In the months following the momentous battle at Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac, led by General George Gordon Meade, and the Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee, had been in constant contact with one another. The Confederates continued to pull back through Maryland and the north part of Virginia until reaching the Orange and Alexandria Railroad around Orange Courthouse.
The frustration on the North’s part lay in the fact that Meade could not bring on a general engagement with Lee. His hesitance to strike a daring blow to the retreating army annoyed the politicians in Washington.
On October 8th, Lee reared and struck at Meade, pushing the Union Army back nearly 40 miles through Bristoe Station. I imagine this (if you’ll forgive the humorous analogy) as something like when a monkey is teasing a tiger until the big cat’s had enough and it spins back, fangs and claws bared to persuade the primate to back off. Meade did and was ready to fall back to the entrenchments around Washington. Lee, seeing this, chose not to pursue and instead withdrew once more to Orange Courthouse, destroying the railroad as he went. Screened by Confederate cavalry, Meade actually lost track of the enemy. When he confessed as much to his superior, General Henry Halleck, he was telegraphed, “If you cannot ascertain his movements, I certainly cannot!”
Pushed by the big brass and politicians, Meade advanced. The monkey swept back in to pursue the tiger and repaired the railroad on the way. President Abraham Lincoln found himself stuck in a conundrum. While he was disappointed that Meade hadn’t gotten “a battle out of Lee”, Meade had been the only general so far to earn a decisive victory against the King of Spades. Firing Meade for his slowness would only stir up dissent in the general’s home state of Pennsylvania. Lincoln needed their support, especially since election year was just around the corner.
Though Meade had around 69,000 men within five corps at his disposal, much of the high command within those corps were either poor commanders or inexperienced, which set the whole army at a disadvantage. Among them, John Newton, William “Blinky” French, George “Tardy” Sykes, and newcomer to the team, Gouveneur K. Warren who won acclaim at Gettysburg. The one star in this constellation grouping would have been John Sedgwick and his VI Corps, who had been with the army since before the battle at Antietam Creek in September of 1863. Lee wasn’t much better off with only 44,000 men and only two corps between Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill. Longstreet, Lee’s “War Horse” had taken his First Corps to north Georgia to bail out Braxton Bragg at Chickamauga. While Ewell and Hill were trusted commanders, both were not in the best of health and the morale of the men could have been better. The man “whose name is audacity itself” had let them down at Gettysburg and this military dance back and forth along the railroad did not inspire confidence. And while Meade was repairing the railroad he would need to supply the Union troops for the coming campaign, Lee had supply troubles of his own as he had to rely on the Virginia Central Railroad, which wasn’t equipped to handle the transport scale needed to feed and clothe and entire army.
Earlier in 1862, Lee had ordered the construction of two redoubts north of the Rappahannock River to protect the railroad lines and the crossing that divided northern Virginia from much of its southern portion. The Confederates decided to hunker down there. To modify these defenses, he had picket lines set up in a half-moon shape with their flanks anchored on the Rappahannock. He also had a pontoon bridge extended across the river – given that the Federals had burned the nearest bridge during their withdraw in October – with an artillery unit to support the skirmishers. Backup could easily be sent across, should it be needed.
General Jubal Early was in charge of the defenses, but found fault in its construction. General Robert Rodes was handed the task of guarding Kelly’s Ford about five miles down river, an integral point where the Federals could cross and flank the defenders. Meade saw this opportunity and sent Sedgwick with the VI and V Corps to capture Rappahannock Station, another crossing vulnerable to attack, while French and his III Corps would take on Rodes at Kelly’s Ford.
To soften the Confederates, Sedgwick launched an artillery assault during the daylight hours of November 6th. Under cover of darkness, “Uncle John” only took two brigades to take Rappahannock Station. The Rebels, who could barely see the enemy advancing upon them, were taken completely by surprise. By the time the Federals were visible, the artillery within the redoubt was nearly useless. Still, the Union soldiers could make out their black shapes hurling through the night to blast into their columns.
The tidal wave of Union blue kept coming through the night in a fury of yelling and musket fire. They swept over the steep embankment of the earthworks and poured into the defenses, taking nearly all prisoner. The 2,000 defenders were overwhelmed. Those who weren’t captured ran for the river, including members of the Louisiana Brigade. Some drown in their attempt to escape capture. Those who could make it to the pontoon bridges were running in a mad dash for safety, swinging their muskets like clubs at the bluecoats on their tails. Nearly 1,700 casualties (wounded, killed, and missing) were reported from the fort.
French, who was given the easier of the two objectives, also succeeded in pushing back Rodes’ defenders around Kelly’s Ford. Federal troops waded through the waist-deep water, lifting their cartridge boxes and rifles high so they wouldn’t be ruined by the water. By the time Lee realized what was happening, it was almost too late for A.P. Hill to bail out Rodes. He would suffer about 350 casualties – about 40% – when all was said and done. Walter Taylor on General Lee’s staff recorded, “Though we have much to make us sad tonight, I am still buoyant with hope and am confident our men will acquit themselves handsomely. We have a brave lot and if we meet Meade tomorrow they will render a good account of themselves.”
When the Army of the Potomac accomplished their goals, their casualty count only amounted to 460 total from both assaults. Once more, Meade creeps forward at a steady but slow pace. They cross the Rappahannock as Lee falls back to Brandy Station, but takes advantage of his opponent’s caution. It gave him time to realize how vulnerable his flanks were as he continued to fall further and further back, as he had done in the previous months, all the way to the south bank of the Rapidan River.
Surprised and infuriated by the Confederates taking shelter behind sturdy earthworks along the Rapidan, Meade could feel the ire of Washington bear down on him. The seven stands of colors captured during the battle at Rappahannock Station did nothing to warm the politicians’ hearts. Realizing this, Meade reiterated to Halleck, “I take this occasion to repeat what I have before stated, that if my course, based on my own judgement, does not meet with approval, I ought to be, and I desire to be, relieved of command.”
But Meade wouldn’t be taken from command. His army camped around Brandy Station and Culpeper again, to plot his next move against Lee. Soldiers recalled that the weather would flip from freezing to an ‘Indian summer” within the same week (welcome to the south!) and the land was desolate, having endured almost three years of war. It would be scarred even further by the return of the armies to this part of Virginia for the next year and a half before the war would finally come to an end.
(To Be Continued – Mine Run Campaign next week!)