Meade Retreats Across the Rappahannock, Ultimately Regets It

October 11, 1863 (Sunday)

“I am falling back to the Rappahannock,” wrote General George Meade to President Lincoln, who had asked for the second time how things were shaping up between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers. “The enemy are either moving to my right and rear or moving down on my flank, I can not tell which, as their movements are not developed. I am prepared for either emergency.”

John Buford
John Buford

This wasn’t yet quite true, but the previous night, he had issued orders for the entire army to fall back. It was fortunate that he recalled his previous orders calling for three of his corps to cross the Rapidan to the south and pursue what he believed to be the retreating enemy. But even after he wired Lincoln, John Buford’s Cavalry was still on the southern side of the Rapidan and engaged in a skirmish with their Confederate counterparts. Meade’s order to fall back had taken over half a day to reach them, and it wasn’t until 9am when they were able to extricate themselves from the situation.

This put Buford’s Cavalry in the position of rear guard. While General Lee’s entire army had marched north on Meade’s right flank, elements of Fitz Lee’s Cavalry had stayed behind as a screen. Now, with Buford retiring, they crossed to the north bank and gave chase, following the Yankees toward Stevensburg. Much of the morning had devolved into charges, countercharges and general skirmishing. Buford’s Division took a stand against Fitz Lee’s troopers, hoping to delay the Rebels enough to allow the rest of the army to cross the Rappahannock.

Meanwhile, Meade’s Army streamed back towards the Rappahannock, racing to get out of the way of whatever it was that General Lee was trying to do to the west of Culpeper. Though Meade may not have known exactly what Lee was about, he knew that an attack would either fall upon his right flank or rear. Either way, he wanted none of it. Through the morning, the corps below Culpeper passed through the town, but the cavalry held the heights to the west. Some corps crossed the river in the early afternoon, while others continued to march.

Serving as rear guard for Meade’s right, Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry skirmished with Jeb Stuart’s dispersed cavalry west and then north of town. As Kilpatrick fell back with the army, Stuart, who was outnumbered, nipped at his heels. Had he more men, he might have launched some kind of stab toward the Federal wagons he could clearly see rolling slowly to the north. Seeing that Kilpatrick was following the railroad, however, Stuart raced around his right flank, hoping to beat him to Brandy Station.

Around 1pm, John Sedgwick, commanding the VI Corps observed what he believed to be the Confederates returning to their former positions along the Rapidan. What he saw was probably some infantry that had been left behind to support Fitz Lee’s Cavalry, but he interpreted it to mean something quite different. He could see artillery dotted along the whole line. Unfortunately for Sedgwick, these were Quaker guns – logs painted black and placed so to confuse a Yankee onlooker. The ruse worked and Sedgwick’s report heavily inferred that Lee had given up his designs upon Meade’s flank and rear.


Lee had not, of course. Though his army did no fighting at all on this day, they marched north to the Sperryville Pike, before turning right and heading for Culpeper, where Lee desperately hoped Meade still remained. By this time, however, much of Meade’s army was either across the Rapphannock or waiting at the fords.

Falling back from Stevensburg was John Buford’s Federal Cavalry, with Fitz Lee close behind. After they crossed Mountain Creek, their backs were soon toward the railroad, where Judson Kilpatrick’s Division was likewise falling back. For a time, the confusion allowed Fitz Lee’s artillery to fire upon Stuart, believing his force to be Union reinforcements. It was through this confusion that Buford’s Division made good their escape.

Here, Fitz Lee and Stuart’s commands were united, as Kilpatrick’s force broke through Stuart’s lines and joined with Buford. By the time this happened, Meade’s entire army was across the river. The V Corps held Rappahannock Station, and lent artillery support to Buford and Kilpatrick, while the III Corps did the same, but on Stuart’s left, and still on the south side of the river, holding a different crossing. By dark, however, Stuart was neutralized. Lee’s infantry had made their way past Culpeper, but had not arrived in time to catch Meade or even give aid to Stuart.

That night, General Meade needed to make a decision. As it stood now, Stuart’s Cavalry indicated to him that Lee’s army had taken Culpeper. But what they were doing there, he could not know. Other reports, such as Sedgwick’s that indicated Lee’s infantry was far to the south, added to the confusion. Buford reported that it was not only cavalry, but infantry that had followed him from Stevensburg. Nothing seemed to indicate that Lee was racing north. For the time, it seemed that the best thing he could do was maintain his new position.

Fitz Lee
Fitz Lee

For General Lee’s part, he too was uncertain what should be done. The opportunity to fall upon Meade’s flank was gone. He could, perhaps, return to his former lines along the Rapidan. He also considered simply, like Meade, maintaining his position northeast of Culpeper. Since neither of these were a true victory, Lee dismissed them both. Instead, as he wrote President Davis, he was “determined to make another effort to reach him [Meade].”

And so he determined to make another flank march. His troops were to step off toward Warrenton and beat Meade to Manassas, cutting him off completely from Washington.

Meade had no idea that Lee would attempt such a move. In fact, he believed his adversary to be somewhere between Culpeper and Brandy Station, not positioned to the northeast and ready to strike farther north at dawn. With all of his corps bivouacked on the north side of the Rappahannock, Meade issued orders for the II, V, and VI Corps to recross the river the next morning and make a probe toward Culpeper, attempting to discover Lee’s true position.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, vol. 29, Part 1, p343, 381, 465, 467, 469; Part 2, p290; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. []
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One thought on “Meade Retreats Across the Rappahannock, Ultimately Regets It

  1. Also worth noting on this date: the first Battle of Collierville, where nearly 3,000 Confederates narrowly missed capturing Sherman. (They did get his favorite horse, however.) With less than one-fifth the Rebel numbers, the Federal soldiers managed to hold off their adversaries for several hours, until a Union division marched to the rescue at the double-quick.

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