Meade Crosses the Rapidan – Things Fall Apart Quickly

November 26, 1863 (Thursday)

Meade: Get your troops moving, Frenchie!
Meade: Get your troops moving, Frenchie!

In the nearly three weeks since the Army of the Potomac’s advance to the Rappahannock River, things remained somewhat static. General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had retired once more to the south banks of the Rapidan, and George Meade’s army followed. Both armies seemed to be inactive and unmoving, and perhaps Meade thought some about going into winter quarters and waiting until spring to resume the offensive. But that is not what happened.

On November 21st, two Rebel deserters came in through the lines. Their information spurred Meade into action. They told of how Lee’s Army was essentially small and dispersed widely, probably in order to go into winter quarters. Other intelligence fostered the belief that the lower fords along the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers were not guarded and that the roads leading to the Confederate rear were wide open.

But there was rain, and it turned the roads to mud. This delayed Meade, but it was hoped not for more than a couple of days. In that time, he called together his corps commanders and attempted to make a move on the 23rd. “On account of the unfavorable appearances of the morning,” however, Meade called off the move for next day. And the next. And another day.

During the lull, Meade sent out scouts to examine the roads. They returned with mostly favorable to decidedly mixed opinions. The smaller paths were mostly in a poor state, but the larger thoroughfares were found to be at least passable. This was fine for troops, but for artillery, it might pose quite a dilemma.

Meade also cast an eye toward the enemy, sending his cavalry to check on the fords. At Germanna Ford, located around the right flank of Lee’s army, the enemy had throw up rifle pits. At Ely’s Ford, a few miles downstream, the way was clear and the roads were reported to be in fine condition – even for artillery.

French: Then get out of my way, Turtle!
French: Then get out of my way, Turtle!

With this, Meade set the time for 6am. Before they stepped off, he wished for each commander to read a telegram from General Grant at Chattanooga, which told of the victory at Missionary Ridge, and “announcing a complete victory over Bragg.” If the weather be gloomy, this might indeed lift the spirits of the men.

The plan was to get around Lee’s right flank via the lower fords, storm up the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road, and knock Lee’s army out of position. This, he hoped, would force the Rebels to fight on ground unprepared for battle. Since Lee’s two corps were widely dispersed, he also hoped to destroy the right wing, under General Ewell, before the left, under A.P. Hill, could reinforce it. This plan required both stealth and speed.

Meade would cross the Rapidan in three columns using three fords: Jacob’s, Germanna Mills, and Culpeper Mine – each farther downstream from the other.

William French’s III Corps, followed by John Sedgwick’s VI Corps, would make up the first column, crossing the river at Jacob’s Ford, almost opposite Mine Run. Once across, they would connect with Gouverneur K. Warren’s II Corps, which was to cross at Germanna Ford. Finally, George Sykes’ V Corps, followed by John Newton’s I Corps, would cross at Culpeper Mine Ford, opposite Wilderness Run, before moving west along the Orange Plank Road to link up with the rest of the army.

Meade's plan, more or less.
Meade’s plan, more or less.

Whereas before, Meade would have placed three corps commanders in the position of column commanders for the march, he decided for this campaign to eschew the practice. He also decided to throw everything he had at Ewell’s Confederates, leaving things like diversion and distraction to the likes of Joe Hooker and George McClellan.

Things went wrong from the start. French, who was supposed to lead the march, was an hour late. When Sedgwick, who was to follow French, arrived, the III Corps was discovered still sleeping. When they finally got moving, they found Meade’s own headquarters wagons blocking the way of their artillery. And when they finally reached the Rapidan, they could not cross due to being exactly one pontoon short of a bridge. This delay held things up at Jacob’s Ford until 4pm.


But all was not a complete loss. By evening, the II, III, and V Corps had crossed the river. True, it was far short of his goal, which included all five corps crossing and meeting, but it was something. The two remaining corps were still on the north bank of the Rapidan come nightfall. Only half the distance was made.

Meade had lost the speed, but had he lost the stealth? Absolutely. Even before the Federals had crossed at the fords, Lee’s cavalry reported they were about to. When they finally spanned the Rapidan, they reported that as well. What they could not see was the direction in which Meade’s troops were marching. Lee was unsure if Meade meant to march on Richmond via Spottsylvania Court House or attack Ewell.

V Corps crossing at Germanna Ford
V Corps crossing at Germanna Ford

Rather than wait for it to become clear, Lee decided to act before it was too late. From behind Mine Run, Lee ordered Ewell’s Corps (temporarily commanded by Jubal Early) to drop away from the Rapidan, cross Mine Run and fall upon Meade’s right flank, marching along various roads parallel to the Orange Turnpike. A.P. Hill was to hurry from Orange using the Plank Road, a mile or so south.

Meade, too, had set his move for dawn, it being a mere continuation of the orders already in motion. They would be marching west on the same roads Lee’s Army was using to march east.1

Here's today's very very approximate map.
Here’s today’s very very approximate map.

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p476, 477, 480-481, 485-488, 484; Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac by William Swinton; Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (Army of the Potomac, Battle of Petersburg); From Gettysburg to the Rapidan by Andrew Atkinson Humphreys; “The Mine Run Campaign – An Operational Analysis of General George G. Meade” by Kavin L. Coughenour. []
Creative Commons License
Meade Crosses the Rapidan – Things Fall Apart Quickly by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by