October 21, 1863 (Wednesday)
General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was safely entrenched on the south bank of the Rappahannock River. They held the fords and crossings from Brandy Station to well downstream of the destroyed railroad crossing. A small vanguard was left on the norther bank to welcome Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry upon their return from the Buckland Races. It took little time for some of the Rebels to latch onto the idea that fighting was finished for the year. The cold rains certainly reminded them that autumn was fully upon them. Some even built winter quarters.
Not only the chill, but General George Meade’s sluggishness must have convinced the Rebels that the Federals had decided to hold off until spring. This was not, however, true. Meade was sluggish, but not stalled. For too many days had Meade entertained the idea that Lee might again try to turn his right flank. Finally convinced that it was not so, Meade began construction of a double-lane pontoon bridge across Broad Run near Bristoe Station – the only major crossing he would have to make on his route to the Rappahannock.
Still cautious, Meade’s Army moved slowly on the 20th, but when it was discovered that no great force of Rebels lay immediately before them, they began to pick up the pace. As they marched south along the Orange & Alexander Railroad, they witnessed the destruction wrought by Lee’s men. The houses and private homes of civilians were, of course, untouched, but the railroad was no more.
The Confederates had pulled up the spikes, and lifted the iron rails onto bonfires built from burning ties. Once heated, the rails warped. Many were wrapped in devilish cravats around the necks of trees. “Not a rail along here will do to lay again,” wrote a III Corps division commander. “Not a tie is left. All are burnt and the bridges are all destroyed.”
The destruction of the railroad wasn’t done out of bitterness or some kind of malice. It was the most important thing to come out of the present campaign. “I have reason to believe that the Orange and Alexandria Railroad has been destroyed from Bristoe Station to Culpeper Court-House,” wrote Meade to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck on this date. The news was devastating. The line was essential to Meade’s Army if they wished to hold a line anywhere near the Rappahannock River. The working parties sent to repair it would need myriad guards, which would have to come from Meade’s own army. This would sap his strength so that he could not “see the practicability of an advance on this line to Gordonsville.”
Musing, he referenced moving the army back to Fredericksburg, but stated that similar repairs would be required for the railroad running from Aquia Creek, but only if the Rebels caught wind of the Federal shift.
“It seems to me, therefore, that the campaign is virtually over for the present season,” concluded Meade, “and that it would be better to withdraw the army to some position in front of Washington and detach from it such portions as may be required to operate elsewhere.”
Halleck’s reply was ominous: “If you can conveniently leave your army, the President wishes to see you to-morrow.”
Though he barely paid it much ink in the message, Meade was already contemplating a move to Fredericksburg. The railroad from Aquia Creek was still in running shape, and perhaps if they were swift in their movements, they could beat Lee’s Cavalry to the crossing.
For the night, however, Meade would have to be content with his army hugging the rail spur running from Warrenton Junction to Warrenton. John Buford’s Cavalry probed deeper, with some troopers even catching sight of the Rebels across the Rappahannock. The next day, while Meade visited Washington, his Army would continue south.
“This was a deep game,” wrote Meade candidly to his wife come evening, “and I am free to admit that in the playing of it he [Lee] had got the advantage of me.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p362, 369-370, 452, 464; Part 2, p361, 362, 799; The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 2; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]