July 28, 1863 (Tuesday)
“I am making every effort to prepare this army for an advance,” wrote Union General George Meade. The day previous, General-in-Cheif Henry Halleck had told him in no uncertain terms: “Lee’s army is the objective point.”
Meade had spent the weeks since the victory at Gettysburg following General Lee’s army. At Williamsport, Maryland, he was too late. At Manassas Gap, he was again too late, and the Confederates slipped around his flank to cross the Rappahannock River.
Meade believed that Washington wanted an immediate campaign. He wanted one as well. Though he had won the battle and had wounded the enemy, he was not wholly victorious. Beyond the overflowing and racing Rappahannock River, in the hidden camps and valleys, rested General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Reduced in size, but hardly in spirit.
Attacking Lee meant crossing the river, an impossibility at the moment, but his engineers were hard at work constructing a bridge. That was, however, not all. Though his quartermaster’s department was making every effort it could to procure horses and equipment for the artillery and cavalry, neither were in any shape for a battle. Those horses which remained with the army were in need of shoes, others were simply required rest. Nevertheless, Meade wanted to move forward.
“I am in hopes to commence the movement tomorrow,” wrote Meade, “when I shall first throw over a cavalry force to feel for the enemy, and cross the infantry as fast as possible.”
Federal intelligence was not perfect, and was, in fact, lacking a great deal of accuracy. “No reliable intelligence of the position of the enemy has been obtained,” he admitted. While Confederate cavalry picketed the river from the railroad crossing to Fredericksburg, “these pickets,” though Meade, “seem to be mere ‘look-outs’ to warn him of my approach.”
He could see some Rebel camps near Culpeper and Cedar Mountain to the south, but contradictory reports placed Lee’s forces at Gordonsville, Staunton, and Charlottesville, while others claimed the Rebels to be racing all the way to Richmond.
Personally, Meade believed Lee to be behind the Rapidan River, south of both Culpeper and Cedar Mountain, and his plan reflected such thinking.
“My plan is to advance on the railroad to Culpeper and as far beyond as the enemy’s position will permit,” he informed Halleck. Meade wanted to slip around what he believed to be Lee’s left flank and cut off his line of supply to Richmond via the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to test “the practicability of maintaining open such a long line of communication.”
Meade was resolved to begin his move the following day. That is, until 4pm when a scout returned with the true location of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It was not, as Meade suspected, cowering behind the Rapidan River. The rail line to Richmond had been fully repaired and the Confederates were being resupplied all the way to Culpeper Court House.
He also been informed that “Lee has been re-enforced by D.H. Hill, reported with 10,000 men, and that he intends to make a stand at Culpeper or in its vicinity.”
Like most intelligence gained from spies and scouts, it consisted of truths mixed with untruths. It was true that Lee was at Culpeper and seemed to be making a stand. It was not true, however, that D.H. Hill had reinforced Lee’s Army with 10,000 troops. In fact, Lee had not been reinforced at all.
D.H. Hill, who had been commanding the troops in Richmond during most of the Gettysburg Campaign, had been sent west to command a corps under Braxton Bragg near Chattanooga. The remaining troops in Richmond, were, for the time being, to remain in Richmond.
Though he was certainly ready to receive Meade’s attacks, Lee was doing everything he could to reorganize his army after the crushing defeat. Still, he could see a silver lining.
“Although our loss has been so heavy, which is source of constant grief to me,” wrote Lee to President Jefferson Davis on this date, “I believe the damage to the enemy has been as great in proportion. This has shown by the feeble operations since.”
Lee kindly blamed Meade’s failure to attack upon not his skill as a general (for which he had a healthy respect after the first three days in July), but for lack of troops.
Confederate intelligence regarding Meade’s position was much more accurate than their Federal counterparts. Lee’s scouts correctly placed seven corps of Meade’s Army of the Potomac at Warrenton and Warrenton Junction. Word had it that Meade was being reinforced, and, true or not, it made sense to Lee: “their means are greater than our, and I fear when they move again, they will much outnumber us.”
Lee mused over what General Meade might do next. In the light of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Lee thought it incredibly unlikely that they’d try that again. He was beginning to think that it might be a good idea to fall back even farther, probably to the Rapidan River – where Meade had predicted he was anyway.
General Lee was mostly convinced that though Meade was being reinforced, his numbers were low and he would not attack anytime soon. “The enemy now seems to be content to remain quiescent,” he told Davis, but admitted they seemed “prepared to oppose any offensive movement on our part.”
Just as Meade was about to attack, Lee believed Meade had no such things in his mind. Though Lee knew where Meade’s army was located, he did not understand its strength. Similarly, though Meade now knew the general location of Lee’s Army, he thought it much greater than it truly was. Still, in his letter to General-in-Chief Halleck, Meade held that he would begin his move the following day, as he believed that was what Washington wanted.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 1, p101-104; Part 3, p1042-1043. [↩]