Meade Looks South as Lee Rounds Up Deserters

November 1, 1863 (Sunday)

General Lee will hunt you down.
General Lee will hunt you down.

When last we visited General George Meade and his Army of the Potomac, President Lincoln was urging him to attack General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, just across the Rappahannock. Since that time, Meade had given up on his idea of shifting the army to Fredericksburg, and was slowly moving south along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

For the most part, his infantry kept a sluggish pace, while his cavalry corps lined the river and kept an eye upon the Confederates, who still had troops on the northern side, though only near the former railroad bridge. The Rebels were tasked with bringing over as much of the iron confiscated from the railroad as possible. With such a guard as Jubal Early’s Division, the Union cavalry were little more than spectators.

The destroying of the railroad was actually a defensive measure undertaken by Lee. Without the railroad, Meade’s troops could not quickly receive either supplies or reinforcements. This would force Meade to hold his army back and away from the Rappahannock. Hopefully, this would also mean that the season for campaigning was at an end.

By the 30th, Meade’s infantry held a line stretching from Warrenton Junction to Warrenton. By now it was clear that Lee had no plans to attempt another offensive move to the north. The Confederates were more than ready to move into their winter quarters.

This had been a very intense campaign season for them. Through Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, it was a spring and summer of bitter victory and and appalling defeat. The Southern troops quickly fell into the routine of the encampment. Makeshift log huts were built, and infantry drill was again a daily occurrence. General Lee had moved out of his tent and into a cabin. On the 28th, according to Lee, his slave Perry was “engaged in constructing a chimney in front, which will make it warm and comfortable.”

Lee was indeed warm and comfortable, but was also looking to the comfort of his own men. Food and supplies were in great want, as was forage for the horses.

Railroad torn up by Lee's men.
Railroad torn up by Lee’s men.

However, he feared that desertions would soon be on the rise. Recently, the government in Richmond pardoned a few deserters, and here Lee envisioned the worst. On the 30th, Lee wrote to Secretary of War James Seddon, expressing concern that the government was becoming too lenient with deserters. Typically, if a soldier was found to be a deserter, he was executed. “I fear that pardons,” wrote Lee, “unless for the best reasons, will not only make all the blood that has been shed for the maintenance of discipline useless, but will result in the painful necessity of shedding a great deal more.”

In this respect, Lee was serious and grim: “I am convinced that the only way to prevent [desertions] is to visit the offense, when committed, with the sternest punishment, and leave the offender without hope of escape, by making the penalty inevitable.”

The next day, apparently looking for blood and examples, Lee informed Jeb Stuart that he had sent two regiments of infantry “to scour the counties of Rappahannock, Page, Madison, and Greene for deserters.”

In Meade’s Army, however, the spirits were rising. As they inched south, so did the repairs to the railroad. On this date, it was opened all the way to Warrenton Junction. Many anticipated another offensive. Lee’s bold move in October had thrown them back from the Rapidan all the way to Manassas.

Very approximate map showing Meade's two options.
Very approximate map showing Meade’s two options.

Already Meade had some sort of objective in mind. That was, of course, the Army of Northern Virginia. However, finding it in an attackable position was not so easy. He would first have to maneuver Lee where he wanted him – no easy task. In doing so, he also had to watch that Lee did not do the same to him. Lastly, and often most importantly, Meade had to make sure that Washington was covered, and that was a very short leash.

Like Lee, Meade also had to deal with desertions, ramping up to a rate of nearly 5,000 each month. With the added weight of conscripts, they were certain to rise even more. Meade had little love for soldiers who had to be drafted, finding most “raw and unreliable.”

Perhaps the greatest factor against him was time. Though the weather had been warm and pleasant over the past several days, November in northern Virginia was notoriously nasty. With rains and snows and the effect both have on an army slogging toward an enemy, Meade fully understood that it could all end in some Burnside-esque Mud March II.

But on this date, Meade was hurrying forward the pontoons. The wagon train laden with them was at Catlett’s Station, and more were on their way. It was clear to any who saw them that Meade was at least contemplating recrossing the Rappahannock in the very near future.

Meanwhile, in the Union camp...
Meanwhile, in the Union camp…

Meade’s concerns and apprehensions that had been building since restarting his army south were expressed to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck the following day. Meade understood that Lee’s Army was massed along the Rappahannock River, and would heartily contest any crossing from Kelly’s Ford in the east to Sulphur Springs in the west. He was doubtful that any crossing could be made in Lee’s front.

There was, however, something else that he had been considering – a flanking maneuver “by a decided detour either to his left, by way of Amissville and Sperryville, threatening his communications by Culpeper or beyond, or a similar movement to his right, attempting to seize in advance the heights of Fredericksburg and opening communication with Aquia Creek.”

Meade, as he had before, heavily favored Fredericksburg. To move via Sperryville meant that he would have to abandon his own supply line. Also, the country was rough and broken, the roads already in terrible shape. And so, it was in this letter that Meade broke the news that he had “determined to attempt the movement by his [the enemy’s] right, throwing the whole army rapidly and secretly across the Rappahannock at Bank’s Ford and Fredericksburg, and taking position on the heights beyond the town.”

This move echoed Burnside’s late the previous year, and Meade had certainly learned from that disaster. “I have every reason to believe it will be successful,” he wrote in conclusion, “so far as effecting a lodgment on the heights in advance of him [Lee]; and if he follows and gives me battle, my object will be accomplished.”

Halleck would receive the message, hand-delivered by courier for obvious reasons, on the 3rd, and reply after a quick talk with President Lincoln.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p407-408, 806-807, 809; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe; “The Mine Run Campaign – An Operation Analysis” by Kavin L. Coughenour. []
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Meade Looks South as Lee Rounds Up Deserters by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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