CIVIL DISCOURSE, NOVEMBER 1863
BRISTOE STATION AND THE MINE RUN CAMPAIGN
LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN AND MISSIONARY RIDGE
Following Gettysburg, both armies resumed their old positions along the Rappahannock. Criticized for not aggressively pursuing Lee during his retreat from Gettysburg and for generalized inactivity thereafter, Meade embarks on a series of maneuvers and inconclusive skirmishes in September, then begins to settle into winter quarters. Lee intends to surprise Meade with a wide flanking maneuver, but Federal signalmen have broken the Confederate semaphore code and warn that Lee is on the move. Meade pulls his army back across the Rappahannock into Fauquier County.
By October 13th, Lee is in Warrenton, with his goal to get behind Meade and engage him before the Yankees can find refuge behind the strong fortifications surrounding Centreville. The Confederates are moving fast and Stuart’s cavalry catches up with the Federal Second Corps near Auburn on the morning of October 14th. Stuart’s horse artillery startles the Yankees, who as usual underrate their opponents’ ability to cover distance fast. Stuart’s cavalry and Ewell’s infantry follow on the shelling, dislodging the Federal Second Corps. All signs are that the Yankees are retreating toward Centreville as fast as their feet can take them.
Unfortunately for the Confederates, the weary Second Corps halts behind the Orange & Alexandria Railroad near Bristoe Station; the railway embankments not only conceal the Federals, but make a fine fortification to fight behind. A.P. Hill is in a hurry when he reaches Bristoe and finds the Federal Third and Fifth Corps crossing Broad Run. Sensing opportunity, Hill throws Heth’s division forward without taking time to reconnoiter. As the advance elements of Heth’s force fall upon the Yankees trapped behind Broad Run, they draw fire from their flank. Moving for the shelter of the railway embankment, they blunder straight into the Second Corps, who rise up behind their cover and deliver a thunderous volley described as “a roar from the portals of Hell”. Their fire is murderous. Surviving Confederates run for the shelter of a nearby wood; 600 are pinned down and captured.
Lee’s pursuit grinds to a halt and Meade reaches the safety of his Centreville entrenchments. The Confederates lose about 1400 men, plus a battery of six guns. Federal losses were about 540. Meade’s reputation continues to suffer; though he saved his army by beating Lee to Centreville, it was clear from his “retrograde maneuvers” that he was no match for Lee. Hill’s failure to reconnoiter before ordering the attack damages his reputation as well, drawing censure from Jeff Davis and Lee. Surveying the dead, a disgusted Lee cuts short Hill’s explanation with the remark: “Well, well, General, bury these poor men, and let us say no more about it.” Though the Confederates hold the field, this is a defeat – Lee’s casualties are high and Meade gets away.
Lee knows better than to assault prepared works at Centreville. He retires to Orange County, wrecking the Orange & Alexandria railway as he goes. When Meade emerges, he will not have a railroad to supply him for a good while.
Meade attempts to salvage his reputation in November, planning a bold strike with his entire army through the Wilderness. Lee’s 48,000 men are camped below the Rapidan, on a line parallel to the river nearly thirty miles long. Meade’s object is to strike Lee’s right flank, anchored along Mine Run in Orange County, and roll up the flank before the more distant elements at Orange Court House can come to the rescue. Meade moves out on November 25th with 81,000 men, sweeping around Stuart’s cavalry screen to gain surprise. However, Meade’s artillery has difficulty fording the Rapidan, losing momentum and eventually surprise. Lee dispatches Early east along the Orange Turnpike to meet the advance of French’s Third Corps. They make contact at Payne’s Farm on November 27th; the Federals attack twice and the Confederates counterattack – neither side gains much advantage in this broken and wooded terrain.
Lee pulls back to his entrenchments behind Mine Run. On November 28th, Meade advances upon this line with the intent of storming the trenches. The assault opens with a furious artillery barrage, but the Confederates shelter in their earthworks and stay put. Federal veterans know the consequences of assaulting Lee behind breastworks from Fredericksburg. Meade spares his troops needless butchery. Meade’s replacement will have to learn this lesson next summer at Cold Harbor. Nonetheless, this campaign costs the Union about 1300 casualties and the Confederacy about 700.
Informed by cavalry commander Wade Hampton that Meade’s flank is vulnerable, Lee plans his own assault for December 2nd. But Meade slips away the night before, just as Hooker had at Chancellorsville in May. Lee laments: “I am too old to command this army. We never should have permitted those people to get away.” The Mine Run campaign concludes major fighting in the East for 1863. Both armies retire into their respective winter camps.
In Tennessee, Sam Grant’s star continues to rise. Grant comes to Chattanooga in October to reinforce the besieged Rosecrans, who is promptly relieved of command and sent home in disgrace. On November 24th, Grant drives Bragg back at Lookout Mountain. Bragg must either fight or abandon the siege. The next day, Bragg makes his stand behind his entrenchments on Missionary Ridge, overlooking Chattanooga. Thomas’ veterans are told to take the rifle pits at the foot of the ridge and then wait for further orders. They succeed, but disobey their orders and press the assault straight up the ridge. The Federals are briefly halted by stiff fire from above, but push forward to shelter under the crest of the ridge. Had the Confederates sited their line on the military crest versus the actual crest, this blind spot would not have existed and they would have been able to sweep the entire slope. The Yankees rise up out of this sanctuary and push Bragg’s men off the ridge.
The siege of Chattanooga is broken and the town will become a major supply center for Grant in the coming Georgia campaign. The Union has lost about 6000, the Confederacy at least 7000. Demoralized, Bragg’s army falls back toward Chickamauga. Southern fortunes in the West are in freefall.
Sources: Harper’s History of the Rebellion
The Mine Run Campaign, http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/minerun/article/the-mine-run-campaign.htm
Jim Camp, A Roar from the Portals of Hell
~ Written by: Doug Coleman