Meade to Fall Back to the Rappahannock

December 17, 1863 (Thursday)

Upon learning through the press that he was to be retained as commander of the Army of the Potomac, George Meade had written to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck with his reckoning of what must next be done. The time for campaigning was at an end. “Nothing more can be done this season,” wrote Meade.



It took Halleck five days to respond. Along with it, he wrote that Meade’s letter had been given to Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, but it had taken several days to hear some kind of word on the matter. Meade actually had two concerns. First, the terms of enlistment were up for a good number of his men. They had, of course, the opportunity to re-enlist, but as incentive, Meade wanted to offer them a month’s furlough. The sooner done, the better.

His second care was the location of his army. It was, in his estimation, too close to the enemy. Eleven miles and General Lee, should he desire, could be on Meade’s doorstep. On the other hand, if the Federals felt the need to attack, due to Lee’s strong defenses, they would have to make a detour of over fifty miles. Meade believed that hugging the north bank of the Rapidan was a bad idea. Rather, he wanted to hug the north bank of the Rappahannock. This would allow for the easier resupply of the troops.

To Meade’s first question, there was a unity of thought, and perhaps a bit of hope. If giving the men a lengthy furlough would convince them to re-enlist for the rest of the war, then by all means, give them a month. So optimistic was General Halleck that he feared such a drove of men would sign up that they all could not be let go at once. But how exactly it would be accomplished would be Meade’s problem.

As for the army’s position, Halleck relayed that “no objections are made to the change.” He also reminded Meade that “no intimation in regard to future enterprises” had yet been told to him by the administration.

There would be a bit of delay in this, since word came from Harpers Ferry that a portion of Lee’s army – but probably just Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry – was making some sort of move. On this date, a small brigade of 800 Rebels attacked the Orange & Alexandria Railroad at Sangster’s Station. Telegraph wires were cut and a small skirmish flared, but, as an officer on the scene reported, “the damage done was slight.” The Rebels scurried off to the west with dreams of striking the line again most certainly dancing in their heads.

There was also a bit of concern over James Longstreet’s Corps. It was known that they were still near to Knoxville, but, through the chatter of captured Rebels, it was expected that they might soon return to Virginia. Meade would not begin his move until a few days before Christmas.

He would, however, immediately take action to see exactly how many men were going to re-enlist. He sent a circular to his corps commanders requesting the numbers, and soon would have 10,000 men agreeing to see it through. Not much longer, another 18,000 would come forward. It would indeed be so many that not all could take leave at once, and so the furloughs would be spread throughout the cold months of January and February.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p982-984; Part 3, p565-566; The Sword of Lincoln by Jeffry D. Wert; Life and Letters by George Meade. []
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