Lincoln: Move Upon Lee in a Manner of General Attack

September 15, 1863 (Tuesday)

Since the Federal Cavalry from the Army of the Potomac took Culpeper Court House on the 13th, General George Meade had been in a quandary. Would Lee’s Confederates counterattack, crossing the Rapidan and storming their way to the Rappahannock and beyond? His own army lay concentrated against the latter and could, in his own estimation, hold the crossings, but Lee was wily, and it was difficult to say just what he would do.

Meade: Well... I don't know....
Meade: Well… I don’t know….

Meade knew that some of Lee’s men had been sent west to reinforce Braxton Bragg near Chattanooga. By most accounts, James Longstreet’s entire corps had left, but some held that Lee himself had gone. He gave little credence to that bit of information, delivered by the reliably unreliable cavalry commander, Alfred Pleasonton. The misinformation might have been purposely planted by the Rebels, as it was gleaned from two lettered intercepted by the Federals under Pleasonton’s command.

More than likely, even Pleasonton didn’t fall for it. Longstreet had gone, taking one-third of Lee’s Confederates with him. By the 14th, it was almost common knowledge. Rebel prisoners, captured here and there over the past few days, had told all. A.P. Hill’s Corps and that of Richard Ewell’s were all that was left in the Army of Northern Virginia, tucked quietly behind the southern banks of the Rapidan. Pleasonton found out for himself as he tried to cross the same river in three different places. Each attempt was met with overwhelming strength, and the Federal troopers were forced back in all instances.

At any rate, through various bits of intelligence, General Meade was able to piece together his thoughts on the Rebels’ disposition, in a letter to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck.

“My judgment,” he began, “is that Lee’s army had been reduced by Longstreet’s corps, and perhaps by some regiments from Ewell and Hill. What the amount of the force left with him, it is difficult to conjectures, but I have no doubt it is deemed sufficient by him, with the advantages of position, to check my crossing the Rapidan, at least until he can withdraw, in case he desire to do so.”

Meade was probably correct in most of what he wrote. Though Longstreet brought with him only two of his own divisions (leaving George Pickett’s still-suffering division behind), Lee retained about 45,000 troops. Meade had around 75,000, though many had been detached for duty elsewhere. For the time being, Meade thought it sufficient to keep his cavalry close to the Rapidan, and Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps at Culpeper.

“If Lee’s army is as much reduced as the intelligence now received would lead us to believe,” continued Meade, “when the detached troops from his army return [meaning Meade’s army], I ought to be his superior in number, and should be able to require him to fall back.”

Little did Meade understand that he already greatly outnumbered Lee. Perhaps it wasn’t enough to launch a full scale assault upon him from across two rivers, but there was a definite numerical advantage. In closing, Meade revealed that he was not yet ready to make any sort of move:

“At the same time, I see no object in advancing, unless it is with ulterior views, and I do not consider this army sufficiently large to follow him [Lee] to Richmond (in case that should prove practicable), and lay siege to that place, fortified as we know it to be.” History would tell us that Meade was openly admitting that he was not Ulysses S. Grant.

Here's the approximate map. Same as last time - that will soon change.
Here’s the approximate map. Same as last time – that will soon change.

On this date, Meade received his reply from Washington. The first came from Halleck, who basically agreed with Meade. Though he thought that “preparations should be made to at least threaten Lee, and, if possible cut off a slice of his army,” he seemed fairly at ease. He did not believe that anyone knew enough about the Rebels’ position or numbers “to authorize any very considerable advance.”

Through the day, Meade learned that Lee had advanced some infantry across the Rapidan, though he couldn’t say how many. He explained this to Halleck, but in reply, he received a message from President Lincoln.

“My opinion,” began the President, writing to Halleck about Meade, “is that he should move upon Lee at once in manner of general attack, leave to developments whether he will make it a real attack. I think this would develop Lee’s real condition and purposes better than the cavalry alone can do.”

Halleck, to save some sort of face, added in an attached letter that he did not see Lincoln’s message “as materially different from my dispatch.” Of course, it was practically the opposite of what both Meade and Halleck wished to do. That said, he reminded Meade that he could be given no reinforcements. “No rash movements can, therefore, be ventured,” he wrote, apparently indicating that an advance, as Lincoln put it, “in manner of general attack,” was fairly out of the question.

Go on, George, it'll all be okay.
Go on, George, it’ll all be okay.

Then Halleck went on about how Lee’s force, reduced as it was, could be further weakened by Meade’s cavalry and foraging expeditions. It was all rather vague.

At midnight, Meade replied, splitting the difference between Halleck’s views and those of the President. “I have ordered the army to cross the Rappahannock,” he wrote, “and shall take up a position tomorrow with my left at Stevensburg and right at Stone House Mountain. I will then picket the Rapidan with infantry, and thus relieve the cavalry, and will endeavor, by means of the latter, to obtain more information.

Oddly, in that same letter, Meade guessed Lee’s numbers almost exactly: “not less than 40,000 or 45,000 infantry and over 5,000 cavalry.” But he also reiterated his own thoughts on the matter of battle:

“I hardly think he will cross the Rapidan to meet me at Culpeper, unless he is ignorant of my actual force. If he does not, it will be a difficult problem to attack him, or compel him to fall back, as he has such advantages in the line of the Rapidan, enabling him, by means of artillery and rifle pits, to hold it with much less force than is required to force the passage. I will not make the attempt unless I can see my way clear, and I do not much expect any greater success than requiring him to fall still farther back.”

Meade would begin crossing the next day, and for a week or more Meade’s infantry and cavalry would brush up against their counterparts along the Rapidan, each testing the resolve and strength of the other.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p178-180, 186-188; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. []
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One thought on “Lincoln: Move Upon Lee in a Manner of General Attack

  1. Even if you realize this all happened 1861-1865, its still amazing how the federals kept systematically overestimating the number of troops the confederates had.

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