October 18, 1863 (Sunday)
General Lee spent the three days following the strange misstep at Bristoe Station, destroying the Orange & Alexander Railroad and preparing to return south to a line along the Rappahannock River. He had forced General George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac all the way back to Centreville, but now believed that he could do no more.
Lee’s troops were cut off from their supplies due to the loss of the railroad bridge spanning the Rappahannock, which was destroyed by the Federals upon their retreat. The land was barren, picked clean by three summers of war, and the longer he stayed, the more his men would suffer.
This was, of course, not fully known by Meade, who constantly kept a watch on his right flank, expecting Lee to attempt another turning maneuver before too long. Meade’s fears seemed to be realized on the 17th when John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps, reported Rebel infantry marching on the right. Even the cavalry under Judson Kilpatrick seemed to confirm it. Meade, who had been planning some sort of forward movement against Lee, immediately abandoned such thoughts. The supposed infantry, however, was merely Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry.
It was an amazingly successful screen, throwing Meade into a fog while Lee prepared to pull back. This he did early on the morning of this date. The first troops pulled up stakes at 1am. The march was fraught with difficulties and setbacks. The deluge of rain on the 16th ensured that the roads had been churned to thick paste and the rivers were high and racing. So turbulent were the waters of the Rappahannock that one of the pontoon bridges was ripped from its moorings, stranding the Rebels on the north bank of the river. By nightfall, much of Lee’s army had slogged the twenty miles, and camped next to the rushing water by nightfall.
Stuart’s screen now became essential. His two divisions each covered a column of infantry, on this date, holding a line along the Manassas Gap Railroad. Through the day, Federal cavalry pushed them back from Manassas Junction to Bristoe Station.
While his cavalry skirmished with the Rebels, General Meade wasn’t fully convinced that Lee wasn’t moving on his right flank. Reports had placed a large body of Confederates at Thoroughfare Gap, and so he threw additional cavalry to his right and rear. From General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington came further reports indicating that Lee was moving on Harpers Ferry, well in Meade’s rear, but Meade wasn’t buying it. The conversation held between Meade and Halleck via the telegraph was one ranging from subtle passive-aggressive attacks to outright boldness.
At 11am, Halleck mused about Lee’s supposed strike toward Harpers Ferry:
If Lee has turned his back on you to cross the mountains, he certainly has seriously exposed himself to your blows, unless his army can move 2 miles to your 1. Fight him before he again draws you at such a distance from your base as to expose your communications to his raids. If he moves on Harpers Ferry, you must not give him time to take that place before you go to its aid. Of course, it cannot hold out long if attacked by his main force.
This all came about because Confederate Cavalry under John Imboden had attacked Charlestown and captured its garrison. This was near enough to Harpers Ferry to convince Washington that the hotly contested town was the true target.
Meade replied in a stern, though calm, manner, explaining that his cavalry was reporting “the enemy as having withdrawn from Bristoe, supposed toward the Rappahannock.” As far as Thoroughfare Gap on his right was concerned, that was only Rebel cavalry. Still, Meade was hesitant to move “until I know something more definite of position of the enemy.” If Lee had moved into the Shenandoah Valley, it would make little since to storm south toward the Rapphannock. Likewise, there would be little point in racing to save Harpers Ferry, when Lee was actually retreating to the Rappahannock.
“Lee is unquestionably bullying you,” came the reply from Halleck. “If you cannot ascertain his movements, I certainly cannot. If you pursue and fight him, I think you will find out where he is.”
This was an unequivocally stupid thing for Halleck to say, and Meade, fed up with his General-in-Chief, had no problem letting him know:
If you have any orders to give me, I am prepared to receive and obey them, but I must insist on being spared the infliction of such truisms in the guise of opinions as you have recently honored me with, particularly as they were not asked for. I take this occasion to repeat what I have before stated, that if my course, based on my own judgment, does not meet with approval, I ought to be, and I desire to be, relieved from command.
Halleck would come to within an inch of apologizing the next day, by saying that “if, in conveying these wishes, I have used words which were unpleasing, I sincerely regret it.” Meade, who had an army to run and a war to fight, let the matter drop.
By the end of the day (the 18th), Meade had already decided to move his army southward. He would move in two columns, but each would be close enough to support the other should trouble be found. He still had no idea where Lee had gone, and so called for only a short advance to Bristoe Station and Broad Run. Had he known that Lee was already crossing the Rappahannock, things might have been different. He had Jeb Stuart to thank for that.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p997-998; Part 2, p346, 347, 348, 349, 354; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]