Bristoe Station I – The Chase
While Ewell’s Corps was moving to Stuart’s rescue LTG A.P. Hill pushed his corps eastward in the desperate race to cut the Federal army off from the entrenchments at Centerville. Once established there Lee knew that there would be little hope of his inferior force bringing them to battle on his terms. Meade also understood any chance that the Army of Northern Virginia could attack his retreating columns would have to come soon. At noon he sent a telegram to Warren, his rear guard at Catlett’s Station, to “move forward as rapidly as you can as they may send out a column from Gainesville to Bristoe.” This was precisely what Hill was attempting to do. Warren was also informed that Sykes Corps would remain at Bristoe “until you are up.” The II Corps immediately began its move up the railroad with Webb’s division in the lead, followed by Hays with the ambulance train and artillery, and Caldwell’s division acting as rear guard. Ewell’s Corps followed the Union movement up the railroad with MG Robert Rodes division in the lead.
Hill’s march had begun at 0500 on the Warrenton and Alexandria pike toward Broad Run Church. From there he was to turn southeast and march for Bristoe. With the exception of some skirmishing with the rear guard of French’s III Corps all went well with the advance until they reached Broad Run. Before he began his turn south Hill received information “from various sources” that a large Union force was moving in the vicinity of Buckland. The sources of this intelligence are not identified in Hill’s report but he states that “the rumbling of wagons, which could be distinctly heard, led me to place reliance on these reports.” Based on this scant evidence Hill made the first mistake of the day. He split his force by sending his lead division, under MG Richard Anderson, off in an effort to catch the unseen enemy. The delay caused by this deployment allowed time for Warren to close the distance between himself and Sykes. Hill then continued on to Bristoe with the divisions of MG Henry Heth and MG Cadmus Wilcox, which was weakened by the assignment of BG Alfred Scales Brigade and a battery of artillery to guard the trains at Buckland.
Anderson’s march proved fruitless as the supposed train of wagons proved to be the cavalry of MG Fitz Hugh Lee skirmishing with the Federal troopers of BG Judson Kilpatrick near Gainesville. The day long action between the mounted forces not only proved the folly of Anderson’s move but also had a devastating effect on later events. While Lee jousted with Kilpatrick he was not available to Hill as an intelligence gathering asset. As Anderson hustled his division back to the main body, the Confederate infantry movement to Bristoe was essentially moving blind into an area known to be full of enemy troops.
Bristoe Station II – Preliminaries
Anticipating the arrival of II Corps, MG George Sykes began to pull his Corps (V) away from Broad Run on the basis of a faulty report. On the Confederate side Hill, seeing Sykes’ men moving off*, mistakenly believed he had caught the tail end of the Army of the Potomac isolated and on the move. It was exactly the scenario that the campaign had been initiated to create. Eager to do some damage and “that no time should be lost”, Hill issued an attack order to MG Henry Heth, commanding his lead division. The attack was to advance to Broad Run and then “cross at the ford and press the enemy.” Because of the absence of Anderson and the distance between Heth and Wilcox’s follow on division these were the only troops readily available. Heth deployed BG John Cooke’s Brigade on the right and BG William Kirkland’s brigade on the left to form an all North Carolina front line. BG Henry Walker’s Brigade formed the second line while the brigades of BG Joseph Davis and BG James Archer formed the reserve. As the Confederates arrayed themselves for battle facing almost directly east a sharp eyed officer on the far right of Cooke’s line reported movement to the south. Again Hill made a faulty assumption. He incorrectly thought that the reported troops were the rear guard of the retreating corps to his front. He opted not to alter the attack plan. In reality the detected movement represented the approach of an entirely new and unexpected Federal corps (II) but was discounted. No additional reconnaissance was ordered. At 1400 Pogue’s Battery opened the contest by firing at Sykes men about 3/4 miles away.
Hearing the cannonade as they crossed Kettle Run MG Gouverneur Warren hustled his men forward. Leading II Corps to the link up point BG Alexander Webb’s division found the crossing unprotected as Sykes troops disappeared “into the woods beyond Broad Run.” At that very moment a report from his Chief of Staff, LTC Morgan, informed Webb of enemy forming on his left. The 1st Minnesota was sent out as skirmishers in that direction and were almost immediately engaged by the Confederate skirmishers, most likely from the 46th North Carolina. The brief encounter convinced Webb that the enemy was there in force. Webb had only two brigades on hand (one brigade of his division was on wagon guard) and a large area to cover. He moved his column to the south side of the railroad embankment. After first selecting a position in the rear of the railroad he moved his line forward to use the natural fortification. He rapidly began to extend his line to secure the bridge and attempt to connect with Sykes’ retreating column. As Webb’s 1st Brigade (COL Francis Heath) rushed across to seize the best position for artillery at the rear of V Corps a contradictory order came from Warren. He wanted Webb to secure the near side of Broad Run only. An order was sent for the units on the far side of the stream to return on the double quick as Webb prepared to meet the threat. The guns of Battery B 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery were sent across the stream to take advantage of high ground that offered unobstructed firing lines over the entire field. Webb also sent word back to push the Third Division troops up as quickly as possible to strengthen his position.
* In his report Hill misidentified Sykes Corps as the III not VBristoe Station (Campaign Series)