‘I Certainly Expected He Would Fight’ – Lee Retreats Across the Rapidan

November 8, 1863 (Sunday)

“The loss of this position made it necessary to abandon the design of attacking the force that had crossed at Kelly’s Ford, and the army was withdrawn to the only tenable line between Culpeper Court House and the Rappahannock, where it remained during the succeeding day.” – General Robert E. Lee.

William French pushed on.
William French pushed on.

Lee had been taken by surprise the previous day. Meade’s Army came up quickly, overwhelmed the pickets on the north side of the Rappahannock, and, after a bloody struggle in the early dark, forced the Confederates back across the river. At Kelly’s Ford, however, three entire corps had crossed, and the rest of the Union Army was sure to follow.

A fog had settled thickly in the small valley, allowing Lee to slip away with little notice. He established a new line of battle a mile and a half beyond Brandy Station, guarding the town of Culpeper. Unable to see across the river, Federals near the railroad crossing could not tell whether the enemy that had been in their front was still there. Downstream, at Kelly’s Ford, the Union troops under William French were already across and knew the score. Just after sunup, they were ordered to attack.

They trudged forward, skirmishers deployed, across the old Brandy Station battlefields. They spread out, covering both sides of the tracks for a mile or more in either direction. Some even crossed Mountain Run, prodding closer and closer to the enemy position. All the way, Rebel skirmishers fell back before them.

At Rappahannock Station, where the rail line crossed the river, General John Sedgwick, commanding Meade’s right, could dimly see Confederate pickets across the water. In the rush of the previous day’s battle, the Rebels had neglected to destroy their own pontoon bridge spanning the river. At dawn, they made some attempt to burn it, but were discouraged by Sedgwick’s skirmishers.

John Sedgwick's day was cloudy.
John Sedgwick’s day was cloudy.

As French’s troops spread out, they inadvertently dislodged the Confederate pickets in Sedgwick’s front. By 9am, he was marching his own men across the partially burned bridge and joining with French’s skirmish line.

By the middle of the afternoon, nearly all of Meade’s entire army was at Brandy Station. General Lee had little faith in the ground held by his troops. His skirmishers told him all he needed to know about the Federal advance, and soon it was decided. His army would retreat again, retracing its steps to their old camps along the Rapidan River.

For this, Lee called upon Stonewall Jackson’s old topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss. He had spent the morning surveying A.P. Hill’s lines, personally placing the troops best he could along the unfavorable ground. The Federal troops did not seem to be advancing so swiftly now, apparently deciding to halt at Brandy Station. Hotchkiss took this time to ride himself to the Rapidan.

Map from the OR showing Lee's lines.
Map from the OR showing Lee’s lines.

Lee began by sending his wagons and wounded south. “I selected a crossing and had a ford and foot bridge made,” wrote Hotchkiss that night in his diary, “then our men fortified the line and there we spent the day, the cavalry fighting at the front.”

The cavalry was that of John Buford’s who had crossed the Hazel River well to Lee’s left flank, pushing back their Rebel counterparts almost to Culpeper. Meanwhile, Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry dodged around Lee’s right, throwing Jeb Stuart’s men back through Stevensburg, almost to Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan. But Meade could advance no farther. “It will be necessary before I make any farther advance to repair the railroad to the Rappahannock,” reported Meade to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, “which the engineers say will take five days.” And so they rested, as the cavalry spurred on and Lee judged his fate.

Jed Hotchkiss did not photograph well.
Jed Hotchkiss did not photograph well.

The morning fog had been used by Lee to shield his move to the present line, and now the night would cover the further retreat. “About dark we started for Raccoon Ford,” continued Hotchkiss. “[General Robert] Rodes in the advance followed by [General Edward] Johnson; [General Jubal] Early came by Somerville Ford. General Ewell came on in his carriage.” By 9pm, the troops were ready to cross, and before the next morning, many of the troops occupied the same camps, the same entrenchments, as they had held before Lee’s northward push in early October.

When Meade’s troops entered the Confederate camps, it was obvious that their commander had outsmarted General Lee. “From the number of huts, the corduroyed roads, and information derived from citizens,” reported Meade the next day, “it is evident the enemy contemplated wintering between the Rappahannock and Rapidan, and did not expect a resumption of active operations on my part.”

Meade also took the time that day to write to his wife. To her he explained that he initially believed the Rebels in his front to be too strongly entrenched for their position to be carried:

“Thanks, however, to their being entirely deceived as to my capacity to move, and to the gallantry of my men, we were enabled to carry their strong works and to force the passage of the river (considered one of the most critical operations in the war), with a comparatively small loss, and with great éclat, as we captured four guns, eight battle flags, and nearly two thousand prisoners.

The operation being successful, the army is in fine spirits, and of course I am more popular than ever, having been greeted yesterday [the 8th] as I rode through the ranks with great cheering; and my having forced the passage of the Rappahannock and compelled Lee to retire to the Rapidan, will I trust convince the intelligent public that my retreat to Centreville was not to avoid battle, and that Lee, who was not outflanked, or had his communications threatened, but was attacked in front, and yet withdrew, is really the one who has avoided battle.

I certainly expected he would fight, and can only now account for his not doing so on the ground that he was deceived as to my strength and construed my sudden and bold advance into an evidence that I had been strongly reinforced and greatly outnumbered him. I must say I was greatly disappointed when I found Lee refused my offer of battle, because I was most desirous of effecting something decisive, and I know his refusal was only a postponement of a question that had to be met and decided.”

Fairly vague and very approximate map of things.
Fairly vague and very approximate map of things.

While Meade basked in the cheering and reveled in the belief that he had outgeneraled his legendary opponent, General Lee soon turned to Richmond to try to figure out how to keep his army alive through the winter. On the 10th, the day after he was situated on the Rapidan, Lee begged to call attention to his barefooted men. The weather was turning cold quickly, and so many remained unshod. For his animals, corn was also needed. He feared that “unless the amount can be very much increased, we shall lose many horses and mules this winter.” Richmond soon responded by asking Lee to send troops to East Tennessee.

For the next several days, both sides would assess their next moves.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p611-612; Part 2, p435, 436, 437, 438-439, 830, 925-926; The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse. []
Creative Commons License
‘I Certainly Expected He Would Fight’ – Lee Retreats Across the Rapidan by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by