After several clashes with the Union cavalry Stuart continued to pursue the retreating Union forces nipping at the rear guard as opportunity presented itself. On the 11th his force was reunited as he joined Funsten’s Brigade and communication with Fitzhugh Lee’s division was reestablished. On the morning of the 13th he dispatched BG Lomax’s brigade on a scout east of Warrenton. The effort revealed Buford’s troopers guarding “an immense park of wagons” in the vicinity of Catlett’s Station. Leaving Lomax at Auburn to protect his rear Stuart hurried to the area without awaiting the results of a proper reconnaissance. His scout in that direction, CPT William Blackford, had become lost and had not yet reported. The juicy target was too much for Stuart to resist and he failed to identify the presence of two corps of Union infantry moving into the area.
As he moved to make an assault on the train the head of MG William French’s III Corps column stumbled into Lomax’s rear guard. French was also operating somewhat blind as he had sent Kilpatrick’s cavalry off on scout. The chance encounter left French and his staff, riding at the front of his column, face to face with the dismounted enemy pickets. The startled group quickly recovered and engaged the Confederates with their pistols. The equally surprised Confederates realizing the depth of their predicament beat a hasty retreat to the Lomax’s main body. French called up the brigades of COL Philipe Regis de Troibriand to deploy on the left of the road and COL Charles Collis on the right. After a battery was placed in support “a charge was made upon the woods and the force speedily dislodged.” The thirty minute skirmish accounted for about fifty casualties. As this small battle was being fought Blackford regained his bearings and arrived to inform Stuart of the new circumstances.
Stuart immediately conducted further reconnaissance and discovered that not only had they encountered the Federal III Corps in his front but MG Governeur Warren’s II Corps was marching behind him. He was trapped between two much superior forces. The fat target of the wagon train was forgotten and a plan developed to save his command. The severe odds made fighting their way out impossible and the progress of the two enemy columns closed all the escape routes. Stuart decided to hide his men while the enemy passed. Fortunately the terrain between the two enemy forces offered up a suitable refuge. The Confederate troopers made a dash for a ravine between a set of hills just large enough to hold his 3000 men, artillery, and wagons. The order for quiet was sent down the line as daylight faded and the Stuart’s men settled in for a stressful night.
The Federal columns did not pass entirely as hoped. The rear portion of Warren’s column went into camp only 300 yards away. The Confederates were silent but had difficulty maintaining order among the horses and mule teams of the small ordnance train. They were constantly afraid that they would be given away by their animal companions. But the exhausted Federals failed to notice anything amiss. During the night six men were dressed in Union uniforms and sent out in an effort to contact Lee. Amazingly all six accomplished their mission. Ewell was ordered to send relief. At daybreak a Confederate column arrived much to Stuart’s relief and added the combat power necessary to challenge the remaining Federals in the area.
As the sun rose on the morning of the 14th Stuart was still trapped. During the night French’s III Corps had continued their movement and had nearly cleared the area but Warren’s troops were still nearby and with full daylight coming the chance to remain undiscovered lessened. Ewell’s Corps, and Fitzhugh Lee’s division of cavalry were on their way to assist but the situation was still tense. The Federal II Corps began their movement out of the area at 0300 but found the road badly disturbed by the passage of the III Corps. The column bogged down badly in the mud and Warren was forced to deploy BG John Caldwell’s on the high ground north of Cedar Run to act as a guard while the trains were freed from the mire. The 10th New York Cavalry was sent out to picket the road to the north. They were directly in the path of Ewell’s lead division, under MG Robert Rodes, who were coming to Stuart’s rescue. With the opportunity to stop and no enemy in sight members of the 57th New York marched into position on the hill.
“After reaching the top of the hill the boys began making fires, got water, put on coffee cups, pulled off shoes and stockings, stood them around to dry and sat waiting for breakfast.”
As the surrounding troops of II Corps began to dissipate Stuart was longer satisfied to wait. Viewing the relaxed atmosphere on the hill Stuart saw not only an opportunity to make good his escape but to inflict some damage on the Federals. He called up the horse artillery of MAJ Robert Beckham and placed the seven pieces on a small rise about 800 yards from the Union line. Just as Rodes men began to engage the vedettes of the 10th New York Cavalry he ordered Beckham to open on Caldwell’s position. The fire from an unexpected direction caught the Union command by surprise but they soon had Battery F, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery in position to face the Confederate batteries. While the opposing guns traded shots the brigade of BG Alexander Hays was sent to confront the new threat. Five companies of the 125th New York took the advance as skirmishers and moved east on St. Stephen’s Road toward the Confederate guns followed closely by the rest of the brigade. Realizing he could not stand against such a threat Stuart sent Gordon’s Brigade to conduct a spoiling attack on the enemy advance.
Gordon’s initial attack had the desired effect and Hays strengthened his skirmish line with the 126th New York and formed a line with the 8th and 111th New York. While New Yorkers deployed Stuart ordered Beckham to prepare his guns for movement. To gain additional time Gordon was asked to charge the Federal line again. Gordon selected the 1st North Carolina Cavalry of COL Thomas Ruffin for the task. The “gallant charge” allowed the rest of Stuart’s command to escape “the very unpleasant situation” by riding hard to the south. The cost was high for the attackers, Gordon was wounded and Ruffin killed. The remnants of the regiment galloped after the escaping Stuart and later rejoined the command as they linked with Fitzhugh Lee.
Meanwhile Rodes division pressed in on the Union position from the north. Again the Union artillery shifted to meet the threat. Battery A 1st Rhode Island Light artillery (replacing the 1st Pa Battery) and Battery G 1st New York Light Artillery moved into position and engaged at about 1500 yards. The weight of their contribution stopped the Confederate advance and the fight evolved settled into an artillery duel. By 1100 and after 200 rounds from the Union guns both sides determined that they had accomplished the desired result. Stuart had been saved and the Union trains had completed their passage towards Catlett’s Station. Since neither side had intended battle here both were eager to withdraw their forces. The battle at Coffee Hill cost a combined total of 100 casualties.Bristoe Station (Campaign Series)