October 19, 1863 (Monday)
As the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia retreated south from Bristoe Station, Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry acted as rear guard, waiting until the morning of this date to fall back. As they did, they were pressured by Judson Kilpatrick’s troopers, acting as the vanguard to the Federal Army of the Potomac, finally set in motion by General George Meade.
From the south bank of Broad Run, Stuart held his ground, positioning sharpshooters and artillery from two of his four brigades to welcome the descending Yankees. To the southeast, his other division, under Fitz Lee was in the area of Auburn. Stuart’s position was strong, but he had not enough men to protect his flanks. Kilpatrick quickly realized this and started to make movements to turn them. Seeing what was happening, Fitz Lee made plans of his own. Treating Stuart’s flank as bait set for a trap, he proposed to Stuart that when the time was right, he’d pounce upon Kilpatrick’s flank just as Kilpatrick was about to pounce upon Stuart’s. Stuart loved the plan, though it would take some time to make it happen.
In that time, Kilpatrick advanced, throwing George Armstrong Custer’s Brigade to the front. The Federals pushed Stuart’s two brigades away from Broad Run, crossing at Buckland Mill, just north of Greenwood. The Rebels fled southwest, through New Baltimore and even through the Bull Run Mountains. But the Federals halted. Custer wanted his men to eat lunch, and so Kilpatrick, perhaps perturbed, sent his other brigade, under Henry Davies, down the pike toward Warrenton.
Davies ran into some of Stuart’s skirmishers around New Baltimore. By this time, his and Custer’s Brigade were separated by three miles. And it was also at this time that General Kilpatrick received first word that there was another large force of cavalry to the southeast, near Auburn. Not wishing to take chances, Kilpatrick sent a regiment of Michiganders to investigate. Soon enough, they uncovered Fitz Lee’s division near Greenwich. This position easily placed them not only on Kilpatrick’s left flank, but also in his rear.
Fitz Lee pressed on, but was disgruntled to discover that Custer’s Brigade had lingered and, with the foreknowledge of their coming, had established a defensive line on a ridge above Buckland to receive them. The task had now changed from a flank to frontal attack. Fitz Lee deployed artillery, formed into line and advanced with dismounted skirmishers to the front.
The booming of artillery let Stuart know that Fitz Lee was in position. Seeing an opportunity, he ceased his retreat about three miles away from Warrenton, formed all three of his brigades, and advanced himself upon Davies at New Baltimore. The initial reception was hot, and Davies troopers were stubborn, but Stuart had the advantage in numbers, and before too long, threw them back.
But it was not a rout. Davies’ troopers would now and again turn in good order to fire crisp volleys into Stuart’s advance. Needing this to end now, Stuart ordered another charge, and soon another brigade came screaming down upon the Yankees. This sent the Federals into a full retreat, streaming towards Custer’s Brigade.
Meanwhile, the Northern infantry advanced south at a lumber, with John Newton’s I Corps in the lead. Mistaken word from Kilpatrick told him that Stuart’s Cavalry was augmented with infantry. If this were true, perhaps Lee’s entire army was still in the Bristoe or Auburn area. And if that were true, his fear that Lee might outflank him on his right might become realized. And so the Union infantry was cautious and slow.
As Davies’ Cavalry fell back from Stuart’s strong advance, they could see behind them Custer’s Brigade now facing Fitz Lee’s Rebels. In fact, the closer they came to Custer, the closer they also came to Fitz Lee. And soon enough they were skirmishing with both Stuart’s and Lee’s troopers.
The ground undulated and was dotted with woodlots. So when Fitz Lee’s main line appeared, it was seemingly out of nowhere to Custer, who even believed them to be infantry. He barely had time to form his line when the attack burst upon them. Fitz Lee managed to dislodge Custer’s defensive line, throwing it back to the north side of Broad Run, but may have had a little help from Davies’ Federals. Though the troopers in Davies’ Brigade knew that it was Custer at Buckland, Custer’s men had no idea who was kicking up the column of dust down the road on their right. Convinced that it was indeed Rebels, and probably infantry at that, Custer called a retreat.
As Custer’s Brigade cleared the bridge across Broad Run, Davies was cut off. Kilpatrick tried to get a message through, but it was to no avail. When the Rebels seized the bridge, not all of Custer’s men were across. This forced them to run for their lives or swim to the opposite shore. “This they did,” reported Col. Thomas Owen of Fitz Lee’s Division, “pell-mell, in great disorder and confusion, to save themselves the best way they could.” Fitz Lee then sent Col. Owen’s Brigade across the bridge in pursuit of Custer’s fleeing remnants.
Though Kilpatrick’s warning to Davies probably did not get through, Davies was deft enough to figure it out on his own. His brigade turned northward, making for the crossing a bit upstream from the bridge at Buckland. By now, the Federals were broken and the route became a race to the crossing. But with Stuart giving chase, pockets of Davie’s men would turn and beat them back, spoiling whatever plans Stuart had to capture Davies’ Brigade.
As Fitz Lee sent Col. Owen’s Brigade in pursuit across Broad Run, so did Stuart send the brigade under James Gordon across. Both, however, soon ran into a heavy skirmish line from John Newton’s I Corps, ending their day in a petered out and weakening fire, until dusk and dark settled in. In disarray, Kilpatrick’s Division managed to escape, though that was hardly what they set out that morning to accomplish.
For Stuart’s Rebels, the spoils were fine indeed, and included General Custer’s tent and personal papers, as well as Judson Kilpatrick’s horse. The Federals managed to lose 250 wounded and killed, with a similar number captured. Stuart’s losses were much less – probably around fifty killed and wounded, and maybe less.
Stuart’s actions had allowed General Lee to fully slip across the Rappahannock, twenty miles south. He wad absolutely delighted with how the day worked out, and dubbed the skirmish “The Buckland Races.” General Meade, however, was convinced (due to Kilpatrick’s word) that Lee’s infantry was before him. In a letter written to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck at 9:30pm, he summed it up: “The enemy’s infantry follow him [Kilpatrick] up, and are now in front of our infantry pickets. All the intelligence I have been able to obtain indicates the concentration of Lee’s army within the last two days at Warrenton.”
He did not know if Lee was retreating farther south, but figured by the following day, if Lee attacked, it would be clear. Of course, Lee was nowhere near the Federal infantry, and Meade was bound spend the next few days trying to figure that out.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p382, 451-452, 461, 473; Part 2, p354; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]