October 24, 1863 (Friday)
For a time, President Lincoln was fine with General Meade’s assessment. He agreed that moving to attack General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia wasn’t such a great idea. The Rebel Army, while retreating back to the Rappahannock, had destroyed the Orange & Alexander Railroad, Meade’s would-be supply line. He could no longer support an army on the north bank of the Rappahannock. But there were other options before him. There was a chance, however slim, that Meade could move the Army of the Potomac to Fredericksburg. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck took issue with this idea, but that didn’t mean Lincoln threw it away completely. More than likely, however, they would rest most of Meade’s Army while sending reinforcements to General Grant in Chattanooga.
Meade had traveled to Washington on the 22nd, when he met with Lincoln and Halleck. These possibilities were discussed, but no clear path was chosen. He returned to his army the next day without orders of any kind, even ones for the nearest of futures.
On the day Meade returned, two brigades of cavalry and a brigade of infantry marched to Bealeton, a few miles north of the Rappahannock. This reconnaissance in force stumbled upon Jubal Early’s Division from Richard Ewell’s Corps. They were on the north side of the river protecting the wagons still carting over the iron taken from the destroyed railroads. Both sides faced off, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, Meade moved most of his army closer to the railroad, as repairs were already underway.
Also that day, Col. George Sharpe, deputy provost marshal in Alexandria wrote an interesting message to General Meade. Sharpe had under his command a gaggle of spies, who generally gave him some fairly bad intelligence. This was especially true when it came to which troops were in and out of Lee’s Army.
This latest message was no different. Sharpe’s claim was that Richard Ewell’s Corps had left for Tennessee on the 19th – the day of the so-called Buckland Races. This wasn’t immediately disprovable since by that time Lee’s infantry had already started on their march south. Not only had Ewell left, told the spies, but Lee was unable to receive any additional reinforcements because the division at Petersburg (George Pickett’s Division) had also gone to Tennessee. Other gossip included the arrest of A.P. Hill for his poor showing at Bristoe.
Rumor had it that Lee’s Army now consisted only of A.P. Hill’s Corps, and even that was supposedly commanded by someone else. Meade forwarded the message on to Halleck in Washington, who showed it to the President. After a bit of thought, Lincoln replied to Halleck.
“Taking all our information together,” wrote Lincoln, “I think it probable that Ewell’s corps has started for East Tennessee by way of Abingdon, marching last Monday, say, from Meade’s front directly to the railroad at Charlottesville.”
Lincoln drew upon not only Col. Sharpe’s report, but from three other sources. When added up, it wasn’t a far fetched notion that Ewell had moved west.
“If you have a plan matured, I have nothing to say” Lincoln wrote to Halleck in closing. “If you have not, then I suggest that with all possible expedition, the Army of the Potomac get ready to attack Lee, and that in the meantime a raid shall, at all hazards, break the railroad at or near Lynchburg.”
Halleck had no plan, of course. Lincoln’s would have to do, and he relayed the President’s wishes to Meade: “The President desires that you will prepare to attack Lee’s army, and, at all hazards, make a cavalry raid, to break the railroad at or near Lynchburg, and such other places as may be practicable.” About the attack itself, he said nothing more. On the raid, however, he cautioned that the troops making it “must mainly subsist upon the country.”
The railroad at Lynchburg, some 140 miles south of Meade’s Army, was a vital line between Richmond and the West. With this cut, Lee could not easily draw reinforcements from either Longstreet’s or Ewell’s Corps (the latter of which was figured to be en route to join the former).
In the time that it took Halleck’s message to reach Meade (around two hours), the general had learned enough to rain on Lincoln’s parade. Two deserters had arrived in his camp and reported that Ewell’s Corps was still very much with Lee’s Army. In fact, it was troops from Ewell’s Corps that the Federal Cavalry saw arrayed before them near Bealeton. From the looks of things, Meade deduced that Lee intended to defend the Rappahannock River crossing. It was even possible, based upon reports that two pontoon bridges were staged near said crossing, that Lee intended to once more attack.
Of the raid, Meade said little that was encouraging. He believed that it would be “more likely to succeed with small than large numbers.” Perhaps 2,500 would do. He also mentioned that the Confederate cavalry that recently threatened Harpers Ferry had fallen back to protect the more southerly passes, and to “resist such expeditions as we now propose, or perhaps to operate on my rear, should I advance.” Additionally, wrote Meade, the weather was horrible and the roads were mostly impassable and the streams were flooded. If Lincoln really wanted a cavalry raid, it was going to be a mess.
Halleck received the message that evening, but by then Lincoln was already out and everything would have to wait until the following day. The matter, however, must have been dropped with the new information. Though Halleck inquired from General Benjamin Kelley at Clarksburg, West Virginia, if he had heard anything about Ewell’s move west, nothing more was said of a general advance by Meade or even a cavalry raid to Lynchburg. In fact, it would be three days before Halleck again contacted Meade.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p370-371, 375-376, 384; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. [↩]