November 7, 1863 (Saturday)
General George Meade knew the duty before him, and continued to search for a way to get at the enemy. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was nestled along the south bank of the Rappahannock River, while his own Army of the Potomac had been slowly moving south from Warrenton and along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, rebuilding the line as they went.
Meade had been cautious. For weeks, he had tried to convince President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to let him move the entire army to the heights above Fredericksburg. They refused, and he needed to find a way to get at Lee from the front. With the Rappahannock between the two armies, Meade probed for a weakness in Lee’s lines, but found little to inspire.
At any rate, on the 5th, he began to quicken the pace, ordering corps commanders to ready their troops for the coming campaign. He had planned to test Lee’s resolve the following day by a reconnaissance in force, but a storm kicked up and he elected to wait. Word from across the river had it that Lee was preparing his own men for a general movement. This was not quite true, but it spurred Meade into a swift decision. “It will be made tomorrow,” said Meade of an attack, “and I think with a favorable result.”
All throughout the 6th, General Lee had thrown troops across the river, and now they held entrenchments from the railroad bridge to Kelly’s Ford. For the most part, they were mere pickets, a small stumbling block for the Federals, as well as ample warning for General Lee, should Meade try to attack.
By that evening, Meade had his plan on paper. His entire army would be moving in two columns. General William French was to command the I, II, and III Corps, and would compose the left column. By varying roads, the three corps would make their way to Kelly’s Ford. The right column, comprised of the remaining V and VI Corps, would be overseen by General John Sedgwick, and would make haste for the railroad bridge. Once there, both columns would replace the cavalry’s skirmishers and connect with one another.
This wasn’t just a planned move without any expectation of battle. Each soldier was issued forty rounds of ammunition, and each corps was ordered to bring along its ambulance trains and hospital wagons. The object was indeed a river crossing.
Should the crossing be effected, explained Meade to French, “the two columns will move forward to Brandy Station.” If Sedgwick, who commanded the smaller column, could not pound his way through at the railroad bridge, he was to withdraw and follow French’s column at Kelly’s Ford.
“You will attack him vigorously,” continued Meade, “throwing your whole force upon him, should it be necessary, and drive him from his position, and secure your own upon the high ground.” And on the morning of this date, Meade’s entire army stepped off.
From the vicinity of Warrenton and Warrenton Junction Meade’s Army sprang, almost without warning. By noon, they had tramped over ten miles, and French’s column arrived near the river at Kelly’s Ford.
The slide to the Rappahannock had not gone completely unnoticed by the Confederates. Lee threw over a battery of artillery and several regiments to augment the brigade of infantry already there. The remainder of the division under Harry Hays (Jubal Early’s old division) was entrenched on the south bank, should the line on the north bank be dislodged. All of this was put in motion near the railroad bridge, but it was upstream at Kelly’s Ford where French’s troops arrived. At Kelly’s, Lee placed Robert Rodes’ Division on the south bank.
Rodes had but one regiment, the 2nd North Carolina, on picket duty on the north side of the river at Kelly’s Ford. When Rodes arrived on the scene, a little after noon, he saw only five or six Federal regiments across the river. Soon enough, however, he saw the true size of the enemy host, and ordered his division into a line of battle, placing them just out of rifle range from the river.
Before he could complete his work, the Union artillery opened, and the 2nd North Carolina was driven back across the river. He unleashed his own artillery, but was out-gunned from the start. And then they came.
They crossed at the ford, above it, and below. “The terrific fire of my batteries ran down to the river bank (old style),” wrote General French, “and the 4 1/2-inch paralyzed the enemy.” French’s troops reformed their lines and began to shift toward their right, as Brandy Station was their purpose. Rodes shifted a brigade from his right flank to his left to check them, but the Federals stopped before coming into rifle range.
This respite gave French’s men time to build a pontoon bridge and cross the rest of the troops at will. Rodes saw what he was up against and could not attack. But ever expectant of reinforcements, neither did he retreat.
It was around 3pm when General Meade’s second column made it to the river, arriving at the railroad crossing. Sedgwick’s troops from the V and VI Corps replaced the cavalry pickets and began to move against the Rebels under Harry Hayes still on the north side of the river.
Skirmishers from both corps scrambled a mile and half forward, until they engaged in a melee with the enemy, hand to hand inside the redoubts and escarpments. With the weight of solid Federal infantry behind them, they captured a regimental flag and nearly ninety Rebels.
But rather than retreat, General Hays crossed a brigade around 4:30pm, placing it among the regiments still holding. A half hour later, the Federal artillery entered the mix, keeping up a vigorous fire until dusk. “It was then,” wrote Hays, “under cover of the darkness, that a simultaneous advance was made of the entire force of the enemy.”
General Horatio Wright had been placed in command of the VI Corps when Sedgwick was made a wing commander. He could see that with skirmishers and artillery alone, he could not move Hays’ Rebels. “Under most circumstances,” Wright reported, “I should have hesitated in ordering the assault of so strong a position, and believed its success hopeless.” But all around him he saw that troops aside from his own had been victorious.
Commanding Wright’s Brigade in his stead was David Russell, who thought he could use the coming dark to his advantage. “At sundown, after carefully considering the relative positions and the well-known character of my troops,” he reported, “it was my desire to storm the enemy’s position.” He sent a message to Wright, who approved (and subsequently took the credit).
“The darkness, which was fast approaching,” continued Wright, “was favorable to the attack. The remaining daylight enabled the troops to see what they had to do before reaching the works, while the succeeding darkness would prevent the enemy on the opposite bank from firing where they could not distinguish friend from foe.”
The attack, advanced by General Russell, was under way. The ground was a wasteland, strew with debris and crisscrossed with defiles. “But over every hindrance, in face of a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, the storm party pressed on with bayonets fixed and never pausing to fire a shot.” Up and over the enemy’s rifle pits they scrambled. “A desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued, the foe was overpowered and the works were ours.”
But the fight was not over. The Rebels who retreated soon regrouped, and the ones who still held their entrenchments clung to their flags. “Furious, but as yet futile, endeavors were made from the rifle pits to retake the larger redoubt,” wrote Russell. Adding two regiments of reinforcements, closely followed by two more, he found that still “they were not strong enough to carry the rifle-pits and stay the fire from them, which still greatly annoyed our men.”
With his own brigade exhausted, Russell called upon regiments from Emory Upton’s Brigade. Col. Upton himself led the assault. With the additional troops, they quickly held the bridge, cutting off any Confederate hopes of a retreat across the river to their comrades. This new advance was too much for the weary Rebels. “The enemy,” wrote Col. Upton, “supposing a vastly superior force was advanced upon him, and also aware that his retreat was intercepted, laid down his arms.” They captured six colors and over 1,300 men.
It was well after dark by this point, and as things stood, Meade’s right column under William French had crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, bivouacking just out of musket range from the Rebels, while his left, under John Sedgwick, was still on the north bank, but had eliminated any Confederate resistance. All awaited the next day.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p555, 557, 561, 574, 577, 579, 582, 585-587, 588-589, 609-610, 612, 618, 626, 630-632; Part 2, p420, 423-424, 426-427, 430. [↩]