October 9, 1863 (Friday)
Just what it was all about, General George Meade could not yet tell. He had ridden to Cedar Mountain, hoping the clear morning skies would give him some idea where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was moving. He had expected a march. His scouts and intelligence told him as much. But which direction they took, he could not tell. While he was there, reports came in from his cavalry picketing Meade’s right flank along the Rapidan River.
Though Meade did not move infantry to bolster his right, he called upon David Gregg’s Cavalry Division to reinforce Judson Kilpatrick’s, who had issued the warnings along the river. The third division, under John Buford, Meade planned to send forward with orders to cross the river and scout the remnants of the former Rebel camps. Buford was to communicate with John Newton’s I Corps, who had also been ordered to cross. Together, they were to follow what Meade believed to be the Confederate retreat. Buford would not receive the instructions until the following day.
From lookout posts on the Northern side of the Rapidan, only part of the puzzle could be solved. “Whether they are falling back or concentrating to our right, or moving for the Shanandoah, of course, I have no means of judging,” reported Lysander Cutler, leading the First Divsion of the I Corps. Everything seemed to be moving southwest. Further reports placed the Confederaets at Madison Court-House, northwest of their former positions along the Rapidan.
This was all true. Lee had backed his entire army away from the Rapidan, taking it southwest to Orange Court-House, before turning it northwest in the direction of Madison. They crossed the river using several different fords well beyond Meade’s right flank. Separating the marching columns of Rebels was Robertson’s River, which flowed into the Rapidan. Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalry picketed one side, while the Rebels picketed the other, acting as a screen.
Sparks flew where the edges of the two great armies nearly touched. From fords along the Rapidan firing could be heard, but for the most part it was scattered and was of little consequence. By nightfall, the two Rebel corps made their camps just south of Madison. It had been a comparatively easy march, but the men were worn from the distance. Most had tramped twenty miles in as many hours.
Though the Federal signal stations could plainly see that the Rebels were massing on the army’s right, Meade was still unsure what Lee was about. Just as General Cutler could not judge where the Rebels had gone, the signal stations could not see the entire enemy army at once. In fact, the cavalry on the ground reported that only a single division of Confederate infantry was at Madison. Everything else they witnessed was Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry.
In Meade’s mind, it might be a retreat. Perhaps Lee was falling back on Gordonsville. If so, leaving cavalry and an infantry division behind made sense. Along with Buford’s Cavalry and Newton’s I Corps, Meade dispatched John Sedgwick’s VI Corps to cross the Rapidan and aid those that were to cross the following day. As before, they were to follow the enemy. If the Rebels were retreating south, they were to move south with them. If they were going to Madison, they were come after.
A little while later, he ordered the V Corps, helmed by George Sykes, to move to the Rapidan near Raccoon ford and cross if needed by either the I or VI Corps. The rest of his army, now divided with a major river between the halves, was ordered to be at the ready. But the day had slipped by and any movement would have to wait until the following day.
But by the end of the day, Meade may have been second guessing his assumption that the Rebels were in retreat. First, he sent General-in-Chief Henry Halleck a message indicating that Lee’s army might be falling back, but he neglected to mention that he was throwing as many as three corps across the Rapidan in pursuit. By 11pm, he was in full “wait and see” mode. General Newton of the I Corps was told that his orders were “based upon the supposition that the enemy is retiring from the Rapidan. This supposition may prove to be erroneous.” If it was, Meade urged Newton to “exercise prudence in the operations to be conducted by your, and not make unnecessary sacrifice in attempting to cross the river should the enemy show himself in strong force….”
Through the night, Meade hoped for a clearer dawn. General Lee could hope for more. His army had made it to Meade’s right. Another day’s march and they would be behind their enemy, who would have no choice but to fall back north across the Rappahannock River. With three Federal corps poised to move south, however, this might not prove so easy.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p230, 347; Part 2, p269, 274-275, 276; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]