To Halt Was to Await Annihilation – Lee Lets Meade Slip Away

October 14, 1863 (Wednesday)

The morning came, and with it a dense fog. General Stuart, along with two small brigades of cavalry, had hidden themselves near Auburn, Virginia, as they were surrounded by two columns of the enemy’s troops marching north. Stuart was cut off from General Lee’s main body. Through the thick gray haze they could hear the Federal camps come to life, preparing coffee and stirring.

Hill was going to attack something today, and he didn't really care what it was.
Hill was going to attack something today, and he didn’t really care what it was.

Stuart had sent word to Lee of his peril and hoped that before long, his commander would launch an attack that would fall upon the nearest enemy column while setting his own lot free. Soon enough, the sharp crack of musketry split the mists, and he believed the moment to have arrived.

“I opened seven guns upon the enemy,” recorded Stuart, “and rained a storm of canister and shell upon the masses of men, muskets, and coffee pots.”

But the attack did not come, and all his own efforts brought was the attention of a full corps of Federals, who immediately attacked. With a wild charge of horses and men, Stuart met them. They captured prisoners and slashed their way out best they could. But the detour would be a long one, and for Stuart, now free, the day was at an end.

For General Lee, however, the day was only beginning. Before dawn, he had ordered Richard Ewell’s Corps to rescue Stuart from the embarrassing snare. Their path was crooked, as they marched and counter marched through the dark and dreary black before dawn. A little before 6am, the skirmish began, but was over just as suddenly. This was the musketry that sent Stuart’s guns to blazing.

Situation around midday.
Situation around midday.

Stuart was able to escape, but Ewell pushed forward, hoping to catch what turned out to be Gouverneur K. Warren’s II Corps astride Cedar Run. This they did. Stuart’s artillery had sent Warren into a confused state as he believed his corps to be surrounded.

It was reported to him that the Rebels were advancing in three separate columns, each streaming east from Warrenton. Soon, he was told that the Confederates had seized the ford at Cedar Run, which meant that his corps was severed in two. “To halt was to await annihilation,” wrote Warren, “and to move as prescribed carried me along routes in a valley commanded by the heights on each side.”

Fortunately for Warren, things were not as bad as they seemed. Stuart had galloped off, and Ewell was not yet fully prepared to attack. It was narrow, but it was an escape. The II Corps continued their march north, following the Orange & Alexander Railroad.


Still, this was a retreat. General George Meade’s entire Army of the Potomac was streaming north, hoping to beat Lee’s Rebels to Centreville or the plains of Manassas. It was there where Meade believed Lee hoped to meet him, delivering the Third Battle of Bull Run. But this was never Lee’s intension.

After Ewell’s Corps had stepped off, Lee’s other corps, commanded by A.P. Hill, marched north toward New Baltimore, where he would fall southeast upon Greenwich, where a Federal corps was certain to be found. Hill was supposed to have started much earlier, perhaps as early as midnight, but was delayed until just before dawn. This, added to the previous day’s early stop, gifted the Federals nearly a full day’s march.

By 10am, the fog had lifted and Hill arrived in Greenwich only to find that the Federal III Corps, commanded by William French, had left a handful of hours before. From Greenwich, they tramped east, heading straight for Bristoe Station, upon the railroad.

In the meanwhile, General Ewell did not tarry long at Auburn. He was directed by General Lee to move on Greenwich, but when he drew near, he saw that Hill’s Corps was passing through the town. Rather than wait, Ewell turned and attempted to beat Warren’s II Corps to the bridge that crossed Broad Run at Milford, cutting fields and jumping fences as they raced.


The Federals, however, had been holding this crossing, a couple of miles upstream from the railroad crossing at Bristoe, all morning. When one corps would cross, it would wait until the next was about to cross before moving on. And so, when George Sykes, commander of the V Corps, received word that Warren’s II Corps was on the south bank and ready to take over, he began to move north. But the news was not accurate. Warren was still several miles below the crossing. With Sykes pulling out, it created a gap in the Federal line of retreat.

This gap, A.P. Hill very much wanted to exploit. He discovered it as he corps appeared on the heights overlooking the railroad and Broad Run. When Hill spied the tail elements of Sykes’ Corps, he wished to fall upon them. From his position, he could see only to the north and east. If there was anything from the south, it was unknown to him. But of course, there was something to the south.

When Hill’s men attacked, they caught the V Corps by surprise, but for the most part, Sykes slipped away unscathed. As the Rebels advanced, their right flank was exposed to the railroad, though they saw no danger in this. But shortly after stepping off, Hill received the word that a strong enemy column was moving along the railroad on his right and rear. Already they were pushing in skirmishers.

Federal counter charge!
Federal counter charge!

Wanting to attack something, anything, General Hill paused the assault only long enough to change its direction. Now it was pointed toward the railroad.

General Warren quickly formed a line of defense, hiding those he could behind the railroad embankment. There they remained until the Rebels were upon them. Rising up, they rained their fire upon the unsuspecting Confederates, who nonetheless broke through the lines, scattering the Union troops east and capturing the railroad. For a time, it seemed as if the entire II Corps would be gobbled up.

But the Rebel advance could not hold. There were not enough men. Hill had attacked before Ewell’s Corps was close enough to add its weight. In a counter charge, following the Rebel retreat in the center, the Federals captured an entire battery left unsupported.

Hill had extended his line to the right, where it overlapped Warren’s. Troops from Mississippi and Florida scrambled over the tracks, but this did little more than compact the Federal lines.

Just before dark, Ewell’s Corps began to arrive. But it was too late. General Lee had squandered hours upon hours and this was the price. Meade’s Army of the Potomac had gotten away. The dusk and then the dark were punctuated with little more than the sporadic fire of artillery and the cries of the wounded and dying.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p238-239, 448-449; The Bristoe Campaign by Adrian Tighe. []
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To Halt Was to Await Annihilation – Lee Lets Meade Slip Away by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “To Halt Was to Await Annihilation – Lee Lets Meade Slip Away

  1. I just realized something. When the Union finally got a competent general to run the Army of the Potomac that’s when Lee started to lose.

  2. This action deserves more attention than it usually gets, because this amounts to a repeat of Pickets Charge, right down to the units involved.

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