October 15, 1863 (Thursday)
Come the morning, the Confederates at Bristoe Station could see that the enemy had escaped. Through the dark of night, they had slipped away from a disaster so narrowly averted, and fled north toward Washington. A great blow might have been struck had any number of things transpired with even the slightest of differences. Had a division not halted for ten minutes, or orders not double-checked, or even if General Lee himself not called for an early rest on the 13th, 10,000 Yankees might now be dead or held as prisoners. For Lee’s part, he simply blamed A.P. Hill, the corps commander in charge of the force that attacked the trailing Federal column, and who was attacked himself in turn.
George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, was in retreat, but he had likely saved his army. In a message of congratulations written on this day to the II Corps, he told of their spoils: “The enemy, after a spirited contest, was repulsed, losing a battery of five guns, two colours, and four hundred and fifty prisoners.”
Though a victory, it was a victory on the run. Meade believed Lee had been racing to beat him to the plains of Manassas, and planned to make a stand. Though he was mistaken, by the early afternoon, there is where his army was situated.
They held roads and towns, fords and streams already legendary from three summers of struggle. From Chantilly, where John Sedgwick’s VI held the right, to Fairfax Station, held by George Sykes, Meade’s army was arrayed. John Newton’s I Corps occupied Centreville, while Gouverneur Warren’s and William French’s corps formed near Blackburn’s Ford, clinging to the north bank of Bull Run.
And that is where Jeb Stuart found them. While the Confederate infantry looked to their dead, the cavalry was pushed forward. The light skirmishing threw the Federal pickets back across the run, but fire from northern guns kept Stuart at bay, catching his men in a harrowing crossfire, pinning the Southerners down.
Before long, it was obvious that there would come no large Confederate attack. Even Stuart seemed to lose interest when in the late afternoon he moved east in pursuit of Federal supply wagons still winding northeast along the road leading to Manassas Junction from Brentsville. They launched an attack, but it was foiled, as John Buford’s men guarded the trains. They dueled, now charging, now retreating, until nightfall.
With his army more or less safe, General Meade waited for Lee’s next move, which the Confederate general was already mulling over. For the most part, however, the Southern troops rested and destroyed the tracks along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.
The following day, Meade would dispatch his cavalry and VI Corps to probe the Rebel position. But the deluge of autumn rain forced both sides to hold back, and will give us a chance to look west, catching up with the spiraling events near Chattanooga.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p244, 250, 328, 329, 472; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]