Gouverneur Warren with his II Corps was expecting more Union troops to arrive in the form of Sykes, Newton, or French. Help from anywhere would have been nice right about then. Artillery support was placed on an eastern ridge overlooking the Confederate position at Robinson’s Tavern, an advantage on the enemy who didn’t have a decent place to set up their own artillery. Still, he was willing to bash in with what he had. Meade ordered him to hold the line until the army could be concentrated.
George Sykes and his I Corps, despite their good time the day before, were slugging along down the Orange Plank Road that morning and arrived at Parker’s Store in the afternoon. A Cavalry unit under David Gregg led the way as Confederate guerillas were becoming a problem for this far left wing of the Union army. Earlier that morning, they had a run-in with the famed Confederate cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, and Hill’s Third Corps. Dismounted Federal horsemen with their repeating rifles and the Confederate cavalry stalemated. When Henry Heth, a division commander with the Third Corps, was given consent to charge the Federals, he discovered that his right flank was lined up a half a mile too far away and had to readjust his line. Just about that time, the V Corps under John Newton arrived and Lee stalled any further plan to attack, as did Meade.
As skirmishing intensified on Warren’s front, William “Blinky” French was still nowhere to be seen. They didn’t know he was wrapped up in his own battle further north with Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. Therefore, Warren’s right flank was wide open. Using the dense woods of the Wilderness, the Confederates exploited this opening and wedged themselves in. From across a swampy stretch of ground, the gray coats fired a heavy volley and slunk away, the blue coats unable to follow due to the terrain. Warren, just before dark, initiated a feint in his front to slacken the skirmishing. The left flank of the II Corps made efforts to try and link up with Sykes’ I Corps. But, as Sykes would find out, the Wilderness posed too many obstacles. “I am getting my troops in position,” he reported to headquarters, “but the country is densely timbered and nothing can be distinguished a hundred yards in front… I am literally in the wilderness… I have no position at all, and could get none in the darkness and thick of the woods.”
By nightfall, the playing field looked like this:
Johnson had two corps to contend with – Sedgwick and French – and had to be sent a couple of brigades from Jubal Early’s Second Corps to boost his numbers. No ground was gained or lost.
Early still had Warren in his front, though the shooting match had reduced to verbal sparring in the darkness. Again, no ground gained or lost.
Down south around Parker’s Store, A.P. Hill was facing two Federal corps of his own with Sykes and Newton on the Orange Plank Road. They too, were stuck.
As it was, both Sykes and Warren were dead in the water while French and Sedgwick were tied up. They couldn’t connect and the Corps closest to the Rapidan were still out of the loops of communication. Lee, also seeing that his forces were outnumbered, gave the order to fall back to reassess. Meade needed his army unified to make his plan even remotely successful now.
During the night, he had a chance to consolidate. French finally appeared at Robinson’s Tavern after things had quieted on his front, but Meade was far from pleased. He kept French in reserve on the Union right flank, with Sykes in reserve on the left. Sedgwick, jostled loose from his stuck position behind French, moved in to flank Warren on the right with Newton on his left. By morning on November 28th, they were ready to face the Confederates that had fallen back some distance to give them a little breathing room.
Meade advanced, the I, II, and VI Corps moving as one – FINALLY! But, through a rainstorm. What they found beyond a mile and a half past their position from the previous day, was well described by Daniel Holt, surgeon of the 121st New York.
“Of all the hard looking places, that of Mine Run was the hardest I ever beheld. Stretching as far as the eye could reach from left to right, on the rest of a low range of hills across the stream, was a continuous line of defenses, upon which and in which could be seen the enemy strengthening their works and preparing to give us a warm reception upon that freezing day. Intervening between our lines and theirs was a low, swampy stretch of marsh, through which Mine Run wound its serpentine course, and to make still more difficult a crossing… they had sharpened stakes and driven the bottom full… They had dammed the stream in several places and as a consequence an overflow and deepening of its water was the result. Immediately after crossing as you began to ascend the hill towards their works, trees had been felled with topped branches, and these sharpened to a point, presenting a front perfectly impossible to overcome… All along the heights could be seen battery upon battery, some masked while others were clearly peciptible[sic], ready to belch their iron contents of grape and canister into the stiffened, freezing flesh of the best blood of America.”
In other words, they were fucked. And they knew it.
Lee, true to his nickname as the “King of Spades” for his early doggedness about the usefulness of earthworks, fortified his position against the oncoming Federals. Flashbacks of Malvern Hill in the summer of 1862, as well as the recent Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, rang through the minds of many Union soldiers. Both were bold, but disastrous charges with a high death toll tagged to the move that history can never forget. Would Mine Run be added to the record as well?
Meade ordered that his men get into position and for each corps commander to evaluate his front. They came back and reported all the reasons why they should not advance. The thick woods, the marshy terrain, the fortifications, etc. One historian of the II Corps put it well, “The more it was inspected, the uglier it appeared…” And the longer Meade waited to do something, the sturdier Lee’s fortifications became and the angrier politicians in Washington would be that he hadn’t “gotten a fight” out of the Confederates.
That changed when Warren came to Meade with an idea. While in heavy skirmishing with the Confederates to his front, Warren found no knitch in their armor. But, he thought if they could get around the Confederate’s right flank, they could look for a weak point there or possibly circle around to their rear. After some deliberation, Meade agreed and bolstered his numbers to 18,000 to get ready the following morning.
On November 29th, Warren backed up his corps from the lines and scooted around to the south, allowing Sykes to move up and take his place. During the night and early hours of the morning, troops were fortifying their own position to match the Confederates. Lee saw this, knew something was up and sent his trusted cavalry officer, J.E.B. Stuart, to find out. He bumped into Federal troops around the Orange Plank Road, the route Warren planned to take. Stuart came back to inform Lee and the general extended his line in preparation for an assault.
With some hefty infantry and artillery attacks going on in front, Warren successfully made it around to the left flank, only to find fresh entrenchments. The Federals managed to drive back some skirmishers without much resistance, but they still faced the challenge of taking the Confederate earthworks. One bonus might have been that the earthworks weren’t as developed as they were elsewhere on the line. Warren and his commanders could tell they were new. Also, there was nothing in the middle to obstruct their charge. He wanted to charge, but coming night convinced him to wait. He ordered no fires that night as the corps bivouacked, causing many picketing soldiers to freeze to death in the late November winter.
Meade, too, was hopeful. He had just gotten word that Lee’s left flank might have been another weak point. His new plan was a two-pronged attack. Artillery would fire down the center and right at 8am on November 30th to distract from Warren’s charge on the left. Sedgwick would then launch on the right. The other corps would support and deploy if needed. Meade even gave more men to Warren, totaling his numbers to 26,000. Once more, the Federals were confident they would get the Confederates this time.
Morning came and all ears were tuned for the signal gun. Extra orders supplemented this, saying that anyone was authorized to shoot any man who was seen fleeing to the rear, unless he was injured. As dawn broke through the darkness, a new grim truth awaited them. Once more, Lee had extended his line all the way passed the unfinished railroad and Catharpin Road to the south and strengthened his works. Unease and anxiety crept into the hearts of the troops. Many fidgeted, waiting for the order to advance. Others wrote their names on pieces of paper to pin to their uniforms so their bodies would be identified later. Hardtack was stuffed into pockets anticipating capture or wounding upon the field, while knapsacks of precious belongings were emptied to be given to those whom they knew would survive to give it back to their loved ones at home.
Surgeon Daniel Holt said, “As I looked out upon the task proposed to be executed, my heart died within me.” But looking to the men, “Not a murmur escaped the lips of our boys. They had made up their minds to obey the order, and in so doing, to fill the grave of a patriot.”
The artillery all along the Federal line rumbled like thunder, but no order was given to advance as planned. They all waited “for a mad and bloody assault that would probably fail”. Nothing. The holdup was Warren. The general who had boasted the night before that he would be a hero if this assault succeeded, now saw the futility in ordering his men to march against such a formidable opponent. He wrote to his wife, “It fell upon me to decide we should not waste our men’s lives in hopeless assaults to make up for previous blunder. Rest assured I did right and all in the army will say so.”
Meade was NOT happy. The “Goggle-Eyed Snapping Turtle” exploded, “My God! General Warren has half my army at his disposal!” Furious, he sent word to Sedgwick to halt his attack. The tension on the right flank eased when the order to charge was countermanded just before cresting a hill that would have put the Federals in plain view of the Confederate artillery. Meade then rode to Warren to see what the holdup was. Seeing the strengthened works, he ended up agreeing with his subordinate and called off the attack for all the corps, despite everything weighing on his career and his army.
Skirmishing continued on a minimal scale and soldiers passed the time sitting in the lines by playing poker or shooting at stray sheep and turkeys that had wandered into “No Man’s Land”. Jeers and taunts continued, along with games of ball-catch. Almost all, however, suffered equally from the bitter cold that settled over the battlefield.
As evening came, prospects continued to look slim for a successful attack. Perhaps even slimmer, as Lee was fixing his left flank and beefing up his thin lines as much as possible. The right, in front of Warren, was equally impassible. Extending the line further than it was already disconnected from the rest of the army had Warren indignant. Meade only had one move available to him. If he couldn’t move right and he couldn’t move left, and he certainly couldn’t move forward… “Finding Lee too strongly posted and entrenched to justify my attacking him, and not being able to make any further tactical movement on his flank, I had felt it was my duty to withdraw the army… I feel of course greatly disappointed; a little more good fortune, and I should have met with brilliant success.”
So, on the night of December 1st, after waiting and watching, the Army of the Potomac lit mock fires and silently slipped away to the east. The cold, while brutal, helped to stiffen the mud that was created by the heavy rainfall over the last week, and made the going smoother than expected for the artillery and supply wagons. Marching was another story. And the cavalry were just as miserable in the withdraw. The corps made their way back across the Rapidan at Culpeper Mine Ford and Germanna Ford, tired, cold, and hungry – they had run out of their three days of rations.
On the morning of December 2nd, Lee decided to go on the offensive and attack if Meade would not. Only, he found the Federal earthworks empty. His opportunity lost, just as Meade’s had been on numerous occasions during this campaign. Lee pursued, but the Yanks had made a clean getaway, only losing a few hundred stragglers.
Meade knew this decision would put him in hot water. He knew it would mean a likely dismissal from the army altogether. With Washington’s push for action and the pressure for the Army of the Potomac to bag a victory to match General U.S. Grant’s in Chattanooga, Meade knew he failed in a military sense. However, in his letters to his wife, he seemed to show little remorse for his choice. He knew that overruling Warren would have cost thousands of lives. The Confederate entrenchments, as they were, could not be carried and if they did, it would have been a slaughter. Mine Run would have been added to the list of foolish charges like Malvern Hill, Picket’s Charge, and even Maryes Heights at Fredericksburg. Meade would have rather been known as the general who made the call NOT to waste lives than as a butcher who thought his army was expendable for the sake of political or military glory.
Union: 1,272 out of 69,643
Confederate: 680 out of 44,426
Soldiers had mixed views at first. Some resented the called off attack, thinking they could have made it to the works if allowed. Most would come to respect Meade for his decision, knowing it saved their lives. Many “If Only…” situations arouse from the Mine Run Campaign. If only the army could have all reached Robinson’s Tavern when they were supposed to. If only the rain hadn’t been so bad. If only Meade had been allowed to fall back to Fredericksburg – Washington explicitly told him not to. If only French had taken the right road instead of the left. Heated words were exchanged between Meade and French in the days following the cancelled attack. Some reshuffling of the commanders that winter took French out of the picture. Warren, who had been holding General Winfield Scott Hancock’s place commanding the II Corps, was moved to the V Corps – Sykes was sent to the Trans-Mississippi department – to make room for the recuperating Hancock to take his Corps back.
In the Army of Northern Virginia, a shift of command also took place. Early had been in charge of the Second Corps as long as Richard Ewell was out of commission. He came back that winter and Lee begrudgingly removed Early from corps command, though he would return to take Ewells place the following year.
Another change that would come in 1864 would turn the Confederacy on its head and set the Army of the Potomac on a path to victory and the end of the war. While Meade was not taken from command, as he had offered on multiple occasions, he was given a partner to help him get that fight out of Lee. It came in the form of a western theatre general who had a mixed reputation, but an irrefutable resume of wins against the south that Washington couldn’t ignore. As Lincoln had put it, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
Welcome to the stage, Ulysses S. Grant.
(To be continued…)