October 13, 1863 (Tuesday)
“I am still moving with the view of throwing him further back toward Washington,” wrote General Lee to President Davis the previous night. His army had successfully slipped around the right flank of George Meade’s Army of the Potomac, and appeared, as the dawn brightened the morning, that it would stream north toward Warrenton. If Meade would only give them another day, if he were slow to move as so many Federal generals had been in the past, Lee could possibly get between the Union army and Washington.
Though Meade had been in a fog the past couple of days, his clarity was sharpened with the dawn. He had formed a line of battle near Fayetteville, facing northwest, but quickly discovered that Lee had no plans to attack him. In fear of being bypassed once more, Meade issued quick orders for a full day of marching. This would shift his entire line (with some exceptions) north by about ten miles.
For most, these orders came while they were still on the march. So even before a corps reached its originally intended destination, they received new orders directing them to their new intended lines. The only corps to have any contact with the enemy during this shift was William French’s III Corps, which skirmished much of the day near Auburn with elements of Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry.
But it was odd how that came to be. General French had been directed to Greenwich, via Auburn, which was itself on the north side of Cedar Run between Warrenton and Warrenton Junction. They stepped off early and were making good time, reaching the branch line to Warrenton around noon. Auburn was only four miles farther, separated only by a thick woods through which ran the road French would be taking. An alarm went up that threw the corps into a line of battle, and they were slow in getting started, unable to leave the railroad before 2pm.
General Lee was determined to find out how quickly Meade was reacting to his flanking maneuverer, and sent Jeb Stuart to Catlett’s Station, one stop north of Warrenton Junction, to sort it out. By this time, Lee had reached Warrenton, and dispatched Stuart from there. Stuart grabbed the nearest brigade he could find, which turned out to belong to Lunsford L. Lomax, from Fitz Lee’s Division. They were sent via Auburn, which they reached around 2pm, just as French’s III Corps stepped off four miles south. Shortly after, the rest of Fitz Lee’s Division followed.
Just as Stuart continued his march to Catlett’s, bringing along with him two small brigades, he sent scouts toward Warrenton Junction. They spied a feast. Thousands (Stuart gave the number of 2,500) of Federal supply wagons were arrayed in a clearing and ripe for the picking if only Stuart had more men. The supply wagons didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so a message was sent to General Lee: “I believe you can reach the rear if Hill is up.”
What Stuart meant was the entire rear of Meade’s retreating army. Lee’s forces were only nine miles away. The two Confederate corps had met at Warrenton in the afternoon, but instead of carrying onward, Lee rested them. With hours of daylight before them, the troops encamped and were cooking rations.
This was a problem of a bigger sort, and soon would matter little to Stuart, who was about to have some very immediate issues. The supply wagons he was scouting were from Meade’s right column moving north. Stuart, of course, did not know this. He also did not know that the head of the left column, led by French’s III Corps, was about to cut him off from the rest of Lee’s Army.
Stuart had left General Lomax’s brigade at the crossing of Cedar Run just south of Auburn, and there was where French found them. Lomax had noticed the Federals first, and deployed artillery and skirmishers as a greeting. This caught French off guard, but he quickly recovered. One small brigade of cavalry, even with artillery, could do little against an entire corps. In fact, French deployed only a division, and brushed Lomax aside.
Fitz Lee joined Lomax at Auburn, and sent word to General Lee. He requested a division to stop the Federals from crossing Cedar Run, adding that “unless we can stop march of enemy along railroad, he will probably be out of the way by daybreak tomorrow.” But “out of the way” was not a good thing. It actually meant, out of reach. Sometime after that, they got word to Stuart that Auburn had been given up and Fitz Lee’s Division was headed toward Warrenton.
This left Stuart with two brigades trapped between French’s III Corps at Auburn and the rest of the Yankee army at Warrenton Junction. Little was left for Stuart to do, but try to punch a hole through the enemy lines. He decided to try near Auburn, because, as Stuart later reported, “that was the only road of egress toward Warrenton.” It was dark by the time he reached Auburn, and the way was blocked and he was trapped for sure.
“In this predicament,” wrote Stuart, “I was not long in deciding to conceal my whereabout, if possible, from the enemy.” Though Stuart was in a tight spot, it also placed him between the two Federal columns. This allowed him to intercept several dispatches that detailed the position and intent of the enemy.
The more he thought about it, the less this seemed like a trap, and the more it seemed like an opportunity. It was clear that the Yankees had no idea that he was hiding between their columns. In the dark, he had placed his artillery in a fine position and “was prepared to co-operate with any attack made by our main body upon the flank [of the enemy]. Start dispatched six “bold men” to pass through the marching lines of Yankees to communicate with General Lee. If all went well, the next morning would be a hot surprise for the Federals.
Lee received Stuart’s message at 1am. The courier gave Lee the precise location of Stuart’s two brigades, as well as the enemy’s position. Stuart hard requested that artillery be massed upon the Union troops at Auburn. Then, without saying much at all, Lee went into his tent for the night.
Taken aback, the courier continued talking about it with Lee’s aide. After some time, Lee, who was trying to sleep, became annoyed and chastised the two men for talking. After a bit of explaining, Lee decided that he should probably do something about it and ordered Ewell’s entire corps to head to Auburn the next morning.
In the meantime, French’s III Corps had passed Auburn, and Gouverneur K. Warren’s II Corps was to follow, stepping off at the early hour of 2am.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p403, 447-448; Part 2, p303, 304; Vol. 51, Part 2, p776, 777; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]