Bristoe Station III – Those Poor Men
At the Confederate line BG Cooke received a messenger from MG Heth ordering an attack by his brigade and Kirkland’s. He sent the courier back with word that his right flank was exposed to the troops at the railroad embankment and before he could advance his flank had to be protected. While the messenger returned to Heth an officer arrived from General Lee’s staff and was made aware of the situation. The unidentified staffer promised Cooke that he would go immediately to Hill and plead the case for delay while the situation was more firmly developed. Unfortunately, before this could take place the first messenger reappeared with orders from Heth to “Advance at Once!”
Cooke reluctantly gave the order to advance. The brigade had gone only 25 yards when they were halted to dress the line. The distance between them and the enemy consisted of a “barren open field” that offered little cover. As the line surged forward again the skirmishers from the 1st Minnesota retreated behind the embankment and joined the rest of their division. The Federal troops “had only to lie down on the slope, rest their muskets on the track of the railroad and sweep the open field.” The advance had barely begun when BG Cooke was shot from his horse. Command fell to COL Edward Hall of the 46th North Carolina. A second battery of Union artillery was brought up (Battery A, 1st Pennsylvania Light) and was posted behind the main line of infantry, using a slight rise to fire over the heads of the friendly forces. These guns there added to the carnage being executed by the well protected infantry. The losses mounted at every step until LTC Whitfield, commanding the 27th NC, sent word that the attack must either be prosecuted immediately or a retreat ordered before the line would be annihilated. Hall, true to his last order, opted for the attack. Cooke’s men turned on the Federals at the railroad and broke into a double quick down the slight slope to within 25 yards of the railroad. There they were met with a volley “which almost swept the remnant of us out of existence.” Some of the survivors sought refuge in small cabins as Whitfield was shot down. All order was gone and the only reasonable things to do were surrender or flee the killing ground. The new commander of the 27th MAJ Webb ordered the retreat. The trip back proved almost as deadly as the trip forward as they were raked with artillery and rifle fire until they passed over the brow of the hill to safety.
On the left Kirkland’s Brigade fared only slightly better. The original order became impossible to execute as the two brigades fought for survival. Finding Cooke heavily engaged and turning to face the Federal line to the south Kirkland altered his direction of attack by swinging his left around to come to his support. The Confederate artillery also had to be adjusted to render assistance to the beleaguered brigades. Hill reported that this was not accomplished “as quickly as I expected” so that the Union infantry was undeterred by opposing artillery for much of the engagement. To compound the disaster, as the Confederate infantry retreated they left a battery of guns unsupported. The pieces were abandoned by the crews and five guns fell into the hands of the 19th Massachusetts. The men that had taken refuge in the huts proved troublesome enough that Webb was forced to send out skirmishers to clear them away. They took about 250 prisoners completing this assignment.
The battle died away and Hill brought up the rest of his Corps. Warren expected but never got another attack. After some picket skirmishing darkness fell and Warren moved off to join the rest of the army at Centerville. Hill was left to explain the bloody failure to Lee. Disgusted, Lee told Hill to bury his dead and say no more about it. He saved his most scathing criticism for Hill’s official report which he forwarded with the endorsement;
“General Hill explains how, in his haste to attack the Third Army Corps of the enemy, he overlooked the presence of the Second, which was the cause of the disaster that ensued.”
Adding insult to injury for Hill Confederate President Jefferson Davis also added his comments which included this;
“There was a want of vigilance…”
The poorly executed affair cost Hill much of his reputation and nearly destroyed two brigades of his Corps. He reported 933 killed and wounded and another 445 missing. Cooke’s brigade suffered the worst accounting with more than half the total casualties (498). Kirkland’s brigade lost 270 men.
Bristoe Station IV – Postscript
By 1630 Cooke’s and Kirkland’s Brigades had been smashed and the survivors scrambling for safety. As they exited the field the Federal brigade of COL Thomas Smyth crossed the railroad bed and set a perpendicular line in a stand of pine. There was little for them to do as the skirmishers of the 19th MA, 19th ME and 1st MN rushed out to claim the Confederate guns. Smyth, however, spied a new line of enemy approaching from the west. Two of Anderson’s brigades had finally returned. Using the trees as cover Smyth’s regiments (108th NY, 7th MI, 12th NJ, 14th CT, and 1st DE) changed face and surprised BG Carnot Posey’s Mississippians and BG Edward Perry’s Florida Brigade. The volley brought the advance there to a halt and wounded Posey (he would die a month later). This engagement accounted for 31 of the 54 casualties suffered by Anderson’s division at Bristoe Station. Smyth’s brigade was then ordered back to the main line.
Also on hand now was LTG Richard Ewell’s Corps that had followed Warren up the railroad right of way and was now threatening the Union left. As the division of MG Jubal Early formed a battle line the brigade of BG John Gordon became distracted by cavalry skirmishers from BG David Gregg’s division and moved off independently to confront them. Early refused to move until Gordon was recovered and placed in line. By the time the wandering Gordon was found and put into position it was 1900 and darkness had fallen. Operations were called to a halt with 40,000 Confederates within range of Warren’s 9,000 men. During the night Warren moved off to Centerville and Gregg departed southward towards Brentsville. The entire late afternoon fight had cost them 550 casualties.Bristoe Station (Campaign Series)