The Bristoe Campaign – Introduction
On the night of July 14th, 1863 as the last of Robert E. Lee’s rain soaked troops scrambled over MAJ John Harman’s improvised bridge across the Potomac ending the Gettysburg Campaign the war in the east entered a new phase. Gone, at least for the immediate future, was any hope of offensive action from the Army of Northern Virginia. The badly battered Confederates moved into defensive positions south of the Rapidan River and waited for what was believed to be the inevitable Federal offensive.
But The Army of the Potomac commander, MG George Meade, also considered his army badly hurt by his signature victory. The loss of 15,000 to deal with unrest in New York over the draft and expiring enlistments also weakened his forces. Although the President was “deeply mortified by the escape of Lee” orders to halt his pursuit were issued. Meade opted to pause north of the Rappahannock River to consolidate, reorganize and re-establish logistical support. The inability to bring Lee and his army to battle was a bitter pill for all to swallow although the average soldier complained that “they had marched us most to death.” Between the two armies there was the no-man’s land of the “Iron Triangle.”
Meade satisfied himself with a series of cavalry reconnaissance’s south of the Rappahannock. The Union troopers had several spirited clashes with J.E.B Stuart’s horsemen culminating on 13 September when the Federal cavalry pushed out as far as Culpeper Court House. The net result of these types of operations was the discovery that Longstreet’s Corps had been sent west to strengthen Braxton Bragg. Although there was some confusion about which troops had actually departed Meade was determined to find out. Writing to his wife on 13 September he stated;
“It was necessary, however, that I should make some effort to ascertain what was going on so today I sent Pleasanton and all the cavalry, supported by Warren’s Corps (Second), to see what they could find out.”
The intelligence they brought back coupled with other sources (deserters, etc.) revealed that Longstreet had departed with two divisions and a good portion of his artillery on September 9. Meade at once notified Halleck that the time was ripe for action. The President suggested that an immediate “move upon Lee”. The Army of the Potomac surged across the Rappahannock and into Culpeper Court House. As Meade planned a move around the left of Lee’s Rapidan defenses circumstances again intervened. Longstreet’s men had helped turn the tide at Chickamauga and Rosecrans army was in desperate straits at Chattanooga. Meade was summoned to Washington where he consulted with Lincoln, Halleck and Stanton. He returned believing that he had convinced them not to weaken his army on the eve of his offensive. The following day, however, orders were received to detach two corps (XI and XII) for service in Tennessee. With only 76,000 troops left Meade felt it impossible to continue on the offensive. The area once again settled into a calm.
The unexpected respite restored Lee’s aggressive spirit and he decided that if Meade would not come to him them he would go to Meade. During the first week of October he began to stage his army at Madison Court House for “an opportunity to strike a blow at the enemy “. By moving around Meade’s weakened right flank Lee hoped to force the enemy back. Meade would have no choice but to react to such a threat to his lifeline, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. When Meade broke up his concentration of forces to match his movements Lee expected the chance to attack or be attacked at his advantage. The Bristoe Campaign was on.
Preparing to Battle
Preparing for the campaign, Lee assembled his army at Madison Court House. On hand was LTG Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, LTG A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, and one division of MG J.E.B. Stuart’s Cavalry Corps.* Left behind to cover the river crossings at his rear was MG Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry division and two brigades of infantry. Lee would be moving with approximately 43,000 men. A movement this size could not help but be detected and it was. As early as 7 October Meade sent a message to Halleck that deserters reported the movement of Hill’s Corps to the southwest. Halleck used the report as an excuse to ask for more of Meade’s troops.
“The Secretary of war directs me to inquire whether, if a part of A.P. Hill’s corps has gone west, a portion of your army cannot be spared; if so, what corps?”
Meade replied coldly;
“I have no choice either as to retaining or sending away any particular corps.”
But Hill’s troops were not headed for Bragg they were moving to the staging area for Lee’s offensive. The Union commander went to Cedar Mountain to use the telescope there to get a better picture of the enemy consolidation. After viewing the situation he understood the threat posed by their movements. He also sent BG Henry Prince’s III Corps infantry division forward to supplement his cavalry at James City. As more evidence was received from reports coming from units along the river, spies, and intercepted messages from his signal corps Meade ordered his cavalry assembled and issued a circular order to his five corps of infantry.
“Corps commanders will at once have their commands in readiness to move at a moment’s notice.”
Although he incorrectly identified the enemy movement as “the probability of a reconnaissance in force” by noon on 9 October his forces were ready. Almost before Lee began his campaign Meade was prepared to match his moves. The only problem Meade had left was to determine where Lee was going. There were three possibilities that he considered;
1. A movement down the Shenandoah Valley.
2. A flanking movement similar to the one that proved so disastrous to Pope in 1862.
3. A retreat into the Richmond defenses
While his infantry prepared to move with the Confederates, wherever they might go, Meade decided to test Lee’s position. He ordered Pleasonton to use his cavalry to “force a passage at Germanna Ford, as soon as possible, pursue the enemy and endeavor to uncover Morton’s Ford.” The ford would then be used by I Corps to gain a position in the rear of Lee’s army. In the event that Lee was moving toward the Confederate capital they would be in position to intercept the movement and conduct a blocking action while he struck them in the rear. MG John Buford’s division of cavalry was assigned the task. Despite not “having a particle of forage” Buford made the ordered march.
* Stuart had personal command of Wade Hampton’s division as he was recovering from wounds received at Gettysburg.
October 9 – Signal Station Raid
As the campaign was being staged General Stuart became concerned about the obvious advantage being gained by the Union signalmen on Stonehouse Mountain to intercept messages* and view their movements. He summoned the commander of Company B of the 12th Virginia Cavalry and ordered him to assemble a twenty man raiding party to capture the lot. The men for the dismounted night raid were assembled, under the command of George Baylor who recalled the episode in his memoir of the war this way;
“…leaving in camp our horses and all arms except our pistols, we proceeded to the river, took off our clothing, and bundling it and our pistols on our shoulders waded the stream, and passed up the opposite bank between two Federal picket posts. Having safely and noiselessly gained the rear of the enemy’s picket line, we put on our clothes and started in the direction of the signal station, which was easily recognized from its elevated fires. Satisfied that success could be attained only by silence and by avoiding alarm until the station was reached, we moved along stealthily and cautiously avoiding any conflict. Having gone more than a mile, we were startled by the near approach in our front of a body of cavalry. Making a hasty run into the fence corners, we laid down, and trusted the enemy would pass us by. But the cavalry, reaching a point just opposite, with only a rail fence between us halted as if listening. It was with great difficulty that the men were restrained from firing into them. After standing about ten minutes in this position, the Yankees moved forward in the direction of their picket line, and soon after, galloping was heard in the direction of their camp, which could be traced by camp-fires, and in a short time the bugles sounding “boots and saddles.” Satisfied now that our squad had been discovered and the capture impossible, we returned to our camp somewhat the worse from briar scratches received in passing through the picket line in nude condition.”
The bold and somewhat humorous raid had failed but it mattered not. Captain Peter Taylor, commanding the station on the mountain reported that the following morning the station was abandoned as the enemy “were advancing across the point threatening to cut us off from the east side”. After “taking away all public property” because the station would no longer be viable the signalmen reported to MG Kilpatrick at Culpeper Court House.
* In fact the Confederate code had been broken by October 6th.Bristoe Station (Campaign Series)