Review In Brief: Mine Run: A Campaign of Lost Opportunities

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Review In Brief: Mine Run: A Campaign Of Lost Opportunities

Books on Bristoe Station & Mine Run

Mine Run: A Campaign of Lost Opportunities October 21, 1863-May 1, 1864. Martin F. Graham & George Skoch. Lynchburg, VA: H.E. Howard, Inc., June 1987.

130 pp. 6 maps, including 1 large fold-out map.

The post-Gettysburg campaigns of 1863 have always received scant attention in Civil War literature. The twin attractions of Gettysburg as the “turning point” of the war (a view I vehemently disagree with) and “Grant vs. Lee” serve to distract the Civil War buff from the maneuvering and small fights taking place in the fall of 1863 in the East. Meade had detached his XI and XII Corps and sent them west to Chattanooga. Earlier, Lee had sent Longstreet and his I Corps to augment Braxton Bragg’s attack at Chickamauga. This is a period that needs further study, as Brooks Simpson recently pointed out. Although no major fights occurred, the game of cat and mouse between Meade and Lee was no less real or full of consequences. A.P. Hill’s III corps of the ANV received a bloody nose at the hands of Gouverneur Warren and the Union II Corps at Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863, and after several more days of contact, Lee aborted this offensive and retired south behind the Rappahannock, destroying the railroad along the way to discourage a Union offensive.

It is at this point where Graham and Skoch step in and start their book Mine Run: A Campaign of Lost Opportunities. Meade would have been happy to occupy Warrenton and head into winter camp, according to the authors, but Lincoln and his government, frustrated by what the perceived to be Meade’s lack of killer instinct, pressured him to advance. They wouldn’t even allow Meade to shift the advance to the left, using Fredericksburg as a base. Realizing that a failure to move forward might mean the loss of his command, Meade decided to act. Repairing the railroad to Warrenton, Meade moved south to cautiously probe Lee’s forces on the south bank of the Rappahannock. Lee left a bridgehead at Rappahannock Station, thus forcing Meade to worry about a flank attack if he crossed some or all of his army to the south side of the river. The problem lay in the strength of the bridgehead. Lee believed it to be impregnable, but it turned out to be nothing of the sort.

On November 7, 1863, Meade’s troops launched attacks at Kelly’s Ford to the east and Rappahannock Station to the west. Kelly’s Ford was weakly defended because artillery deployed on the north bank would dominate any defenders trying to directly hold the ford. Instead, Lee had his main line farther south, with only a regiment and some artillery holding the ford proper. Naturally enough, the Northern III Corps, led by the 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S. and aided by Union artillery on the high ground, were able to cross the river rather easily. Lee decided to strike this force and wipe it out the next day. As he was making those plans, however, he received word that the Rappahannock Station position had fallen. Late in the day, the Yankees at that point, also backed by artillery, were able to break the Confederate line, capturing over 1600 men of Harry Hays’ Louisiana Brigade and Robert Hoke’s North Carolina Brigade, two of the better brigades in the entire Army of Northern Virginia. Needless to say, this made Lee’s line vulnerable to flanking, and he decided to retreat.

Over a two-day span, Lee made the march south and crossed the Rapidan River, creating a new line. Meade’s army cautiously followed, and many in the Army of the Potomac believed they had wasted an opportunity to catch Lee’s army out in the open in a vulnerable position, their backs to the Rapidan. In any event, Meade was now between the rivers, with Lee to his south and west covering a new river line from Morton’s Ford southwest to Liberty Mills. However, Lee had left unguarded several fords to the east.

Meade formulated a plan calling for his troops to cross the Rapidan to the east using these three fords, then move quickly west along the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road. Meade believed he could quickly be on Lee’s right flank and rear to the west of Mine Run before the Confederate general had time to react. Plans do not always work out in practice, and numerous delays involving less than enough pontoon boats at two fords, confusion on the march, and dallying generals meant that Lee was able to act in plenty of time. The lines actually settled to the east of Mine Run, not too far west of the future Wilderness battlefield.

There was a sharp action between French’s Union III Corps (Meade’s right flank) and Edward Johnson’s Confederate Division (Lee’s left flank) at Payne’s Farm on November 27, 1863, not too far south of the Rapidan. Johnson not only prevented French from reaching Meade’s center at Robertson’s Tavern farther south. He also stopped Sedgwick’s large VI Corps, trailing behind III Corps on narrow forest roads. Lee, after reviewing the situation, decided to retreat west across Mine Run, and created a formidable line following the north-south flow of that stream. Over the next few days, Meade searched in vain for ways to get at Lee. Finally, on November 30, Warren’s II Corps was to attack Lee’s right. Warren, with the coming light, saw that Lee had vastly strengthened the position and called off the attack. The Union soldiers who had been drawn up in line of battle were delighted, but Meade was embarrassed. He now had no choice but to withdraw and go into winter quarters without a victory. Lee, ever aggressive, had planned a flank attack of his own for December 2, but Meade had already gone. The Mine Run Campaign had ended without a major battle, but neither side knew it would happen that way at the time.

I was very pleasantly surprised with this particular entry in the Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders Series, published by H.E. Howard. Graham and Skoch laid out an easy, informative read on the campaign, and allowed someone new to the situation such as myself to quickly grasp what was going on. The maps, happily created by George Skoch, go down to regimental level detail in many places. In addition, there is a large fold-out map of the Mine Run area at the back of the book. The only thing I would have liked to have seen was a map covering the area around Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford as a whole. The book was pretty short at only 100 pages of text, but I thought it to be a solid introduction to the campaign. As with most H.E. Howard books, it can in no way be considered “definitive”. The authors relied mainly on unit histories from the looks of the bibliography, though they also looked at around 10 manuscript collections as well. An appendix containing the Orders of Battle was a welcome addition for wargamers such as myself, though there were no unit strengths listed. I would recommend this book to any fan of the war in the east, especially those tired of Gettysburg. More happened in 1863 in the east than your typical short history of the war will tell. As this is the only book on the Mine Run Campaign, and since it was pretty well done for this series of books, I consider this a must-own.

Note: This blog entry originally appeared on June 7, 2006 on the American Civil War Gaming & Reading blog, but was not in the last saved archive. These old posts from June 2006-February 2007 will be gradually added here over time.

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