Rappahannock Station

As I mentioned in my last week’s post, General Robert E. Lee withdrew the Army of Northern Virginia slowly toward the southwest. He established a new line of defense along the Rappahannock River north of where the Rapidan River joins the Rappahannock. Key to this line were Confederate held fortifications near the town of Remington, at a whistle-stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad called Rappahannock Station. Lee believed a strong show of force here would cause Maj. Gen. George Meade to divide his army in an attempt to gain the Confederates rear and force them to retreat.

Rapp_Station_11-07-1863If that is what happened. On November 7, 1863 Meade sent the Third Corps, under Maj. Gen. William French, marching toward Kelly’s Ford, about five miles south of Rappahannock Station, and just off the bottom of the map at right. (Click the map for a larger view.) Meade also set the Sixth Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, in motion directly toward Rappahannock Station. At this point, General Lee made a rare blunder. He believed the Sixth Corps movement to be a feint intended to keep him from sending troops south to Kelly’s Ford. By noon, the ford was in Union hands and the Third Corps was crossing to the south side of the river. Believing this to be the real threat, Lee left two veteran brigades (about 2,000 men) to man the defenses at Rappahannock Station, and sent the rest of his men toward Kelly’s Ford.

Sedgwick’s artillery shelled the Confederate redoubts throughout the afternoon. When it was nearly dark, a small force of two brigades, also about 2,000 men, rushed toward the Rebel works. For the first time during the war, Federal troops assaulted and took control of a fortified position held by an equal number of Confederates on the first attempt. The fighting was hot, much of it hand to hand, but the issue was settled quickly. 1,670 (about 80%) of the Confederate defenders were either killed, wounded, or captured. Union casualties were 419 (about 20%), most of which were suffered by two regiments, the 6th Maine and the 5th Wisconsin, who were the first to charge the two redoubts.

The Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry took no part in this battle, but this short, sharp victory forced Gen. Lee to abandon the Rappahannock line and fall back into Orange County south of the Rapidan, exactly where he was before he set out on what came to be called the Bristoe Campaign, and where the two armies would square off face to face in just three weeks time.

Note:  The above map is from the Library of Congress Digital Maps Collection. It was drawn by Private Robert Knox Sneden. Sneden was just an average guy with a knack for drawing maps and sketching scenes from the war. He was assigned to the Third Corps staff as a mapmaker. Later in the war he was captured and sent to the Andersonville prison camp, and his descriptions of the horrors there are heart-rending. His book Eye of the Storm (Touchstone, Simon & Schuster) is a worthy addition to anyone’s Civil War library. His maps, artwork, and narratives gave me a deeper understanding of the war from an ordinary private’s perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *