Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

The Status Quo in Northern Virginia

December 12, 1863 – The Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia returned to their respective camps, as Major General George G. Meade waited to be removed from command.

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

After Meade withdrew from Mine Run and led his army back across the Rapidan River, he expected to be relieved as army commander. But, as he wrote his wife on the 3rd, “Two days have now elapsed since I officially announced the return of the army, and yet not a word or line has been vouchsafed me from Washington. I am somewhat at a loss to know what the silence of the authorities means.”

When Meade requested permission to come to Washington, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck replied, “You have my permission to visit Washington whenever you deem proper, reporting to the Adjutant-General at the War Department.” Although this was standard protocol, it seemed strange to Meade, as he explained in another letter to his wife: “I telegraphed General Halleck that I desired to visit Washington, but his reply was couched in such terms that, though it gave me permission to go, clearly intimated that my presence was not desired, so far as he was concerned.”

Meade decided not to go to Washington, but instead wait for his superiors to contact him. As the days passed, rumors trickled in and spread throughout the army that the administration was indeed working to replace him. Meade wrote his wife on the 11th, “I take it my supersedure is decided upon, and the only question is who is to succeed me.”

He forwarded the rumor that some officials were “very anxious to bring (Joseph) Hooker back,” but others were adamantly opposed. He mentioned another rumor that Lincoln was looking to compromise by choosing Army of the Cumberland commander George H. Thomas. At any rate, Meade wrote, “I will not go to Washington to be snubbed by these people. They may relieve me, but I will preserve my dignity.”

The next morning, an article appeared in John W. Forney’s Washington Daily Morning Chronicle stating that the administration would not replace Meade. This newspaper was widely distributed throughout the Army of the Potomac because of its unabashed support for the Lincoln administration.

When Meade read the article, he wrote his wife, “As this paper is edited by Forney, who is supposed to have confidential relations with the Administration, I presume this announcement may be considered semi-official.” At least one previous army commander had learned they were being removed from a newspaper, and now a commander learned that he was being retained from the same medium.

Meade then wrote Halleck, “I have already reported that in my judgment nothing more can be done this season.” However, the “present position of the army invites an advance from the enemy in case he deems one justifiable.” Explaining that the Confederates were in much better position to attack than the Federals, Meade continued, “I should not like to weaken myself… but would rather propose taking up the line of the Warrenton Railroad, holding in force the covering of the Rappahannock at the railroad bridge.”

This meant that the Federal army would fall back across the Rappahannock River and take up winter quarters. Also, since the enlistments of many men would soon expire, Meade proposed granting one-month furloughs to every man who pledged to reenlist.

Halleck finally responded five days later. He approved Meade’s plan to grant the furloughs, and “no objections are made to the change” of base. Halleck also stated that the administration had provided “no intimation in regard to future enterprises.” Meade issued orders to initiate the furlough program, which ultimately netted 18,000 pledges to stay in the army past their enlistment terms.

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

On the Confederate side, Army of Northern Virginia commander General Robert E. Lee attended a series of conferences with President Jefferson Davis and other administration officials in Richmond. The meetings ended on the 21st, and rather than stay in town to spend Christmas with his wife and family, Lee returned to his headquarters at Orange Court House to set an example of duty to his men. Army chaplains reported a “high state of religious feeling throughout the army,” despite the sufferings among the troops due to lack of adequate food, clothing, or shelter.

In mid-month, Lee detached two infantry brigades and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry brigade to confront Brigadier General William W. Averell’s Federals raiding in the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia. This new command was led by Major General Jubal Early. Just before Christmas, Lee wrote Early:

“I wish you to avail yourself to the present opportunity to collect and bring away everything that can be made useful to the army from those regions that are open to the enemy, using for this purpose both the cavalry and infantry under your command. I hear that in the lower (northern) valley, and particularly in the country on the South Branch of the Potomac, there are a good many cattle, sheep, horses, and hogs. Besides these, there is said to be a quantity of bacon, cloth, and leather, and all these supplies are accessible to and can be used by the enemy.

“You will buy from all who are willing to sell, and where you cannot buy, you must impress and give certificates to the owners. Of course you will not take what is necessary for the subsistence of the people… You will give out that your movement is intended as a military one against the enemy, and, of course, will do them all the harm you can.”

Thus, while Lee’s Confederates struggled to stay warm and fed through the winter, many of Meade’s Federals were going home to reunite with their families.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6581-93; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 447-48

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Bragg Leaves the Army of Tennessee

December 2, 1863 – General Braxton Bragg turned the Confederate Army of Tennessee over to Lieutenant General William Hardee, and President Jefferson Davis began looking for a permanent army commander.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

On the last day of November, Bragg’s request to be removed from command had been granted. Bragg notified his superiors that he would relinquish command on December 2 at Dalton, Georgia. In the meantime, he submitted “a plain, unvarnished report of the operations at Chattanooga, resulting in my shameful discomfiture” via special messenger. The report included a personal letter to his friend, President Davis, who had supported him:

“The disaster admits of no palliation, and is justly disparaging to me as a commander. I trust, however, you may find upon full investigation that the fault is not entirely mine… I fear we both erred in the conclusion for me to retain command here after the clamor raised against me…”

Bragg charged that Major General John C. Breckinridge had been drunk throughout the three days of battle at Chattanooga and called him “totally unfit for any duty” during the withdrawal. Bragg alleged that Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham was “equally dangerous.” This further demonstrated that Bragg’s demise was at least partly due to his inability to accept responsibility for mistakes and to instead blame his subordinates.

In an emotional ceremony, Bragg passed command to Hardee on the 2nd. Although most of the officers and men in the army despised Bragg and celebrated his departure, he issued a farewell address to them: “The announcement of this separation is made with unfeigned regret. The associations of more than two years, which bind together a commander and his trusted troops, cannot be severed without deep emotion.”

Confederate Lieut Gen William Hardee | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Hardee, who had no desire for army command, only agreed to replace Bragg temporarily. He stated that while he appreciated “this expression of (Davis’s) confidence… feeling my inability to serve the country successfully in this new sphere of duty, I respectfully decline the command if designed to be permanent.” Hardee announced to his new army:

“The overwhelming numbers of the enemy forced us back from Missionary Ridge, but the army is still intact and in good heart… Only the weak and timid need to be cheered by constant success. Let the past take care of itself; we can and must secure the future.”

Before leaving, Bragg wrote a second letter to Davis, in which he still called himself “General, Commanding” at “Headquarters Army of Tennessee.” Bragg rhetorically asked, “What, then, shall be our policy?” He then boldly offered unsolicited military advice:

“The enemy has concentrated all his available means in front of this army, and by sheer force of numbers has triumphed over our gallant little band… Let us concentrate all our available men, unite them with this gallant little army, still full of zeal and burning to redeem its lost character and prestige, and with our greatest and best leader at the head, yourself, if practicable, march the whole upon the enemy and crush him in his power and glory…”

Bragg concluded, “I believe it practicable, and trust that I may be allowed to participate in the struggle which may restore the character, the prestige, and the country we have just lost.” Bragg then left the army and headed to Richmond to await further orders. Despite Bragg’s questionable record as military commander, Davis would soon find a new job for him in the administration.

Meanwhile, since Hardee made it clear that he would only lead the Army of Tennessee on an interim basis, Davis had to hurry to find a permanent commander. The list of generals to choose from was very short, even if he did not rule out those he personally disliked. The day after Hardee took over, Davis wrote General Robert E. Lee in northern Virginia. He explained the situation and asked, “Could you consistently go to Dalton, as heretofore explained?”

Davis had asked Lee to head the Army of Tennessee in September, and Lee demurred. Now Lee did so again, not wanting to leave his Army of Northern Virginia. He answered, “I can if desired, but of the expediency of the measure you can judge better than I can. Unless it is intended that I should take permanent command, I can see no good that will result, even if in that event any could be accomplished. I also fear that I would not receive cordial co-operation.”

Lee explained that if he left, he would have to turn his army over to Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, who was “too feeble to undergo the fatigue and labor incident to the position.” Lee then warned Davis that the Federals sought to invade Georgia “and get possession of our depots of provisions and important manufactories.” He proposed giving General P.G.T. Beauregard (currently heading the Charleston defenses) command of the army and reinforcing it with troops from Mississippi, Mobile, and Charleston. Lee added:

“I think that every effort should be made to concentrate as large a force as possible, under the best commander, to insure the discomfiture of (Ulysses S.) Grant’s army. To do this and gain the great advantage that would accrue from it, the safety of points practically less important than those endangered by his army must be hazarded. Upon the defence of the country threatened by General Grant depends the safety of the points now held by us on the Atlantic, and they are in as great danger from his successful advance as by the attacks to which they are at present directly subjected.”

However, Davis loathed Beauregard and would not consider giving him command of the Army of Tennessee. Davis also would not consider the highest-ranking general in the Confederacy, Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, because he had performed administrative duties throughout the war and was too old for field command. This left just one viable option, and to Davis’s dismay, it was someone who had been hostile toward him almost since the war began.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 349-50; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 868-69, 878; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 380; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6544-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 441-43

The Mine Run Campaign Ends

December 1, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac ended its short-lived campaign in northern Virginia before it ever truly began.

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

As December began, the Federal army and General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia remained within striking distance of each other on either side of Mine Run. Meade had aborted an assault on Lee’s right flank upon receiving word that it was too strong to break. After finding no other weak points in the line, Meade ordered a halt to his brief campaign.

The Federals would withdraw back across the Rapidan River. Lee’s Confederates remained in their defenses, waiting for the attack that they still expected to come. Lee reported, “Preferring to receive an attack rather than assume the offensive, our army remained in its position all day.”

Major General Jubal Early, temporarily commanding the Confederate Second Corps on the left, reported that the Federals were withdrawing their guns in his front. Lee guessed that they were being moved to support an attack on Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps holding the right. However, it was part of the general Federal withdrawal.

The Federals began pulling out in the early, freezing twilight of December 1 without a fight. As Lee realized the Federals would not attack that day, he resolved to launch an attack of his own the next morning. According to Early:

“Having waited in vain for the enemy to attack us, the commanding general determined to take the initiative, and for that purpose directed me on the afternoon of the 1st to extend my line during the night to the right as far as the plank road, so as to enable two divisions to be withdrawn from General Hill’s part of the line, for the purpose of attacking the enemy’s left next morning.”

Lee directed Hill’s divisions under Major Generals Richard H. Anderson and Cadmus M. Wilcox to advance against Meade’s left. But when they marched forward on the morning of the 2nd, they saw that the Federals had retreated. Regretting the missed opportunity to give battle, Lee said, “I am too old to command this army; we should never have permitted those people to get away.” The Confederates did not pursue.

The Mine Run campaign cost the Federals 1,653 total casualties, while the Confederates lost 629. Meade acknowledged that he faced “certain personal ruin” for withdrawing without giving battle, bitterly remarking that those critical of his conduct thought it “would be better to strew the road to Richmond with the dead bodies of our soldiers than that there should be nothing done.” But by not attacking such strong fortifications, Meade probably saved thousands of lives and prevented another demoralizing failure.

Meade reported to his superiors at Washington, “I am free to admit that the movement across the Rapidan was a failure, but I respectfully submit that the causes of this failure… were beyond my control.” The Lincoln administration had refused to allow him to establish a base of operations at Fredericksburg to the east, thus forcing him to try confronting Lee to the west. Also, several corps commanders did not adhere to Meade’s orders that the campaign be carried out with speed and stealth.

Anticipating an administration rebuke for not personally reconnoitering the enemy positions beforehand, Meade asserted, “It is impossible (that) a commanding general can reconnoiter in person a line over seven miles in extent, and act on his own judgment as to the expediency of attack or not.” In a letter to his wife, Meade concluded that this “fiasco” sealed his fate as army commander. But he added:

“I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing. It was my deliberate judgment that I ought not to attack; I acted on that judgment, and I am willing to stand or fall by it at all hazards. As it is, my conscience is clear. I did the best I could.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19153-62; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 349; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 876-77; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 380; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6522-34; 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. 31-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 441-42

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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 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

Activity Slows in Northern Virginia

November 10, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia returned to the south side of the Rapidan River, settling into the defensive positions they had left when they began moving against the Federals on October 9.

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac had fought its way across the Rappahannock River and moved south to confront Lee’s Confederates. President Abraham Lincoln wired Meade regarding his strategy so far, “Well done.”

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

Lee’s two corps fell back on the 8th, then took up battle positions the next day within the “V” of land between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan. But when Meade did not advance on the morning of the 10th, Lee resumed his withdrawal.

Recognizing that keeping his army between the two rivers was dangerous, Lee opted to fall back to the line along the Rapidan he held before launching his Bristoe campaign in October. As the Confederates withdrew, Federal cavalry probed their flanks but were stopped at the Rapidan. The Confederates crossed that river at 9 p.m., and by morning, they were back in their old camps.

Meade informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “It will be necessary before I make any farther advance to repair the railroad to the Rappahannock, which the engineers say will take five days.” As the Federals entered the abandoned Confederate camps north of the Rapidan, Meade reported:

“From the number of huts, the corduroyed roads, and information derived from citizens, it is evident the enemy contemplated wintering between the Rappahannock and Rapidan, and did not expect a resumption of active operations on my part.”

Meade explained to his wife how he was worried that the Confederate defenses on the Rappahannock might be too strong to overcome. He wrote:

“Thanks, however, to their being entirely deceived as to my capacity to move, and to the gallantry of my men, we were enabled to carry their strong works and to force the passage of the river (considered one of the most critical operations in the war), with a comparatively small loss, and with great éclat, as we captured four guns, eight battle flags, and nearly two thousand prisoners.

“The operation being successful, the army is in fine spirits, and of course I am more popular than ever, having been greeted yesterday as I rode through the ranks with great cheering; and my having forced the passage of the Rappahannock and compelled Lee to retire to the Rapidan, will I trust convince the intelligent public that my retreat to Centreville was not to avoid battle, and that Lee, who was not outflanked, or had his communications threatened, but was attacked in front, and yet withdrew, is really the one who has avoided battle.

“I certainly expected he would fight, and can only now account for his not doing so on the ground that he was deceived as to my strength and construed my sudden and bold advance into an evidence that I had been strongly reinforced and greatly outnumbered him. I must say I was greatly disappointed when I found Lee refused my offer of battle, because I was most desirous of effecting something decisive, and I know his refusal was only a postponement of a question that had to be met and decided.”

As Lee’s Confederates settled back into their camps along the Rapidan, Lee informed his superiors at Richmond that many men lacked adequate clothing or footwear for the upcoming winter. Also, only three pounds of corn per army horse had been received in the last five days. Lee warned that “unless the amount can be very much increased, we shall lose many horses and mules this winter.” President Jefferson Davis issued orders to send forage to Lee’s army ahead of any other supplies.

By mid-November, Meade had received reports that Lee was falling farther back beyond the Rapidan, to Orange Court House or maybe even as far as Spotsylvania. But while Meade was at a conference in Washington, his chief of staff, Major General Andrew Humphreys, informed him that Confederate infantry was moving toward Raccoon Ford on the Federal right, and Confederate cavalry passed through James City, also on the right.

Meade responded, “I do not like the reported passing through James City of a brigade of cavalry and the reported movements of infantry from Raccoon Ford. This has the appearance of an advance.” However, Federal scouts soon discovered that the Confederate movements were merely reactions to the Federals, and there were no indications of any offensive activity. Both sides settled back into their camps, confident there would be no major fighting for a while.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 340; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 801; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 370; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6488; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 615; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 432

Northern Virginia: The Rappahannock Engagement

November 7, 1863 – Elements of the Federal Army of the Potomac tried crossing the Rappahannock River, while General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates were determined to stop them.

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

The Lincoln administration pressured Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, to launch one more offensive before winter. Since the administration ruled out a move on Fredericksburg to the east, Meade planned to retake the ground between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers to his south and west.

Most of Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was south of the Rappahannock, but some forward units held a mile-long defense line on the north bank, from Kelly’s Ford on the right to Rappahannock Station on the left. Lee received word around noon on the 7th that Federals were advancing toward this line in two columns:

  • Major General William French led I, II, and III corps toward Kelly’s Ford, which was defended by a Confederate regiment on the north bank of the Rappahannock and Major General Robert Rodes’s division to the south.
  • Major General John Sedgwick led V and VI corps toward Rappahannock Station, where Major General Jubal Early’s division guarded a bridgehead consisting of two redoubts and entrenchments to protect the pontoon bridge spanning the river.

According to Lee, the Rappahannock Station bridgehead could “threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part.” Lee planned to hold the bridgehead while allowing French to cross at Kelly’s Ford, where his Federals would fall under a massed attack.

Expecting a fight, Meade ordered his corps commanders to distribute 40 rounds of ammunition to each man and bring up their ambulances. Meade instructed French that once the Federals crossed the Rappahannock, “the two columns will move forward to Brandy Station.”

If Sedgwick’s smaller column could not break through at Rappahannock Station, he was to follow French across the river at Kelly’s Ford. Meade directed, “You will attack him vigorously, throwing your whole force upon him, should it be necessary, and drive him from his position, and secure your own upon the high ground.”

French’s men approached Kelly’s Ford in early afternoon, with Federal artillery quickly driving the Confederate regiment across the river. French reported, “The terrific fire of my batteries ran down to the river bank (old style), and the 4 1/2-inch paralyzed the enemy.” Rodes fell back, enabling the Federals to lay a pontoon bridge and cross the Rappahannock, just as Lee wanted.

Sedgwick’s men approached the Rappahannock Station bridgehead around 3 p.m. Since Lee needed to prevent a crossing here, Early moved nearly 2,000 Confederates forward to hold the fortifications on the north bank. Federal artillery came up around 5 p.m. and began pounding the enemy lines until dark. The Federal infantry showed no signs of attacking during this time, leading Lee to believe that this was just a diversion for the main crossing at Kelly’s Ford. However, Brigadier General Harry Hays, commanding the “Louisiana Tigers,” wrote, “It was then, under cover of the darkness, that a simultaneous advance was made of the entire force of the enemy.”

Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding VI Corps, reported, “Under most circumstances, I should have hesitated in ordering the assault of so strong a position, and believed its success hopeless.” But the “darkness, which was fast approaching, was favorable to the attack. The remaining daylight enabled the troops to see what they had to do before reaching the works, while the succeeding darkness would prevent the enemy on the opposite bank from firing where they could not distinguish friend from foe.”

The Federals advanced through defilements, breastworks, and other obstructions to get to the enemy. Wright stated that “over every hindrance, in face of a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, the storm party pressed on with bayonets fixed and never pausing to fire a shot. A desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued, the foe was overpowered and the works were ours.”

But the Confederates regrouped. Brigadier General David A. Russell, commanding a division in the assault, recalled, “Furious, but as yet futile, endeavors were made from the rifle pits to retake the larger redoubt.” Even with reinforcements, the Federals “were not strong enough to carry the rifle-pits and stay the fire from them, which still greatly annoyed our men.”

Colonel Emory Upton’s Federal brigade launched a bayonet charge that finally overran the bridgehead. Some Confederates tried escaping by swimming across the river. Upton reported, “The enemy, supposing a vastly superior force was advanced upon him, and also aware that his retreat was intercepted, laid down his arms.” Federals captured four cannon, eight battle flags, and 1,303 prisoners in their first successful night attack of the war. VI Corps netted the army’s largest Confederate prisoner grab in one action.

When Lee returned to headquarters, he learned the Federals had captured parts of two regiments at Kelly’s Ford, laid a pontoon bridge, and moved a large force across the river. Then Early sent news that the Federals had captured the whole Confederate force at the vital bridgehead north of the river. This engagement wrecked Lee’s plan to hold the ground between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, and possibly launch another offensive.

Just as Lieutenant General A.P. Hill had been criticized for his actions at Bristoe Station last month, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell was criticized for retreating in this action since the divisions of Rodes and Early were part of his corps. Lee quickly fell back to a point two miles northeast of Culpeper Court House, which guarded the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and blocked the road from Kelly’s Ford to Stevensburg. Lee reported:

“The loss of this position made it necessary to abandon the design of attacking the force that had crossed at Kelly’s Ford, and the army was withdrawn to the only tenable line between Culpeper Court House and the Rappahannock, where it remained during the succeeding day.”

French continued advancing on the 8th, crossing the Brandy Station battlefield. Sedgwick advanced as well, linking with French around 9 a.m. Skirmishing occurred among the pickets at various points throughout the day, as Lee braced for an attack on the 9th.

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Sources

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 648-49; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19145-53; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 339; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 799-801; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 369; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6476-88; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 411, 615; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 431-32