Battle at Bristoe

On October 3rd, 1863, Capt. Samuel Fiske wrote to his Springfield Republican readers: I am pleasantly disappointed in the behavior of these new recruits taken as a whole. There are some rough characters among them, and some state prison birds, but the larger part of those that are left (the worst deserted in the first few days) are doing their duty with a good will, and will make good soldiers. I have forty-five of them in my company, and am getting to be right proud of their drill and general appearance.

Only eleven days later, Fiske’s new recruits faced their first test in battle. At this time the Second Corps was under the temporary command of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren because Gen. Hancock was still recovering from the wound he received at Gettysburg. On Saturday, October 10th, Gen. Warren started the corps on a march of more than a dozen miles, a reconnaissance in force to the north of Culpeper in search of Confederate forces that were known to be on the move.

Finding nothing, the Seconds Corps marched another eighteen miles on Sunday. They crossed the Rappahannock River and camped just west of Bealeton on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. On Monday, they inexplicably reversed course, recrossed the Rappahannock, and marched here and there chasing elusive Confederate cavalry units until 6 p.m. when, according to Capt. Fiske, “we halted, cooked our supper with about four miles of fence rails, and retired to rest.”

Bristoe_Campaign[This Wikipedia map shows the general movements of the armies during the Bristoe Campaign.]

Late that night, it was learned that Lee’s men had marched completely around the Army of the Potomac to the north. The enemy was perilously close to gaining a position between the federals and their capital city of Washington. The Second Corps marched back across the Rappahannock, now with a sense of urgency. By Tuesday evening they had covered twenty-five miles and bivouacked near Warrenton.

The enemy was close, very close. On Wednesday, October 14th, near the village of Auburn, the men of the Fourteenth loaded their weapons and prepared to battle Confederate cavalry, but Union artillery drove the enemy away before they could do much damage. The Second Corps turned southeast, reached the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, then marched along the east side of the railroad toward Washington. For many it seemed very much like another retreat.

Bristoe MapThe map at the right shows the placement of each regiment involved in the Battle of Bristoe. Please click on it to view a larger map from the Civil War Trust in a new window.

About 3 p.m. the Fourteenth Connecticut was marching in column parallel to the railroad, and about 500 yards southeast of it, when suddenly, they came under fire from enemy shot and shell. Col. Ellis recorded the action of the Fourteenth in his official report:

We were marching along the easterly side of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad when we came in sight of the enemy, posted on a hill some five hundred yards west of the railroad, our column marching by the right flank, being about the same distance east of it. Coming up opposite the enemy’s batteries on the double-quick, the regiment was marched to the front in line of battle across the railroad, and through a piece of woods to its farther edge, where we remained for some time in line of battle. In advancing toward the railroad we met with most of our loss, from a severe infantry fire from our front and right. (Note the advanced position of Smyth’s Brigade in the Civil War Trust map.)

The enemy being driven off from the position on the hill to our front, we were ordered to advance. After advancing a short distance, we observed a line of battle of the enemy through the woods to our left. We immediately changed front to left, and engaged such part of the line as could be seen through the openings. Receiving orders to fall back to the railroad, we did so, and remained lying in line of battle along its easterly side until the troops were withdrawn at night.

Although the brunt of A. P. Hill’s assaults on the Federal lines fell mostly upon Gen. Webb’s Division and Owen’s Brigade of Hays’ Division, the Fourteenth Connecticut still lost four men killed and twenty-six wounded. They had been tested in battle, and while there was some confusion with the new troops in executing complex movement and formation orders, they generally performed well. More importantly, the Second Corps stopped Lee’s final offensive campaign in its tracks, and the Confederates began a slow retreat southward back to Orange County.

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