November 28, 1863 (Saturday)
General Meade may have lost the advantage, but he did not yet believe he had lost the fight. In fact, thus far, there was hardly any fight to be lost. It was true that any element of surprise had slipped away from his army faster than they could march across the Rapidan, but in Meade’s mind there may still have been an opportunity.
Over the course of the night, Meade shifted forward John Newton’s I Corps, which now held the left, while on the right, he slid John Sedgwick’s VI Corps to Gouverneur K. Warren’s II Corps forming the middle at Robertson’s Tavern along the Orange Turnpike. William French’s III Corps and George Sykes V Corps had both been roughly handled, and were now placed in reserve. At dusk the previous day, General Lee’s Confederates held positions not far to their front. Meade sent these three corps west to see if it was still so.
Through the dim mists of morning, the Federal I, II and VI Corps advanced in full battle array, skirmishers to the front. The men moved steadily, and soon came upon the former Rebel positions. There they found only pickets and skirmishers, who fell back in reply. After only two miles of marching, Meade’s men discovered General Lee’s position. And then it began to rain.
The Confederates had indeed fallen back through the night, until by morning they were behind rifle pits and abatis on the western banks of Mine Run. “The enemy pursued with alacrity, and the skirmishing began early in the morning,” recalled Robert Johnston, commanding a North Carolina brigade.
“The enemy being immediately in our front,” an Alabaman Major recalled, “their sharpshooters advancing, my sharpshooters were soon engaged, the enemy also using artillery. A dense fog and heavy rain here put a stop to the firing and everything became quiet. This opportunity was improved by us in throwing up breastworks.”
While the Confederates strengthened their defenses, and despite the heavy rains, General Warren made a personal reconnaissance. Though the Rebels quickly discovered him, he could not uncover a weakness in their lines. Undaunted, Warren had a plan.
After explaining that the line seemed impregnable, he requested that he be allowed to take his corps and “make a demonstration in the enemy’s right, to threaten it, and endeavor to discover a more favorable position to assault, and finally, if this could not be done, to move on around as if to get in his rear, with the intention of making him abandon his present front.”
At some point, Meade apparently saw the Rebel works for himself, and described them thus: “The western bank of Mine Run, with an elevation of over 100 feet, had a gentle and smooth slope to the creek, averaging over 1,000 yards of cleared ground. The summit, on which was the enemy’s line of battle, was already crowned with infantry parapets, abatis, and epaulements for batteries. The creek itself was a considerable obstacle, in many places swampy and impassable. A careful examination, made personally and by engineer officers, convinced me there was no probability of success in an attack in our immediate front, in the vicinity of the turnpike.”
While viewing the works, Meade was impressed. “We have got another Gettysburg in front of us,” he was supposed to have said. But on Warren’s assurances, Meade acquiesced to the plan, ordering him to the left with an additional division. Believing that he would be able to move swiftly, Warren decided not to step off until dawn. As for the other corps commanders, Meade bade them to inspect their fronts come first light to ascertain the practicality of an assault.
Through the night, the rains would fall and the temperatures would plummet. By dawn, the ground would be frozen.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p687, 696, 796, 893-894, 890; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Volume 1 (Warren’s and A.P. Howe’s testimony about Meade); The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade Vol. 1; From Gettysburg to the Rapidan by Andrew Atkinson Humphreys; “The Mine Run Campaign – An Operational Analysis of General George G. Meade” by Kavin L. Coughenour. [↩]