October 12, 1863 (Monday)
By dawn, General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, may have believed himself a fool. His decision to retreat while the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia swerved around his right flank was hastily made. Now, with a day to think about it and a bit of intelligence gathered, he was ready to reverse course and bring General Lee to battle somewhere in the vicinity of Brandy Station.
Reports had hinted that Lee’s Army was still in the Culpeper and Brandy Station area. Cavalry commander Judson Kilpatrick informed him as much. Other couriers brought news that enemy infantry was at Stevensburg, a few miles south. Even one of his corps commanders, John Sedgwick, insisted that the enemy’s flank march had already been spoiled and they were headed back to their old camps south of the Rapidan.
But none of those things were true. Lee’s Army was not at Brandy Station, just as they were not at Stevensburg, and they most certainly were not retreating back to their Rapidan lines. They were streaming north in two parallel columns, and the only troops in the Union army who knew this were those in David Gregg’s Division of cavalry.
Lee’s designs were upon the town of Warrenton, located well behind Meade’s right and rear. To get there, however, his army would have to cross the Rappahannock and a number of smaller creeks and streams. They would also have to deal with Gregg’s Cavalry, the only Union troops between them and their objective. Just beyond the Jefferson (or Jeffersonton), Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry ran into them. It wasn’t much of a fight at first, but when infantry from Richard Ewell’s Corps, for whom Stuart was screening, deployed, Gregg feared for his flanks and retreated.
Had General Meade learned about this when it happened – that Rebel cavalry and infantry were already on his right flank – he certainly wouldn’t have issued orders dividing his army. Three corps and a division of cavalry under John Buford, were to cross the Rappahannock and feel out Lee’s supposed lines near Brandy Station and Culpeper. All were under the immediate command of General Sedgwick.
Through the late morning and early afternoon, as Lee’s army tramped north on Meade’s right flank, the II, V, and VI Corps, with Buford’s Cavalry in front, splashed south across the Rappahannock, deploying into line on dry land. From there, they moved slowly, while the cavalry lightly skirmished with a Rebel detachment left behind to guard the fords. The infantry eventually halted, holding a three-mile line at Brandy Station, while Buford and his troopers chased the scant smattering of Rebels almost to Culpeper.
This whole ordeal took hours. All the while, the Rebel army marched itself northward, with Stuart’s Cavalry in the front. From Jefferson, they moved to cross the Rappahannock at Sulphur Springs. But it was there that Gregg’s Federals were waiting with artillery booming. With calls upon Ewell for additional guns, Stuart quickly cleared the way as the Yankees retreated east toward Fayetteville, leaving the road to Warrenton wide open.
But dusk had fallen, and the fighting waned. Stuart continued north in the direction of Warrenton, while Ewell’s Corps began to cross the Rappahannock. A.P. Hill’s Corps, whose day was one of only marching, had made it to Amissville, five miles west of Sulphur Springs, though still south of the Rappahannock.
Even by nightfall, Meade had no knowledge of Lee’s movements. By his wording, he was clearly still trying to suss it out. Sedgwick reported that they had just missed Stuart, but that locals claimed Lee’s entire Army was moving into Manassas Gap, which indicated a thrust into the Shenandoah Valley. “I hope during the night to get some information from him [Gregg] to confirm or disprove this report, now derived only from soldiers’ talk with citizens,” wrote Meade. Even by 8pm, Meade had not yet heard anything from Gregg.
Still, with no infantry at Culpeper and reports that Lee was moving north, Meade was quickly figuring it out. “In the meantime,” Meade wrote in conclusion to his 8pm letter to Washington, “it is proper you should be advised of this report, because, if true, Lee may get between me and Washington, and you may be annoyed then.”
If that was true, everyone in Washington would most certainly be annoyed with General Meade. But two hours later, after Lee’s army was encamped, Meade finally heard from Gregg “that the enemy have forced the passage of the river at Sulphur Springs […] There is no doubt the whole of Lee’s army is crossing on my immediate right. If I am not attacked tomorrow, I shall move toward him and attack him.”
Meade’s army was divided, and the first thing he had to do was get the three corps that he had sent to Brandy Station back on the north bank. Immediately after receiving word from Gregg, Meade issued orders for his entire army, recalling the three corps across the Rappahannock and placing them, along with others, in a line near Fayetteville facing northwest. The left was anchored on the river by the V Corps, while the right, which was still falling into position by dawn the next day, was to be held by the I and VI Corps to the south of Warrenton Junction, eight miles east of Warrenton.
It was only through exhausting night marches that Meade was able to make up for an entire day spent chasing Lee in the wrong direction.1
- Sources:Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p417, 422; Part 2, p294, 296; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrien Tighe. [↩]