Tag Archives: Jeb Stuart

Reconsidering the Confederate Partisan Ranger System

January 7, 1864 – Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s Confederate partisan rangers operated in northern Virginia, while calls grew louder among Confederate officers to ban the partisan ranger system.

John S. Mosby | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Throughout the winter, Mosby’s rangers operated around Warrenton, an area nicknamed “Mosby’s Confederacy.” Mosby’s men technically belonged to the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia, but under the Partisan Ranger Act, they acted independently and lived among the citizenry. Unlike many rangers who disdained military regulations, Mosby’s troopers were respected as effective members of Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry.

Mosby’s activities mainly included raiding Federal wagon trains and scouting. Federal cavalry stationed at Warrenton under Colonel John P. Taylor routinely rode throughout the countryside in search of Mosby’s elusive rangers. In early January, troopers from Colonel Henry Cole’s 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade entered Virginia via Harpers Ferry to hunt Mosby down. But when a detachment of 80 men left Rectortown, Mosby’s men pursued and attacked, killing four, wounding 10, and capturing 41.

Another Federal detachment attacked and scattered Mosby’s command, but a portion counterattacked, capturing 25 Federals and 50 horses. A separate detachment from Mosby under Lieutenant “Fighting Tom” Turner launched a surprise attack on Taylor’s Federals at Warrenton, taking another 20 prisoners. Mosby soon turned his attention back to Cole’s battalion.

Mosby led about 100 rangers to Loudon Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry, where Cole and about 200 Federals were camped on the night of the 9th. Mosby later reported, “The camp was buried in profound sleep, there was not a sentinel awake.” However, the Federals quickly awoke and attacked Mosby’s force. Mosby ordered a charge, but the Federals inflicted numerous casualties. One of Mosby’s rangers later recalled:

“The dead and dying lay around. From the tents came forth moans of pain and shrieks of agony. Some of the combatants stood almost in reach of one another, firing into each other’s face, crying out: ‘Surrender!’ ‘No, I won’t! You surrender!’”

The Confederates ultimately drove the Federals off. Mosby reported, “Confusion and delaying having ensued from the derangement of my plans, consequent on the alarm given to the enemy, rendered it hazardous to continue in my position, as re-enforcements were near the enemy.” With the infantry at Harpers Ferry mobilizing, Mosby ordered a withdrawal.

The rangers sustained just 12 casualties (eight killed, three wounded, and one captured) while inflicting 26 (four killed, 16 wounded, and six taken prisoner). However, the Confederates were not used to either taking casualties or retreating. As such, an officer later wrote, “A sad and sullen silence pervaded our ranks and found expression in every countenance. All that we could have gained would not compensate for the loss we sustained.”

While the “Gray Ghost” and his rangers would live to fight another day, Confederate officials debated how they should be organized. More and more officers in the Confederate armies were complaining about the partisan rangers. The rangers did not have to strictly adhere to army regulations, they could live among the people, and they could enjoy the bounties they captured. Perhaps most importantly, they encouraged soldiers to desert the army in favor of this more adventurous (and less regulatory) branch of service.

General Robert E. Lee, who originally supported the partisan ranger system, urged the War Department to disband these units in 1863 due to their lack of discipline, their harassment of civilians, and their tendency to draw troops from the regular armies. Secretary of War James A. Seddon responded in November 1863 by banning all partisan ranger outfits except those commanded by John H. McNeill in West Virginia and Mosby in northern Virginia.

In December 1863, Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser, a cavalry brigade commander under Jeb Stuart, reported that 60 of his men deserted while serving in the Shenandoah Valley. Rosser stated that the men had once belonged to a partisan unit that was forced to join the regular cavalry, and they left because they had grown tired of army regulations. Rosser also had problems working with McNeill, who often refused to follow his orders.

This month, Rosser wrote to Lee describing the partisans as “a nuisance and an evil to the service”:

“Without discipline, order, or organization, they roam broadcast over the country, a band of thieves, stealing, pillaging, plundering, and doing every manner of mischief and crime. They are a terror to the citizens and an injury to the cause. They never fight; can’t be made to fight. Their leaders are generally brave, but few of the men are good soldiers, and have engaged in this business for the sake of gain. The effect upon the service is bad, and I think, if possible, it should be corrected.”

Rosser cited three reasons why all partisan units should be disbanded:

  • Instead of roaming the countryside, their “bayonet or saber should be counted on the field of battle when the life or death of our country is the issue.”
  • They caused “great dissatisfaction in the ranks” because they “are allowed so much latitude, so many privileges. They sleep in houses and turn out in the cold only when it is announced by their chief that they are to go upon a plundering expedition.”
  • They encouraged desertion:

“It is almost impossible for one to manage the different companies of my brigade that are from Loudoun, Fauquier, Fairfax, &c., the region occupied by Mosby. They see these men living at their ease and enjoying the comforts of home, allowed to possess all that they capture, and their duties mere pastime pleasures compared with their own arduous ones; and it is a natural consequence in the nature of man that he should become dissatisfied under these circumstances. Patriotism fails in the long and tedious war like this to sustain the ponderous burdens which bear heavily and cruelly upon the heart and soul of man.”

To remedy the “melancholy” spreading among his men, Rosser urged his superiors to place “all men on the same footing.” If partisan activity was needed for the war effort, “then require the commanding officer to keep them in an organized condition, to rendezvous within our lines, and move upon the enemy when opportunity is offered.” While Rosser singled Mosby out as a “gallant officer,” he argued that Mosby’s service had little impact on the war.

Lee consulted with Stuart, who agreed with everything that Rosser wrote. Stuart contended that Mosby’s partisans were “the only efficient band of rangers I know of,” but he often used just “one-fourth of his nominal strength” while his other three-fourths were living comfortably among civilians. Stuart concluded, “Such organizations, as a rule, are detrimental to the best interests of the army at large.”

Based on this, Lee wrote, “I recommend that the law authorizing these partisan corps be abolished. The evils resulting from their organization more than counterbalance the good they accomplish.” A bill was immediately introduced in the Confederate Congress to repeal the Partisan Ranger Act.



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 561; Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Series 1, Volume 33), p. 12-16, 457, 1081-83; Ramage, James A., Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby (University Press of Kentucky, 2009); Wert, Jeffry D., Mosby’s Rangers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991); Williamson, James Joseph, Mosby’s Rangers: A Record of the Operations of the Forty-Third Battalion (1909)


Northern Virginia: Federals Approach Mine Run

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

Northern Virginia: Meade Looks to Advance

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.

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

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

Northern Virginia: Meade’s New Offensive

November 5, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac began mobilizing to cross the Rappahannock River and face General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

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

As the month began, the Federals continued their slow southward advance along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, repairing damage done by retreating Confederates during the recent Bristoe campaign as they went. Meade needed the railroad to supply his army if he hoped to confront Lee before winter. By the 1st, it had been repaired all the way to Warrenton Junction.

The Confederates fell back beyond the Rappahannock, with a force staying 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 this year, 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 move them along 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 Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry clashed with Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s horsemen as Stuart tried destroying 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, he 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.



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 799; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6476

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.



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

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.



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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