October 10, 1863 (Saturday)
But the enemy was not in full retreat, and by the dawn, breaking bright across the valley of the Rapidan, General George Meade was convinced. The Confederates, who had waited so long to set their forces in motion, had disappeared from their bivouacs across the river two days prior. Lookouts placed them first moving southwest, and later northwest toward Madison Court-House and Meade’s right flank.
The previous day, Meade had ordered three corps and a division of cavalry to cross the Rapidan, believing then that they might pursue the enemy in what he perceived as a retreat south. Now, with the knowledge he held in the morning, he ordered them to halt and await instructions to fall back to Culpeper. All were held in readiness to face whatever threat might be falling upon the right.
For the Rebels, here was another flank attack – the maneuver that had before gifted them victory on many fields be. They had crossed the Rapidan, Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry to the front, and wound their paths north along Robertson’s River, separating them from the Federal troopers. The previous evening, they had stopped short of Madison, and were now marching toward the pike to Sperryville. From this road, they would gain not only Meade’s right, but also his rear.
Before 9am, Stuart crossed Robertson’s in an attempt to distract and occupy the Union cavalry, here under the command of Judson Kilpatrick. Just north of Madison lay Russell’s Ford, over which Stuart was passing. Kilpatrick’s men spotted the Rebels, but not knowing that their enemies were concentrated, had spread themselves thin. Stuart’s troopers tossed them aside, sending them scrambling toward the infantry held close in reserve. The Rebels swiftly followed, gathering prisoners in greater numbers than the slain.
Behind the clamor, General Kilpatrick was screaming hoarse for reinforcements. He had only portions of two brigades, headed by George Armstrong Custer and Henry Davies. They fell in as Stuart’s forces gathered themselves on the eastern bank of Robertson’s.
The alarm stopped General Meade, who was by now fully convinced that Lee’s Confederates were not falling back. This attack by Stuart was no feign or rear guard action. But just where Lee was headed, he could not know. From Washington, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck could provide no further clues, but gave Meade the same advice that King Joseph gave Napoleon when he had lost track of his own enemy: “Attack him and you will soon find out.”
Meade replied by noon. “Every indication would lead to the conclusion that the enemy’s cavalry attacking me are supported by a large force of infantry,” he wrote, “and there are some reasons to believe there is a movement into the Shenandoah Valley.”
It was also by noon when Kilpatrick’s Division had been backed to James City on the road to Culpeper. Both sides peered at each other across a hollow, but neither moved to attack. The Federal horsemen had been joined by a division from William French’s III Corps, but they too were hesitating to approach their foes. Though it was only cavalry before them, the thought that it was a screen for Lee’s infantry must have been front-most in their minds. Soon, additional cavalry would be falling in on Kilpatrick’s left flank, but still there was a stand off.
Jeb Stuart had little reason to attack. His only objective was to keep the Federal cavalry from probing across Roberton’s, and to buy time for Lee’s infantry to move on Sperryville. This required them to cross the river at a point farther north then the ford Stuart had taken.
This they did without incident thanks to Stuart’s staying of the Federals. As the day before, they marched in two parallel columns with cavalry to their front and right, further screening their moves. Over the undulating ground they marched, now using roads, now cutting through fields. They screened themselves with not only cavalry, but by all the swails and hills they could find, ducking behind cover and hoping that the present eyes of Northern scouts and lookouts could be averted.
For the most part, the Confederate route was unnoticed until later in the day. General Kilpatrick had long suspected the screen and sent a division under Davies to the right with orders to attack the Rebel cavalry. This was successful, and pushed the Confederates back until the infantry was finally revealed.
“Two columns of the enemy were seen moving at 6:30pm in the direction of General Davies’ right,” wrote Kilpatrick. “That is the weakest portion of my line.” He was doing what he could to shift troops to the north, endeavoring to mirror what he suspected was the main Confederate thrust.
By 5pm, General Meade knew exactly Lee’s location. Writing again to Halleck, he admitted that “A.P. Hill’s whole crops and part of Ewell’s are turning my right flank, moving from Madison Court-House to Sperryville.” Even before Kilpatrick’s message was received, Meade understood that over the course of two short days, General Lee had successfully out-maneuvered him.
“As it will be impossible for me to maintain my present position with so considerable a force of the enemy threatening my rear and communications,” he continued, “I shall, tonight, withdraw to the north side of the Rappahannock, and endeavor, by means of the cavalry, to find out what the enemy purpose. My belief now is that his movements are offensive.”
Already, Meade had ordered back his forward-most corps, fortunate that he had not sent them splashing across the Rapidan after all. First, he sent the supply wagons north, pointing them toward Rappahannock Station. Cavalry under David Gregg, who had come to aid Kilpatrick, were thrust toward Sperryville to watch the enemy, now far in Meade’s right and rear.
Just after nightfall, when the Rebels had crossed the Hazel River and encamped near to the Sperryville Road, General Meade issued a circular with orders for the next days’ retreat. By bridges and various fords, the entire army was to cross the Rappahannock River, as the III and V Corps covered the withdrawal.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p374, 380-381; Part 2, p277-278, 280-281, 284, 285, 286, 287; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]