November 28, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade tried launching one more offensive before winter, leading his Federal Army of the Potomac against General Robert E. Lee’s formidable Confederate defenses along Mine Run. Continue reading
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November 21, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade received intelligence that his Federal Army of the Potomac now held a major numerical advantage over General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Meade therefore looked to launch another offensive.
Following the Bristoe campaign in October, Meade had settled his army into camps between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, presumably until the spring. However, this changed when a detailed report, partly derived from information provided by 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 out across 35 miles and unable to guard the lower fords on the Rapidan. Meade therefore planned to hurry his five infantry corps down the Rapidan, move down the Orange Turnpike, and overwhelm Lee’s right and rear before the remaining Confederates came up in support.
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 the 24th, Lee received word that Meade had requisitioned large amounts of rations for his troops, indicating he would soon be in motion again.
Lee alerted his outposts. Guessing that Meade would cross the Rapidan and try advancing through either the Wilderness or Spotsylvania toward the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, Lee prepared to move his army to block the Federals. A cavalry clash 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. The troopers also noted that Confederates were not guarding Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan.
On the 25th, Meade issued orders for the movement to begin the next morning, Thanksgiving Day. The Federals were to make a wide swing around the Confederate right to land on the enemy flank and rear. 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.
Major General William French’s III Corps was to cross the Rapidan at Jacob’s Ford, opposite Mine Run, with Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps following. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s II Corps was to cross farther downstream at Germanna Ford. Major General George Sykes’s V Corps would cross even farther down at Culpeper Mine, followed by Major General John Newton’s I Corps. The five corps would then unite, with French in the lead, and move west to hit the Confederate right with overwhelming force.
The Federals mobilized 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.
The element of stealth was also lost when Confederate signalmen atop Clark’s Mountain, along with 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 Meade’s chief of staff, Major General Andrew 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 Confederate division 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 soon 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 nightfall ended the fighting.
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 (and most likely fail) or retreat.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19153; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 346; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 873-74; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 378; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6488, 6499-511; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 497; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 28-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 438-39; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 563-64
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.
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.”
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
July 2, 1863 – The Federal and Confederate armies gathered south of Gettysburg, where General Robert E. Lee launched ferocious attacks on both Federal flanks.
The Confederates had won the previous day’s fight, having pushed the Federals southeast through Gettysburg. But the Federals were now firmly entrenched on high ground anchored by Culp’s and Cemetery hills. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, arrived on Cemetery Hill just after midnight, where he set up headquarters in the house of the graveyard’s caretaker.
Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding XI Corps, spoke for most of his fellow corps commanders when he told Meade, “I am confident we can hold this position.” Meade replied, “I am glad to hear you say so, gentlemen. I have already ordered the other corps to concentrate here–and it is too late to change.”
By morning, Meade had adeptly employed his engineering skills by positioning his forces on a strong defensive line. It started at Culp’s Hill on the right (northeast) flank and curled around Cemetery Hill to the west before turning south down Cemetery Ridge. The line ended with the left (south) flank anchored at the base of two hills called the Round Tops.
Around 1 a.m., Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, put his troopers in motion to join the main army at Gettysburg. It had been one week since Stuart set off on his fateful ride around the Federal army that deprived Lee of vital intelligence. The men and horses were exhausted, having conducted five night marches during the raid.
Stuart and his cavalry finally arrived that afternoon, too late to provide any useful information to Lee regarding the Federal army. Lee greeted his tardy cavalry chief, “Well, General Stuart, you are here at last.” Stuart proudly presented Lee with the captured Federal wagon train, but Lee called it an “impediment to me now.” He ordered Stuart to block Meade’s possible line of retreat to the east.
Lee’s army concentrated around Seminary Ridge, about a mile and a half west of the Federals. The Confederates held exterior lines that stretched north through Gettysburg and then southeast to oppose the Federals on Culp’s and Cemetery hills south of town. Lee had been victorious the previous day, but he had not won a complete victory. He hoped to do so on this day.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate First Corps, inspected the enemy positions that morning. He again urged Lee to move around the Federal left, get between Meade and Washington, and take up strong positions to repel a Federal attack in a manner like the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg last December. Lee refused, insisting, “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Longstreet replied, “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him; a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.”
Lee would not relent. He directed two of Longstreet’s divisions under Major Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws, as well as Major General Richard Anderson’s fresh division from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, to assault the enemy left. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would resume attacking the enemy right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills.
Longstreet’s men did not start arriving until late morning, and Longstreet spent most of the day getting them into attack positions. The Confederates opened an artillery barrage at 4 p.m. to precede their infantry assault. Hood and McLaws did not get into position until after 4.
Major General Daniel Sickles’s III Corps held the Federal left on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles believed his position was weak and so he, contrary to Meade’s orders, moved his men a mile forward to slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg road. The Federals occupied Sherfy’s Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and a mass of boulders at the foot of a hill called Devil’s Den. This created a vulnerable salient in the Federal line. When Hood’s Confederates advanced, they immediately exploited the error.
Hood swept around Sickles’s left, knocking the Federals out of Devil’s Den and past Plum Run, which separated Devil’s Den from the Round Tops. Hood’s scouts reported that Big Round Top was unoccupied, and Little Round Top had just signalmen on its peak. Hood directed his Confederates to sidle around Sickles and focus on taking Little Round Top.
Longstreet was informed of the lack of Federal troops on the Round Tops and was urged to go to Lee and again argue his point for moving around Meade’s left. But Lee had already rejected that twice, insisting that Longstreet attack the Federals in his front. Longstreet would not risk a third rejection.
When Meade learned of Sickles’s unauthorized advance, he furiously demanded that Sickles return to his original position. But the Confederate attack began before Sickles could move. He asked Meade if he should still try pulling back, but Meade replied, “I wish to God you could, but the enemy won’t let you.”
Meade quickly ordered V Corps, his former command now led by Major General George Sykes, to reinforce Sickles. Meade also directed his chief engineer, Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren, to reconnoiter the Round Tops. Warren scaled Little Round Top, a rocky, wooded eminence rising 650 feet. He saw Confederates massing below and quickly realized they could place artillery on this hill and enfilade the Federal army all the way north to Cemetery Hill.
Warren hurriedly called on the nearest Federal units to come and defend Little Round Top. These consisted of a brigade led by Colonel Strong Vincent, the 140th New York, and an artillery battery from V Corps. They arrived and took up positions just minutes before the Confederates rushed up the hill.
The Federals held desperately against repeated enemy charges, as Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed’s brigade came up to reinforce Vincent’s right. Weed directed the placement of heavy guns that tore holes into the oncoming Confederates until he was killed in action; Vincent was also killed.
Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, holding the very end of the Federal line, launched a desperate bayonet charge after running out of ammunition, which shocked Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s Confederates and sent them running. Chamberlain, a college professor before the war, was later awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.
The Confederates then shifted their focus to the north, intending to execute Lee’s plan to launch assaults en echelon. McLaws’s division attacked Sickles’s exposed salient around 5:30 p.m. Fighting surged back and forth as the Wheat Field changed hands six times before the Confederates finally made a breakthrough. However, the Federals held the enemy off with artillery until Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps came up to stabilize the left-center of the Federal line.
McLaws deployed Brigadier General William Barksdale’s brigade around 6:30 p.m., which swept through the Peach Orchard and captured a Federal battery. However, Barksdale fell mortally wounded, and a Federal counterattack virtually destroyed his brigade. The Confederates next tried breaking the Federal center to no avail. The 1st Minnesota under Colonel William Colvill was nearly annihilated in a futile counterattack.
During all this brutal fighting, Sickles was wounded in the leg and carried from the field. He inexplicably blamed Meade for the heavy losses his corps sustained, despite having advanced on his own initiative into the face of massed Confederates.
By day’s end, the Confederates had seized the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and the base of the Round Tops. But Federal reinforcements prevented them from penetrating any further. The Federals still commanded the high ground, and their line remained unbroken. Warren received high praise for recognizing the threat to Little Round Top and rushing to stop it.
Casualties were extreme for the second straight day, with each side losing another 9,000. Barksdale was killed, Major General William D. Pender of Hill’s corps was mortally wounded, and Hood was seriously wounded. Over 500 Confederates lay dead in the Wheat Field alone. Sickles lost his leg, and the 1st Minnesota lost 215 of its 262 men, or a horrifying 82 percent. As President Abraham Lincoln anxiously awaited news of the battle in the War Department’s telegraph office, Meade wired around 8 p.m.:
“The enemy attacked me about 4 p.m. this day, and, after one of the severest contests of the war, was repulsed at all points. I shall remain in my present position tomorrow, but am not prepared to say, until better advised of the condition of the army, whether my operations will be of an offensive or defensive character.”
Just after Meade relayed the message, Ewell finally launched his attack on the Federal right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills. The Confederates had bombarded the positions since 6 p.m.; the Federal defenses had been weakened by both the artillery barrage and by pulling troops away to reinforce the Federal left.
Major General Jubal Early’s Confederates briefly seized Cemetery Hill, breaking XI Corps once more, before Federal reinforcements drove them back. Confederate Major General Robert Rodes’s failure to reconnoiter deprived Early of the support needed to hold onto his gains.
The Federals held firm on Culp’s Hill against Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division; the hill was initially defended by just one brigade under Brigadier General George S. Greene. A division of XII Corps led by Brigadier General Thomas H. Ruger eventually came up to bolster Culp’s.
That night, Meade held a council of war with at least 12 of his top commanders in his small farmhouse headquarters on the Taneytown road. Meade sought advice on whether he should stay put as he told Washington or withdraw after sustaining Ewell’s attack. The officers resolved to stay put but maintain a defensive posture.
As the meeting ended, Meade told Major General John Gibbon, commanding a division in II Corps, “If Lee attacks to-morrow, it will be in your front.” When Gibbon asked why, Meade said, “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed, and if he concludes to try it again, it will be on our center.”
The Confederates once again could not penetrate the Federal defenses. Longstreet was later accused of moving too slowly, and Lee was criticized for not properly coordinating the attacks. Lee resolved to launch one more attack the next day. As Meade predicted, he would target the Federal center in one last effort to destroy “those people.”
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 129-33; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 336-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67, 70-71, 73, 78, 108, 119; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19001; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 299; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 460, 523-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 320-21; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 688, 803; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 118-23, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 375-76; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 646-47; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 470; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 655-60; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 498; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172-73, 177-78; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196, 216, 306, 308-09, 441-42, 565, 739, 786, 811, 818
June 13, 1862 – Confederate Brigadier General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart made a name for himself by conducting a daring reconnaissance mission all the way around Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, heard rumors that McClellan’s right flank, consisting of General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps, was “up in the air,” or unguarded by natural obstacles at its end and thus vulnerable to attack. Lee called on Stuart to lead the cavalry in verifying whether this rumor was true.
Lee directed Stuart “to make a secret movement to the rear of the enemy, now posted on Chickahominy, with a view of gaining intelligence of his operations, communications, &c; of driving in his foraging parties, and securing such grain, cattle, &c, for ourselves as you can make arrangements to have driven in.”
Stuart was to return to Confederate lines “as soon as the object of your expedition is accomplished,” making sure “not to hazard unnecessarily your command or to attempt what your judgment may not approve; but be content to accomplish all the good you can without feeling it necessary to obtain all that might be desired.”
After conferring with his scouts, Stuart decided that after reconnoitering the Federal right, he would continue moving around the enemy flank and completely encircle the massive Federal army. Lee had not prohibited Stuart from making such a move, and Stuart guessed that the Federals would not be ready for such bold action.
Stuart’s force consisted of 1,200 picked cavalrymen, headed by Colonels William H.F. “Rooney” Lee (Lee’s second son) and Fitzhugh Lee (Lee’s nephew). Each man received three days’ rations, and only Stuart knew where they were going. At 2 a.m. on the morning of June 12, Stuart issued orders: “Gentlemen, in 10 minutes every man must be in his saddle.”
The troopers assembled at Kilby’s Station and headed out of Richmond in a half-mile-long column, crossing the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. Moving northwest, Stuart wanted Federal scouts to think they were going to reinforce Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. They rode 22 miles, crossing the Chickahominy River and then turning sharply east.
The troopers drove off small Federal patrols along the way; Stuart’s movement was inadvertently aided by the Federal cavalry structure, which featured companies and regiments dispersed throughout the army and not concentrated to oppose such a large enemy force. The Confederates camped for the night at Winston Farm near Hanover Court House and the bridge over the South Anna River.
The next morning, Stuart’s men resumed their ride east toward Hanover Court House, with Federal troopers fleeing at the sight of so many enemy horsemen approaching. The Confederates passed Taliaferro’s Mill, scared Federal pickets at Haw’s Shop, and chased off a cavalry unit. A charge dispersed Federals making a stand near Old Church. Captain William Latane was killed leading the charge and became the only Confederate casualty of the raid. The Confederates took the Federals’ camps and burned hundreds of tents.
Having accomplished his mission of reconnoitering the Federal right, Stuart would now continue on around the Federal army before returning to Lee. He told staff member John E. Cooke, “Tell Fitz Lee to come along, I’m going to move with my column.” Cooke replied, “I think the quicker we move now, the better.” Stuart was confident that he could outrun any infantry in pursuit and any cavalry in his path.
The Confederates moved southeast, passing within a few miles of McClellan’s headquarters and reaching the Richmond & York River Railroad by early evening. By this time, Federals who had encountered Stuart’s men alarmed their comrades; wild rumors spread that 5,000 Confederates were about to attack. Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke gathered 500 Federal troopers to meet the threat and face Stuart, his son-in-law. But Stuart was no longer near where he had been spotted that morning.
A Federal brigade under Colonel Gouverneur K. Warren was posted near Old Church, as Warren figured that Stuart would have to return the way he came. Nobody considered that Stuart might be heading the other way, with no intention of doubling back. The Confederates rode to Tunstall’s Station, where they shot up a supply train and burned several wagons. Aided by a full moon, they rode through the night, stopping briefly at Talleysville to raid a sutler’s store.
Both Warren and Cooke received conflicting reports on Stuart’s whereabouts. Acting on one rumor, they left Old Church around 4 a.m. on the 14th and headed north to New Castle, near the Pamunkey River. They then picked up Stuart’s trail and headed toward Tunstall’s Station, but Cooke’s insistence that his cavalry slow to match the infantry’s pace ensured that they would not catch the Confederates. They reached Tunstall’s Station 15 hours after Stuart had left.
Stuart’s men arrived at the Chickahominy around dawn. They were 35 miles from Richmond and 15 miles behind the main Federal lines. The river was too high to ford, prompting Rooney Lee to remark, “I think we are caught.” Moving downriver, Stuart deployed a rear guard and artillery while his men rebuilt the Forge Bridge using wood from an old barn. Three hours later, the troopers crossed and destroyed the bridge behind them. The Confederates thought they had narrowly escaped, but the Federals were still five or six hours away.
Leaving Fitzhugh Lee in charge, Stuart rode ahead to report his findings to General Lee near Richmond. Fitzhugh led the troopers south, then northwest, around the Federal left flank. They paralleled the James River on their ride back to Richmond.
Stuart arrived at Lee’s headquarters just after dawn on the 15th. His cavalry would arrive that night and early next morning to the cheers of Richmond residents. The troopers rode around an army of 100,000 men, covering over 100 miles and losing just one man and one cannon. They captured 165 Federal soldiers and 260 horses and mules while destroying railroad track, communication lines, and supply wagons.
Stuart informed Lee that the Federal troops were being supplied from White House Landing and the Richmond & York River Railroad. He reported that the roads behind the Federal lines were worse than those in the Confederates’ front. He also told Lee that the Federal right flank was indeed “up in the air” at Mechanicsville, vulnerable to an enveloping maneuver.
This information prompted Lee to bring Jackson’s men from the Valley to oppose that flank. If the Confederates could turn the Federal right, they could push them away from their supply base, forcing them to retreat back down the Peninsula. Jackson could move against Beaver Dam Creek without opposition and then easily advance on White House.
Stuart’s daring, sensational ride greatly boosted southern morale and made him a national hero. It also seemed to prove the theory that southern horsemen were superior to northerners. The ride embarrassed McClellan and compelled him to be even more cautious, but it also warned him to better guard his supply base in the future. And it prompted the Lincoln administration to devote more resources to training and equipping their cavalry.
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May 27, 1862 – A small engagement on the Virginia Peninsula secured Major General George B. McClellan’s right flank and increased the Federal threat to Richmond.
When Major General Richard Ewell’s division had gone to reinforce the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley, one brigade under Brigadier General Lawrence O. Branch stayed behind. Branch’s Confederates were at Hanover Court House, a village just south of the Pamunkey River, about 15 miles north of Richmond. Their mission was to protect the vital Virginia Central Railroad, which linked eastern Virginia to the Valley.
McClellan had learned from locals that a force of 17,000 Confederates was moving toward Hanover to get into the Federal rear. He dispatched cavalry to confirm the news. The troopers reported just 3,000 Confederates there, but that could be enough to threaten McClellan’s right flank.
General Fitz John Porter, commanding V Corps on the right flank, directed Colonel Gouverneur Warren’s brigade to scout in more detail. The Federals advanced on Hanover in heavy rain and mud, unaware that Branch had pulled his pickets back. Some Federals stumbled upon the new Confederate camp and were fired on around 12 p.m.
Branch tried attacking the Federal front based on his cavalry’s report that it was weak. It was not. The Confederates were repulsed, as Federals in other sectors hurried to shore up that point. Both sides scrambled for cover and continued exchanging fire. The Federals began running low on ammunition when the rest of the division arrived to reinforce them.
Unable to hold off a division with his lone brigade, Branch fell back at dusk. Porter tried pursuing, but the Confederate rear guard held him off. The Federals suffered 365 casualties (62 killed, 233 wounded, and 70 captured). The Confederates lost about 1,000, including 730 taken prisoner during the withdrawal. The Federals tore up railroad tracks and burned bridges as they returned to their lines.
McClellan wrote his wife that evening:
“We are getting on splendidly. I am quietly clearing out everything that could threaten my rear and communications, providing against the contingency of disaster, and so arranging as to make my whole force available in the approaching battle. The only fear is that Joe’s (Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston) heart may fail him.”
McClellan also held high praise for this engagement after the war, calling it “one of the handsomest things of the war, both in itself and in its results.” To him, this was “a glorious victory over superior numbers,” even though the Federals vastly outnumbered the Confederates in the fight. Also, this engagement did nothing to change the situation on the Peninsula except to assure McClellan that his right flank remained secure. Meanwhile, his left (and weaker) flank remained isolated on the other side of the Chickahominy River.
Meanwhile, Johnston received intelligence that Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals, advancing from near Fredericksburg, were now within 30 miles of reaching Porter’s flank, with advance elements within 30 miles of Hanover Court House. To the Confederates, the engagement at Hanover indicated that McClellan was extending his flank to meet McDowell’s. It seemed that the noose around Richmond was tightening.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (27 May 1862); Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 443; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 158; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3466