October 8, 1863 (Thursday)
For over a week now, General Robert E. Lee had known that two Federal corps had been stripped from the Army of the Potomac and sent west as reinforcements for Chattanooga. Though he was worried about what it meant for Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederates besieging the city, for himself, he sensed a fine opportunity.
On the 3rd, two days after being convinced that the Union Army before him had been diminished, he met with his two corps commanders, A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell (James Longstreet had went west with most of his corps to aid Bragg). It was at this meeting that he announced his plan.
General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, had established his line near Culpeper. While two divisions of his cavalry guarded the Rapidan River, the I and VI Corps held the space between the river and the town. Surrounding the town were his three remaining corps, each holding their own patch of high ground. Lee wanted to launch an offensive that would turn Meade’s right flank. He hoped to draw the Federals away from the high ground and push them back to the Rappahannock River, reclaiming Culpeper in the process. More importantly, it would set Lee’s army in a fine position to play upon Meade’s lines of communication and supply along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.
Lee probably understood that this was not going to be a large campaign ending in a fierce battle. Rather, it was one of maneuvers. Thinking ahead, he wanted to buy his army more room for the spring campaign. Additionally, he was growing weary of waiting for Meade to do something. He wanted to act, and cared little for reaction.
Over the next several days, Lee gathered all the intelligence he could find. Much that came from Jeb Stuart, however, was fairly unreliable. He reported that the entire Union army was falling back, and that four entire corps (including the III and VI) had left it for the west. “Their army is very much demoralized,” wrote one of Stuart’s spies. “Thousands of the conscripts have thrown away their guns, and are scattered through the country.”
Lee sorted the intelligence the best he could, cementing his plans by the 7th. It was on that day that he ordered the sick to be removed farther south, while the quartermaster department prepared for a move.
On the other side of the Rapidan, Jeb Stuart was giving more help to General Meade than his own army. Several of the messages sent to Lee were intercepted, including the one from the 6th which reported the entire Yankee army in retreat. This must have given all a hearty laugh, but over the next day or so, more telling messages fell into Northern hands.
The Federals found out that Stuart needed “some good guides for country between Madison Court-House and Woodville” far on Meade’s right flank. General Meade might have thought that Stuart was merely on a ramble, but later that day, he learned that most of the Confederate generals had recently met at Lee’s headquarters. There was every indication that The Rebels were about to make a move. Just what move was any body’s guess, and on this date, Meade put the closest division on alert (though it was only a division).
Through the day, reports arrived at Meade’s headquarters relating that the Rebel camps across the Rapidan from the I Corps had been broken up, and the troops marched towards the river. This was all true. On the morning of this date, General Lee had set his army into motion. As the infantry fell back from the river, Stuart’s troopers took their place. Lee did not wish to cross the Rapidan at one ford only, but rather at several places simultaneously. All were set to meet at Madison Court House.
While most of the troops marched on this day, none were to cross until the next. Most of Hill’s Corps concentrated near Liberty Mills, south of Orange, while Ewell’s Corps was to follow, concentrating at Orange itself.
The Rebel columns stretched for miles, and many did not start until well into the afternoon, and marched well after dark. It wasn’t a long road – no division had to tramp more than twelve miles – but it was an important one. As with the start of any campaign, secrecy was important. If the Federals witnessed the Rebels vacate their camps and reported back the direction in which they went, all might very well be lost.
This was all designed into Lee’s plan. The following day, the army was to march to Madison, which was far beyond the Federal right. Of course, by this time, Meade knew well that something was amiss, though he wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. Something was definitely happening on or about his right flank, but in the end, could do little to figure it out as the night was falling. The next day things might be clearer.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 2, p261, 263, 266, 916; Vol. 51, Part 2, p772-773; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse. [↩]