The Marching Campaign – Bristoe Conclusion

Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford

Following the wild chase at Buckland Mills the Bristoe Campaign was essentially finished. By October 22nd the Confederate cavalry had retired behind the Rappahannock River. This would have been the final act but for one more seemingly poor decision by the Confederate command. General Lee, determined to leave offensive options open, opted to protect his pontoon bridge crossing at Rappahannock Station with a tete-de-pont. He explained the decision by stating;

“…it was deemed advantageous to maintain communication with the north bank; to threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part.”

With this goal in mind Lee had his troops improve some old Federal works on the north bank into a line of rifle trenches. The south bank, over watching the crossing was similarly strengthened. The whole of the works were covered by 12 artillery piece; four in the tete-de-pont on the north shore and eight more in the works on the south shore. The responsibility for the defense of the crossing at Rappahannock Station and nearby Kelly’s Ford fell to Ewell’s Second Corps. Ewell alternated the divisions MG Jubal Early and MG Edward Johnson at Rappahannock Station, while MG Robert Rodes division covered Kelly’s Ford. The terrain at the ford did not lend itself to defense and only a delaying action was considered practical there.

When two columns of Federal troops began to move on November 6th Lee assumed the target to be Kelly’s Ford. Writing to Seddon on the 7th he identified the attack there as the primary effort and the move at Rappahannock Station as a “demonstration”. Discussing the rapid fall of Kelly’s Ford he added that it was “to be followed, I presume, by his main body.” The appearance of Companies B and C of the Engineer Battalion to throw a bridge at the ford seemed to validate this opinion. The span was in place by late afternoon. The action at Rappahannock Station seemingly amounted to little more than a severe artillery barrage that lasted for several hours. The gathered Union forces kept a respectful distance until about 1400. Then led by five companies of skirmishers from the 6th Maine (A, F, D, I, and C) the Federal line moved forward “about a half mile”. At 1430 they were ordered forward to drive back the enemy skirmishers. This was quickly accomplished with the loss of 1 killed and 5 wounded. Despite the increase of action in their front no further reinforcements were sent to the tete-de-pont, nor were they called back to the south side of the river.

As the coming darkness threatened to end activity for the day the Union commanders decided to try an double up on their success at Kelly’s Ford. The skirmishers were strengthened by the remainder of the regiment (6th Maine) and the addition of the 5th Wisconsin to the skirmish line. When the order “forward, double quick ” was issued the Mainers raised “wild cheers” and closed on the Confederate rifle pits with fixed bayonets and uncapped weapons. Subjected to “heavy fire of musketry and artillery” as they crossed the open area in front of the enemy works they suffered casualties with “fearful rapidity.” But they did not stop or even pause to fire a volley until they mounted the parapets and “engaged the enemy in a hand to hand combat.” The shock value of the sudden rush and ferocity of the fight caused the Confederate forces there (BG Harry Hays Louisiana Brigade and three regiments of COL Archibald Godwin’s North Carolina Brigade of MG Jubal Early’s Division) to give way. The 6th was joined in the trenches by the 5th Wisconsin and the Confederates, finally realizing the growing strength of the Union forces opposing them would soon crush them, rushed for the single strand of escape – the pontoon bridge. But it was too late. The units comprising the main line had closed around the enemy cutting off the escape. The trapped Confederates began to throw down their weapons and surrender in droves. Some made a swim for safety but of the approximately 2000 defenders on the north side of the river over 1600 were either killed or became prisoners. The unbelievably bold assault of the 6th Maine was dearly paid for. The regiments suffered 139 casualties (38K and 101 w) out of 321 present. Only the 5th Wisconsin equaled any more than half that total with 59 casualties (10k and 49w).

Lee was fooled by the Federal ploy. He considered the works at Rappahannock Station “adequate to accomplish the object for which they were intended”; the defense of the crossing. He was wrong. The captured commanders of both Confederate brigades, COL D.B. Penn and COL A. C. Godwin, breakfasted with their captors the following morning and were very complimentary. They also felt that their position was unassailable and could hold the works against whatever was thrown against them. They had declined reinforcements only a few moments before the 6th Maine charge. Their final defense lasted less than an hour. It seemed an appropriate ending to an ugly campaign that saw several serious failures for the Confederates.

Conclusion and Assessment

After ten days of hard marching the Bristoe Campaign ended almost where it began. General Lee took up positions on the south bank of the Rapidan River after the defeat at Rappahannock Station and Meade returned to his pre campaign positions south of the Rappahannock. The campaign amounted to little more than wasted effort and manpower for the Confederates. The arduous effort physically and emotionally battered the troops, badly depleted the animal stock, and exhausted the available logistical support but gained nothing. While Union commanders and soldiers complained bitterly about the seemingly meaningless marching and counter-marching Meade demonstrated skillful use of interior lines and retrograde movement to counter Lee’s move. Using superior intelligence on enemy movements and taking full advantage of the shorter inside track Meade embarrassed Lee’s every effort. He skillfully leapfrogged his corps back to the main defenses at Centerville foiling Lee’s primary campaign objectives – to damage the enemy army and remove them from the area. No portion of the Army of the Potomac was ever exposed or isolated enough to be attacked as Lee had hoped. Unable to attack the Union forces as a whole Lee was denied by Meade’s well coordinated moves. This failure finally led to a desperation attempt at Bristoe Station. Over eagerness to attack there led to the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of damaging the AoP it was the Army of Northern Virginia that was mauled. To make matters worse for the Confederates, after the disastrous campaign should have been over a very poor deployment at the Rappahannock led to yet another crushing blow. The campaign began as a badly conceived idea; suffered, with few exceptions, from poor execution; and ended with a humiliating defeat. In the final analysis this was Lee’s poorest campaign of the war.

Despite besting the offensive moves of the vaunted Confederate commander for a second time the administration was unimpressed. They wanted offensive victories so Meade, despite his protests, was prompted into an offensive campaign of his own; Mine Run.

Bristoe Station (Campaign Series)





2 responses to “The Marching Campaign – Bristoe Conclusion”

  1. Josh Avatar

    Thanks for this series on the Bristoe Campaign. Any plans to follow up in the future with a “sequel” about the Mine Run Campaign?

    1. Dan O'Connell Avatar
      Dan O’Connell

      The Mine Run material is already done. You can find it in Dan O’Connell Campaign series in the sfcdan section. Please enjoy it!

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