The Greatest Battle Never Fought

150 YEARS AGO TODAY the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut drove a skirmish line of Rebel pickets down a gentle slope and across a marshy stream known as Mine Run. The main Confederate line lay a few hundred yards ahead at the crest of the opposite slope, so the Connecticut boys gave up the chase and withdrew to the relative safety of the Second Corps line.

Marching from its camps on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1863, the Army of the Potomac had advanced southwestward across the Rapidan River into Orange County. Maj. Gen. George Meade’s goal was to surprise the Confederates and turn their right (southern) flank. If successful, the movement would have put 81,000 Federal soldiers between Lee’s 48,000 and Richmond.

As had often happened before, muddy roads slowed the advance to a crawl, and Lee had time to react. The armies sparred at Locust Grove and Mt. Zion Church, but the engagements were small and not decisive. By Sunday the 29th, the armies faced each other across the shallow valley of Mine Run and all the signs pointed to pitched battle the next day.

That night was bitterly cold. No fires were allowed. The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut shivered uncontrollably. All night long the men heard the incessant chopping of Rebel axes. The enemy was building trenches and breastworks, and felling every tree in front of their works to create clear fields of fire. All would be ready for the expected dawn assault.

At two o’clock on the morning of Monday, November 30th, Meade ordered Maj. Gen. Warren, then in command of the Second Corps, to begin the assault at five o’clock. The corps formed in two lines of battle. The Fourteenth Connecticut took their place in the front line. They would be among the first to try the Confederate defenses. As dawn broke over those half-frozen men, the task before them became dreadfully clear. The Confederates had built a strong line of breastworks along the crest of the low ridge on the west side of Mine Run. Every man in the Union ranks knew his chances of surviving the day were small indeed.

In his History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Charles Page recorded these words of one of the soldiers, J. L. Goss: “Lt. Col. Sam Moore, with his thin face, white and stern, walking slowly among his men said, ‘Men, there is no denying it, but three-quarters of you are to be left in that marsh with your toes turned up; but remember the Fourteenth never quailed yet, and I’ll shoot the first man that does it now.'” With trembling hands many of the men wrote their names, company and regiment on slips of paper and pinned them to their jackets. Worse than being killed was the thought that a man might end up in an unknown grave, and loved ones at home might never know what became of him.

Five o’clock came and no order was given to attack. The assault was delayed until eight o’clock. Lt. William Hawley (Co. B) added this description, as quoted by Page, of what I believe to be one of the most dramatic and pivotal scenes of the Civil War. “The Fourteenth was in the first line of battle where the bullets would strike the thickest in the charge. Knapsacks were ordered to be laid aside so that no useless weight might encumber the men. And now General Warren rides slowly down our lines, his sober face more sober than usual. He evidently dislikes to sacrifice his brave troops in such a desperate undertaking….Eight o’clock has arrived and we expect the order to advance. We hear the roar of cannon from our right. Gen. Meade has sent word from the right, asking Warren if the Second Corps can take the enemy’s works..’Yes,’ replied Warren, ‘they can take them, but there will be no more Second Corps.’ Then Meade himself arrives on the ground, surveys the works through his glass, reckons the time it will take to reach them, and shakes his head, saying ‘It is of no use to try to climb a wall with two ladders.'”

The assault was cancelled. Meade saw it would have been another Fredericksburg, perhaps even worse. To his credit, and probably at great cost to himself professionally, he saved his army to fight another day. The Army of the Potomac fell back north of the Rapidan to Culpeper County again, and went into winter quarters. Their next campaign would be directed by a man from the west, a man whose name they had heard, but whose face they had never seen—Ulysses S. Grant..

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