Category Archives: Bristoe Campaign

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.

The Advance and Retreat Two-Step

After the defeat at Bristoe Station on October 14th, Lee’s Confederates withdrew slowly southwestward toward the Rappahannock River. The men of Meade’s Army of the Potomac followed, also slowly and carefully. Cavalry skirmishes were frequent. Columns of Union troops would march a short distance, an alarm would be sounded, and the men would deploy in line of battle. When nothing developed, the column formed again and the men marched forward another short distance.

At times during this slow dance of retreat and advance, particularly at night, the armies were within a few hundred yards of one another and did not know it. How could this be? They employed techniques for moving large bodies of men with a certain degree of stealth not unlike the “silent running” procedures of modern day submariners. Anyone that has seen one of the many submarine movies knows that a surefire giveaway of the sub’s presence is the dreaded metal on metal clank. It was the same with a column of troops during the Civil War. No fires could be lit on the wayside to make coffee to sustain the weary men during a long march on a cold night. Not even a match could be struck to light a cigar or pipe. And the men were ordered to march with their hands sandwiched awkwardly between their canteens and their tin cups, thus eliminating the constant clanking that usually accompanied the column whenever it moved out.

On October 23rd, the men of the Fourteenth marched only about four miles and encamped on good ground near Warrenton, Virginia. They were told that they would remain at this camp indefinitely, so the troops began to build log huts for winter quarters. Regular activities included daily drilling and rotating stints on picket duty. Sometime during the last few days of October or the first few days of November, Lieutenant Colonel Stanford Perkins arrived in camp. He had been seriously wounded at Fredericksburg and had been discharged because of medical disability. (See my post for Dec. 13, 2012.) What mixed emotions he must have experienced, gladness to be with his old regiment and visit with friends, but profound sadness when he saw how few of the soldiers he had commanded were still in the ranks.

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.

A View to the West

In our focus on the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, it’s easy to forget about what else was going on in the war. Battles fought and movements of armies in the east effected events in the west and the reverse was true as well.

So what was happening in the western theater? Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the last Confederate bastions on the Mississippi River, had surrendered to Union forces in early July, 1863. By September, Union military control of Vicksburg had restored order. A loyal civilian government was in place and the bulk of Grant’s Army of the Mississippi began to move eastward late in the month.

Chattanooga, Tennessee became the next area of conflict in the western theater. Two days of bloody fighting in northern Georgia along Chickamauga Creek (September 19-20) ended in Confederate victory. The Confederate Army of Tennessee, under the command of Maj. Gen Braxton Bragg. had been newly reinforced by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s Corps sent from Virginia by Gen. Lee. The defeated Federals of Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans retreated northward to Chattanooga.

The war department in Washington needed to send more men to Chattanooga in a hurry. Grant was made commander of all the western armies. Two corps (15,000 men) would be detached form the Army of the Potomac under the command of Maj. Gen. Thomas Hooker, and most of Gen. Sherman’s Army of the Mississippi would march through northern Mississippi and Alabama to Chattanooga.

So why is this important to our friends in the Fourteenth Connecticut manning the picket line along the Rapidan River south of Culpeper, Virginia? Gen. Lee knew the Union response to their defeat at Chickamauga would be to send more men to the area. Undermanned as he was with Longstreet’s Corps gone, Gen. Lee determined to try to keep the enemy on his front so busy so that the entire Army of the Potomac had to remain where it was.

In early October, Lee started his troops on a march around the right flank of the Army of the Potomac. They marched west of Cedar Mountain, swung to the north of Culpeper, then northeast to Warrenton. It would be Lee’s last offensive campaign, and the newly refitted, remanned, and retrained Fourteenth Connecticut would play a vital role in the outcome.