The Reversing Tide
On the morning of October 15th Lee met with his Corps commanders and several other key leaders to talk about the fortunes of the campaign. Exactly what was discussed was not recorded but Lee shortly thereafter determined that it was time to discontinue operations against the Union army.* The following morning he wrote to Secretary of War Seddon explaining his decision to halt the chase and to retreat to the Rappahannock River. He began his justification with a report on the condition of his adversary,
“The enemy has taken a position east of Bull Run where he is reported to be intrenching.”
He continued on by explaining that these circumstances and their proximity to the main Washington defenses made the possibility of success slim.
“I do not think it advantageous to attack him in his intrenchments.”
He felt that should he attempt any flanking action on the Centerville position then he would have to change logistical base to Loudon and that would take him too far away from Richmond. If Meade suddenly turned south then he could not defend the capital. He therefore informed Seddon;
“…nor do I see any benefit from pursuing him further.”
The condition of his men also weighed heavily on his mind. With winter coming on and clothing, shoes and blankets at a shortage he was;
“unwilling to subject them to the suffering that might ensue.”
The clothing issue was hardly his only logistical problem. The supplies gathered for the campaign had been used up in the first five days of marching and he needed to return to where he could get what help there was available. He informed President Davis of his decision in a letter on the 17th and by the 19th the main body had assumed a line behind the Rappahannock. He did report damage to the Orange and Alexandria railroad that he expected “may prevent the return of the enemy to that river this winter.” It was a grossly exaggerated claim (the line was reopened to Warrenton Junction by November 2) but it was the best he could offer for the efforts of his army.
Meade became aware of Lee’s retreat almost as soon as it started and planned an immediate pursuit. A violent storm on the night of the 16th swelled Bull Run and made it unfordable. Meade was forced to call for his pontoons. The movement of the bridges forward and further reconnaissance lasted until the 19th when the chase began anew. This time Meade was chasing Lee with BG Judson Kilpatrick’s division of cavalry in the lead.
*At least one historian suggests that the performance of his post Gettysburg leadership to this date convinced him that nothing could be gained by further action.
This campaign was one of maneuver and such was heavily dependent on the ability to move through the multiple natural obstacles presented by the terrain in which it was conducted. Not only did the engineers help supply that mobility but they also managed to move themselves out of danger with minimum loss. LTC Ira Spaulding’s detailed report of their actions give insight to the contribution of these support troops.
The Engineer campaign got off to a rocky start when the senior officer, COL William Pettes, was taken ill and command moved down to COL Wesley Brainerd. Brainerd’s first responsibility was the preservation of his assets. Very early in the campaign Meade ordered all pontoons not in use or scheduled for use to be removed to Washington to prevent their loss. While the bulk of the Engineer Brigade assembled their equipment for that move, Companies H and E of the 50th New York Engineers were assigned the duty of remaining with the Army to fulfill the other portion of Meade’s directive, recovering existing bridges and being on hand to throw any necessary bridges.
The first mission was to throw a bridge at Kelly’s Ford to allow passage of I Corps over the Rappahannock. A train of seven boats was sent out. Spaulding reports that “the night was dark and the road bad” complicating the move. Five of the seven boat wagons were overturned and had to be up righted by hand. Despite the delays the bridge was successfully emplaced by 0200 on the 11th and I Corps completed their movement north of the river as ordered. During the day Spaulding received another order to emplace a bridge at Beverly Ford. This created a problem for the engineers as the only other available bridge, under command of CPT McDonald, was in use at Hazel Run. The bridge at Kelly Ford was hastily disassembled and moved to Beverly Ford. The hard working bridge crew had the ordered span in place by 0300 on the 12th. McDonald’s train later arrived to cover Kelly’s Ford.
The next order was for the removal of all bridges once the Army completed its passage and the destruction of the railroad bridge at Rappahannock Station. Strapped for resources Spaulding received an offer of assistance from CPT Mendell, commanding the regular engineers. Happy to have the help Spaulding assigned them to the removal of the Beverly Ford Bridge and the destruction of the railroad span. His men were thus relieved at Beverly Ford and moved to Rappahannock Station to remove the two existing bridges there. All the bridges were taken up and consolidated at Bealton for movement out of harms way.
The movement of the entire Army of the Potomac had sufficiently jammed the roads so that the passage of the bulky wagons proved impossible. At 0200 on the 13th Spaulding, finding the roads impassable chose a different option. As soon as the sun rise provided the necessary light his men were issued tools to cut their own road. For nine miles they pioneered a road to Brentsville. Spaulding proudly claimed not “using a foot of the regular road” to accomplish this move. The slow progress, however, left them extremely vulnerable near the trail of the AOP columns. Spaulding consulted with Buford, who was guarding the trains, and asked that if the situation should become dangerous that he be given time to destroy the wagons and make an effort to save the men and teams. Fortunately this did not become necessary and the arduous journey continued. After crossing Cedar Run the climb up the hill on the other side overturned six wagons. With no time to recover these they were burned, the only loss for the entire retrograde movement. After six days of constant movement in which “few of animals had been out of harness” they arrived at Centerville where CPT Mendell threw a bridge of five boats over Bull Run with his regulars.
For the next few days Spaulding rested his men and teams as the campaign played itself out. He was reinforced by an additional train from Washington on the 17th. On the 19th the small bridge at Blackburn’s Ford was removed and the engineers prepared to move forward as the impetus of the campaign was reversed. Late on the 19th they were ordered to throw four bridges across Bull Run (Ball’s Ford, McLean’s Ford, Blackburn’s Ford, and Mitchell’s Ford) to facilitate the surge of the army back towards the Rappahannock. This was successfully done and the bridges taken up the following day. One company remained at Ball’s Run to rebuild the bridge there. On the 21st the men parked their wagons and went to work on a different kind of bridge; “a heavy, double track, corduroy bridge across Broad Run.” The campaign ended at Bristoe Station on the 22nd with all the trains, including the men from Ball’s Ford consolidated. They spent their time “putting our trains and tools in order” and awaiting the next move.Bristoe Station (Campaign Series)