meade in his present position because, 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 the 16th, and when Lee did not try turning 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 failed. But since it 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 replied 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 wrote an angry reply:

“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 finding 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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 334; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10435; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 794-95, 797-98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 360-62; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6452-64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 422-24; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 87-88

Engagement at Bristoe Station

October 14, 1863 – Parts of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac clashed as Lee tried flanking Meade in northern Virginia.

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

Early on the 14th, Major General Jeb Stuart and two of his Confederate cavalry brigades remained hidden near Auburn, as they were cut off from Lee’s army by Federals. Stuart, expecting the Confederate infantry to rescue him, began firing his seven cannon but received no support as the Federal troops advanced and nearly overwhelmed him. The Confederate horsemen fought their way out, but they had to take a long detour to rejoin Lee’s army.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps of Lee’s army marched to the sound of Stuart’s guns and approached Federal Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s II Corps as it tried crossing Cedar Run. Warren reported, “To halt was to await annihilation, and to move as prescribed carried me along routes in a valley commanded by the heights on each side.” To Warren’s good fortune, Ewell’s attack was delayed, enabling him to withdraw the Federals to safety along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

The rest of Meade’s army continued pulling back north toward Centreville and Manassas Junction, while Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Confederate Third Corps moved east. Hill’s advance had been delayed, giving Meade time to avoid being flanked. As the Confederates approached Broad Run near Bristoe Station, Hill saw Federal Major General George Sykes’s V Corps falling back to the north and east. Thinking this was the Federal rear guard, Hill deployed two brigades from Major General Henry Heth’s division to attack. They did not reconnoiter the area beforehand.

As the Confederates advanced, Warren’s II Corps approached their right flank from the south, following Sykes on the northward retreat. Hill’s men traded shots with Sykes’s Federals, and then turned south to assault Warren, who placed his men behind the railroad embankment near Bristoe Station. Two Confederate brigades were ordered to charge Warren’s defenses.

The Confederate charge was easily repulsed, as the brigades were no match for an entire Federal corps. Both brigade commanders–Generals William W. Kirkland and John R. Cooke–were badly wounded, and both brigades were decimated (Kirkland lost 602 men and Cooke lost 700). A second Confederate attack, this time with Major General Richard H. Anderson’s division, was also repelled.

This 40-minute engagement cost the Confederates nearly 1,900 men (1,400 killed or wounded and 450 captured), while the Federals lost just 580. The Army of Northern Virginia had not sustained such a sharp defeat since the Battle of Mechanicsville during the Seven Days Battles of June 1862. Warren kept withdrawing north following this clash, avoiding Ewell advancing toward his left flank to reinforce Hill.

This campaign of maneuver had been a Confederate success, but it ended with a sharp Federal repulse that gave Meade time to prepare defenses around Centreville. Lee’s opportunity to move around Meade’s right and rear was lost. When Hill informed Lee of the Bristoe Station engagement, Lee said, “Well, well, General, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19145; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 333; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p.  793; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 360; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6440-52; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26-28; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 422

Northern Virginia: Another Flanking Maneuver

October 12, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attempted another flanking maneuver after Major General George G. Meade’s Federals fell back.

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

By the morning of the 11th, Meade had correctly identified that Lee intended to move his Confederates around the Federal right flank and rear to either give battle or drive Meade back toward the Potomac River. President Abraham Lincoln, anxious for updates, asked Meade, “How is it now?” Meade replied, “I am falling back to the Rappahannock (River). The enemy are either moving to my right and rear or moving down on my flank, I can not tell which, as their movements are not developed. I am prepared for either emergency.”

Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal cavalry clashed with Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s troopers who had stayed behind to screen the Confederates’ northern advance. Buford received Meade’s order to fall back around 9 a.m., and as he did so, Fitz Lee pursued. Buford made a stand, trying to keep the enemy from interfering with the Federals’ withdrawal across the Rappahannock.

That morning, Federal infantry evacuated Culpeper Court House, heading north to block Lee’s supposed attempt to attack either their flank or their rear. Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalry skirmished with Major General Jeb Stuart’s horsemen northwest of Culpeper, as Kilpatrick tried screening the withdrawal.

Lee’s infantry marched north to the Sperryville pike, then turned east toward Culpeper, where Lee hoped Meade would be. However, most of Meade’s army had already crossed the Rappahannock by that time. As Buford held off Fitz Lee and Kilpatrick held off Stuart, the remaining Federals got across. By the time the Confederate infantry met up with the cavalry, the Federals were gone.

The Confederates held positions northeast of Culpeper, but Lee missed his opportunity to attack Meade’s right and rear. He wrote President Jefferson Davis that he was “determined to make another effort to reach him.” Lee began planning to conduct another flanking maneuver, this time moving the army to Warrenton, and then to Manassas Junction.

The Confederates moved out of Culpeper on the 12th and headed for Warrenton, behind the Federal army. Lee relied on the strategy he had used in the Second Bull Run Campaign of August 1862 by sending Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps on a wide, westward swing around the Federals while Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps moved northward along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Lee informed Davis, “I am still moving with the view of throwing him (Meade) further back toward Washington.”

Lincoln wrote Meade, “What news this morning?” Meade, unaware that Lee was trying another flanking maneuver, sent three corps, along with Buford’s cavalry, to Brandy Station to identify Lee’s positions. Thus, his army was divided as he was in danger of being outflanked.

As Meade learned from nearby residents that Lee was moving toward Manassas Gap, he awaited word from Brigadier General David Gregg, whose cavalry division was on the Federal right. Meade reported to Washington:

“I hope during the night to get some information from him (Gregg) to confirm or disprove this report, now derived only from soldiers’ talk with citizens. In the meantime, it is proper you should be advised of this report, because, if true, Lee may get between me and Washington, and you may be annoyed then.”

That night, Gregg informed Meade that Lee was trying to turn the Federal right once more. Meade reported “that the enemy have forced the passage of the river at Sulphur Springs… There is no doubt the whole of Lee’s army is crossing on my immediate right. If I am not attacked tomorrow, I shall move toward him and attack him.” Meade issued orders for his army to concentrate at Fayetteville and east of Warrenton during the night.

The Confederates continued moving toward Manassas Junction and Washington on the 13th, with Hill’s corps in the lead. Lee accompanied Ewell on the march, where he received word that Federals were burning supplies at Warrenton Junction. Lee saw this as an opportunity to cut the Federals off at Bristoe Station, farther up the railroad line.

Stuart scouted ahead of the Confederate infantry and reported to Lee, “I believe you can reach the (Federal) rear if Hill is up.” Stuart and two of his brigades got trapped between the Federals at Auburn and Warrenton Junction. Stuart later reported, “In this predicament, I was not long in deciding to conceal my whereabouts, if possible, from the enemy.” Stuart and his men hid for the night in a small valley, while couriers slipped between the Federal lines to report the Federals’ whereabouts to Lee.

At day’s end, Lee’s army was just nine miles from the Federal rear.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 333; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 787, 789; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 359-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6405-17; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 420-21; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 80, 87-88

Northern Virginia: Lee Moves North

October 7, 1863 – Federal signalmen from the Army of the Potomac reported that General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was mobilizing to possibly launch an offensive.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As October began, Lee’s army held positions around Orange Court House, south of the Rapidan River. Lee reported that Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac held “the ridge north of Culpeper Court-House, extending some miles east and west. His position answers as well for defense as attack.” Meade tried masking the absence of XI and XII corps by moving I Corps into XII’s place and deploying a division from VI Corps to take XI’s positions guarding Catlett’s and Bristoe stations.

However, Lee knew that those two corps had gone to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, and he began developing a plan to push the rest of the Federal army back to the Potomac for the winter. Lee met with his two corps commanders–Lieutenant Generals Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill–and announced that he intended to turn Meade’s right flank. This would push the Federals back to the Rappahannock River and compel them to give up Culpeper. It would also put the Confederates in a good position to harass Meade’s supply line on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, or even threaten Washington.

The Federal high command did not expect Lee to take the offensive this fall, as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reported on the 4th, “‘All quiet on the Potomac.’ Nothing to disturb autumnal slumbers… All public interest is now concentrated on the Tennessee.” However, Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry was busy reconnoitering the Federal positions.

One Confederate scout reported, “Their army is very much demoralized. Thousands of the conscripts have thrown away their guns, and are scattered through the country.” Another asserted that the Federals were retreating. This misinformation did nothing to help Lee, but Federals intercepted these messages, as well as one in which Stuart asked for “some good guides for country between Madison Court-House and Woodville,” on the Federal right.

On the 7th, Federal signalmen intercepted messages that the Confederates were preparing to break camp and go into motion. Lee planned for his men, led by Hill’s corps, to move southwest to Orange Court House, and then cross the Rapidan at multiple fords and head northwest, converging at Madison Court House. Stuart’s cavalry would screen the movement. As the Confederates moved out that afternoon, Meade put his troops on alert.

The next day, Lee’s troops moved up the south bank of the Rapidan and then crossed, marching northwest around Meade’s right. Meade still was not sure whether Lee was advancing or retreating. Federal signalmen could see the Confederates moving to their right, but they could not tell if Lee intended to outflank the army or continue moving northwest into the Shenandoah Valley. The Confederates stopped for the night just short of Madison.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meade responded by sending Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry division, along with I, V, and VI corps, to probe along the Rapidan and determine Lee’s intention. Meade instructed Major General John Newton, commanding I Corps, that the probing action was “based upon the supposition that the enemy is retiring from the Rapidan. This supposition may prove to be erroneous.” If so, Newton was to “exercise prudence in the operations to be conducted by you, and not make unnecessary sacrifice in attempting to cross the river should the enemy show himself in strong force…”

By the 10th, Lee was poised to move around Meade’s right, just as he had moved around Major General John Pope’s right in the Second Bull Run campaign of August 1862. The Confederates arrived at Madison, while Stuart’s cavalry rode ahead and clashed with Federal horsemen under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick near the road that led to Meade’s right and rear. Stuart drove off the undermanned Federals.

Meade received word of the skirmish but still could not tell where Lee was heading. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck advised, “Attack him and you will soon find out.” Meade pieced all the incoming information together and reported to Washington around noon: “Every indication would lead to the conclusion that the enemy’s cavalry attacking me are supported by a large force of infantry, and there are some reasons to believe there is a movement into the Shenandoah Valley.”

Meanwhile, Stuart’s horsemen held the Federals off while the Confederate infantry moved north toward Sperryville. Kilpatrick dispatched one of his brigades under Brigadier General Henry Davies to move around Stuart’s right, and after another skirmish, Davies discovered the Confederate infantry on the march. Kilpatrick reported, “Two columns of the enemy were seen moving at 6:30 p.m. in the direction of General Davies’ right. That is the weakest portion of my line.”

By that time, Meade had discovered Lee’s intentions. He wired Halleck:

“A.P. Hill’s whole corps and part of Ewell’s are turning my right flank, moving from Madison Court-House to Sperryville. As it will be impossible for me to maintain my present position with so considerable a force of the enemy threatening my rear and communications, I shall, tonight, withdraw to the north side of the Rappahannock, and endeavor, by means of the cavalry, to find out the enemy purpose. My belief now is that his movements are offensive.”

Meade called back his probing forces and sent his supply wagons north. He prepared to fall back across the Rappahannock the next day, just as Pope had done in August 1862. With Lee turning the Federal right, this seemed like Second Bull Run all over again.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 332-33; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 766, 785-87, 791; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 358-59; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6405; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 419-20; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 80

Lee Mobilizes in Northern Virginia

September 29, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee began planning to attack after receiving confirmation that Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac was weakened.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederates in the front lines along the Rapidan River in northern Virginia could hear trains pulling in and out behind the Federal lines. Lee had received reports that some Federal troops, possibly XI and XII corps under Major Generals Oliver O. Howard and Henry W. Slocum respectively, were leaving the army. But the presence of new Federal pickets on the riverbank indicated to Lee that Meade had been reinforced.

New information then arrived at Lee’s headquarters from the Shenandoah Valley, which Lee forwarded to President Jefferson Davis with an added message: “It is stated that Generals Slocum and Howard’s corps, under General (Joseph) Hooker, are to re-enforce General (William) Rosecrans (at Chattanooga). They were to move over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and to commence on the night of the 25th.”

Lee doubted this report’s authenticity since his cavalry “still closely guarded” the railroad, but, “If the report from the valley is true, it will no doubt be corroborated to-day or to-morrow.”

The notion of two Federal corps leaving Meade’s army concerned Lee in two ways. First, it “furnishes additional reason for prompt action on the part of General (Braxton) Bragg” (at Chattanooga), if those corps were indeed going to reinforce Rosecrans. Second, “if the withdrawal of these two corps under General Hooker is true, they may be intended to operate on the Peninsula as a diversion to Meade’s advance.”

On the 29th, Lee received another report stating that Federal troops were heading west. This came from Major Harry Gilmore, commanding Confederate cavalry at Newtown, Virginia. Gilmore correctly identified both XI and XII corps as the Federals on the move, as well as Hooker being their new commander. Lee wrote Davis, “The report has been repeated from valley without giving the circumstances on which it was based.”

However, Lee received more conflicting reports from scouts north of the Rappahannock River stating that Meade was being reinforced. Lee wrote, “Those on the Potomac report a large steamer laden with troops as having passed up the river on the 21st, one on the 22d, one on the 23d, and two on the 25th,” even though they “may have been conscripts.”

By this time, Lee had begun leaning toward the theory that Meade was losing troops to Rosecrans. Lee wrote, “If it is true that re-enforcements are being sent from General Meade to General Rosecrans, it shows that the enemy is not as strong as he asserts.”

Regarding the Chattanooga situation, Lee shared reports “that (General Ambrose) Burnside (at Knoxville) has carried nearly all his troops to re-enforce Rosecrans, leaving only a brigade or two of mounted men between him and Knoxville.” It was also “probable” that part of Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was heading east to reinforce Rosecrans as well. If so, “General (Joseph) Johnston (in Mississippi) should be moving either to Bragg or General Rosecrans’ lines.”

Lee next received a report from Brigadier General John D. Imboden, which he also forwarded to Davis: “General Imboden reports that 400 of his cavalry returned yesterday from an expedition north of Winchester. They report the railroad too strongly guarded to attack. He reports every bridge in Hampshire with a stronger guard than he can attack successfully.”

This “stronger guard” on the railroad indicated that Gilmore’s report was true–XI and XII corps were indeed moving west to reinforce Rosecrans. If so, Meade would indeed be weakened and possibly vulnerable to attack. Lee began planning to take the offensive. He hoped to drive Meade back to the Potomac for the winter, which would save northern Virginia from ravaging Federals and give Lee room to maneuver outside Richmond when the spring campaign began.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6393

Meade Looks to Advance in Northern Virginia

September 15, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade planned to advance against General Robert E. Lee’s weakened Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, but only as part of a probing action.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

By this month, the armies of Meade and Lee had built defensive works on either side of the Rappahannock River, and both armies had been depleted by casualties and transfers. Meade sent some of his units north to help enforce the new draft law, and he sent a division to reinforce the Federals attacking Charleston Harbor. Lee sent a corps to reinforce the Confederates at Chattanooga, and two brigades to bolster the Charleston defenses. Meade had roughly 75,000 men, while Lee had about 45,000.

The only substantial action in early September came when Federal cavalry under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick recaptured two Federal ironclads that Confederates had seized at Port Royal, downstream from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock. As the armies remained relatively stationary, they were still within striking distance of each other, and Meade believed that Lee may be planning an attack. However, Lee’s army fell back across the Rapidan River, leaving Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to patrol the region between the two rivers.

Rumors spread on both sides about each other’s potential movements. These included an article published in the New York Herald on the 11th stating that Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps had left Lee’s army to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Because most rumors ultimately proved false, Meade was reluctant to believe this story. But then Meade received word from Kilpatrick that only Confederate cavalry remained south of the Rappahannock, indicating that Lee’s force may have indeed been reduced.

Meade reported to his superiors that, according to some scouts, Lee may be “falling back from the Rapidan.” To confirm this, Meade wrote, “I have other scouts who will endeavor to penetrate nearer Orange Court House and if I can get any evidence more positive, I will push to Culpeper and beyond a strong reconnaissance of cavalry and infantry.”

Major General Alfred Pleasonton’s Cavalry Corps crossed the Rappahannock on the 12th in three divisions, supported by II Corps under Major General Gouverneur Warren. Stuart learned of the advance and directed three brigades under Brigadier General Lunsford L. Lomax to confront the Federal cavalry divisions of Kilpatrick and Brigadier General John Buford near Brandy Station, while Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones’s Confederates took on Brigadier General David Gregg’s division farther west.

The Federals advanced on the 13th, with Gregg pushing Jones back from the north and Buford pushing the Confederates back from the east. Kilpatrick was supposed to shift south and attack the enemy from behind, but he was delayed by a swollen creek. The Federals pushed Stuart’s troopers through Culpeper Court House and back to the Rapidan. Darkness ended the fighting, with the Federals now in control of Culpeper.

Skirmishing continued over the next few days near Brandy Station, Muddy Run, Somerville, and at Raccoon and Robertson’s fords. During these limited engagements, Federals learned from Confederate prisoners that Longstreet had indeed gone to reinforce Bragg, leaving Lee with just two-thirds of his army. However, Pleasonton soon learned that the Confederates remained dangerous in their defensive works south of the Rapidan.

Meade notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“My judgment is that Lee’s army had been reduced by Longstreet’s corps, and perhaps by some regiments from (Richard) Ewell and (A.P.) Hill. With the amount of the force left with him, it is difficult to conjectures, but I have no doubt it is deemed sufficient by him, with the advantages of position, to check my crossing the Rapidan, at least until he can withdraw, in case he desires to do so. If Lee’s army is as much reduced as the intelligence now received would lead us to believe, when the detached troops from this army return, I ought to be his superior in number, and should be able to require him to fall back.”

Meade concluded, “At the same time, I see no object in advancing, unless it is with ulterior views, and I do not consider this army sufficiently large to follow him to Richmond (in case that should prove practicable), and lay siege to that place, fortified as we know it to be.”

Halleck responded that “preparations should be made to at least threaten Lee, and, if possible cut off a slice of his army.” With definitive information about Lee’s army still lacking, Halleck stated that Meade should not “authorize any very considerable advance.”

Meade reported on the 15th that some Confederate infantry had apparently crossed the Rapidan. To this, President Abraham Lincoln wrote Halleck:

“My opinion is that he (Meade) should move upon Lee at once in manner of general attack, leave to developments whether he will make it a real attack. I think this would develop Lee’s real condition and purposes better than the cavalry alone can do.”

Halleck forwarded Lincoln’s message to Meade with one of his own, in which he explained that since Meade could expect no reinforcements, “No rash movements can, therefore, be ventured, in manner of general attack.” Halleck suggested that Meade use his cavalry to continue scouting Lee’s positions before ordering any general advance.

Meade responded near midnight:

“I have ordered the army to cross the Rappahannock, and shall take up a position tomorrow with my left at Stevensburg and right at Stone House Mountain. I will then picket the Rapidan with infantry, and thus relieve the cavalry, and will endeavor, by means of the latter, to obtain more information.”

Meade accurately guessed that Lee’s army consisted of “not less than 40,000 or 45,000 infantry and over 5,000 cavalry.” He then reiterated his opinion regarding Lee’s intentions and his own limitations:

“I hardly think he will cross the Rapidan to meet me at Culpeper, unless he is ignorant of my actual force. If he does not, it will be a difficult problem to attack him, or compel him to fall back, as he has such advantages in the line of the Rapidan, enabling him, by means of artillery and rifle pits, to hold it with much less force than is required to force the passage. I will not make the attempt unless I can see my way clear, and I do not much expect any greater success than requiring him to fall still farther back.”

The Federals began crossing the Rappahannock on the 16th, and troops on both sides spent the next week probing and skirmishing as they tried learning more about each other’s positions.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 325; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 350; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 408-09