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