‘What Are You Waiting For?’ – Meade’s Entire Plan Crumbles

November 27, 1863 (Friday)

It had been slow going for General Meade the previous day. In an attempt to make a lightening strike across the Rapidan to turn General Lee’s right flank, the Army of the Potomac marched in confusing disorder, gaining merely half the distance they needed to cover. Because of the slowness, the Confederates caught on and Lee reacted. Rather than retreating, he ordered his Southern troops forward. By dawn, Ewell’s Corps, commanded now by Jubal Early, was marching east upon the same roads the Federals were taking west.

This time, Early was early.

This time, Early was early.

General Early commanded three divisions, which were all to concentrate upon the crossroads at Robertson’s Tavern, though by different routes. With the rising of the sun, they were swinging across the conglomeration of roads, with Harry Hay’s Division the most southerly, marching upon Orange Turnpike from Old Verdiersville. The middle was held by Robert Rodes, whose division advanced using a parallel road to the north, while Allegheny Johnson’s Division moved southeast from the area of Raccoon Ford.

Though the Confederates knew that Meade’s entire army had crossed the Rapidan, they weren’t completely sure just where it was. For instance, they had no idea that Meade’s left, helmed by William French’s III Corps, had just crossed at Jacob’s Ford and was moving south toward Robertson’s Tavern, in a near collision course with the Confederates in Johnson’s Division.

Meade ordered that his troops begin their march at 7am. The II Corps, under Gouverneur Warren, and holding the center, was to move on the Orange Turnpike in the direction of Old Verdiersville. This was the same road being used by Hay’s Confederates. The Federal left was held by George Sykes’ V Corps, and was ordered to advance upon the Orange Plank Road toward New Verdiersville. This road went mostly unused in the Rebel plans. John Newton’s I Corps and John Sedgwick’s VI Corps would make up the reserves, following Warren and French, respectively.

General Warren arrived at Robertson’s Tavern around 9am, but saw nothing of French’s Corps, which had but five miles of ground to cover. Twenty minutes later, French sent word to Meade that he had halted his troops near the road to Robertson’s, but saw nothing of Warren’s Corps. Clearly, there was a mix up in communication. The message took nearly an hour and a half to find Meade. By that time, Warren had discovered a large body of Rebels, Hays’ Division, advancing upon him.

Here's a rough little approximate map.

Here’s a rough little approximate map.

Following a calm but stern message to French, urging him to move, Meade sent a much less calm follow up explaining that Warren had encountered at least two divisions of Rebels. “What are you waiting for?” demanded Meade’s Chief of Staff, Andrew Humphreys. “No orders have been sent you to wait for General Warren anywhere upon your Route. […] He is waiting for you. The commanding general directs that you move forward as rapidly as possible to Robertson’s Tavern, where your corps is wanted.”

By the time French received Meade’s admonishment, Allegheny Johnson’s Confederates discovered his right flank, and he told Meade that he was “making dispositions accordingly.” French now had troubles of his own, and Warren would have to do the best with what he had.

Before Warren was both Hays’ and Rodes’ Divisions, though mostly they were concealed in the woods. Though Sykes’ V Corps was moving on his left, to their front, the cavalry skirmished, holding back any immediate reinforcements that might come to his aid. While he waited for French to come in from the north, his right flank was slowly being turned by the Rebels, essentially cutting him off from any of the expected help.

Warren's troops heading into the fray.

Warren’s troops heading into the fray.

Warren did not know until later that French was also engaged. He had apparently tried to speed his corps through, but was caught and forced into a fight.

Confederate General Johnson was marching southeast toward Robertson’s Tavern with skirmishers to the front, though they seemed to have little idea that they might stumble upon two corps of Federal troops. Most of his division unknowingly slipped past French’s slow-moving advance, until Union skirmishers brushed up against his ambulances in the rear of the column near, as Johnson put it, “an obscure road leading to Jacob’s Ford.”

The Federals were brushed off, and the head of his column soon fell close to Rodes’ left. But Johnson’s own left was becoming more and more engaged with this mysterious mass of Yankees coming down that obscure road. Johnson quickly grabbed the rest of his brigades and threw them upon French’s Corps.

Through the afternoon, both sides skirmished, each adding weight until finally at about 4pm, Johnson ordered a brigade under George Steuart to attack. “The resistance of the enemy was stubborn,” reported Johnson, “but he was steadily driven back for a considerable distance through the woods and pursued across an open field.”

But the wilderness was so thick that the Confederates found it impossible to maintain any semblance of organization. The advance had left Johnson’s line broken, and each brigade dangling on their own. In turn, each fell back to relative safety, their ammunition nearly exhausted. French’s Federals followed the retiring Rebels, but darkness was now settling upon them.

Allegheny Johnson!

Allegheny Johnson!

Through the day, General Lee kept a close watch on the developments, moving A.P. Hill’s Corps from Orange Court House to come upon Early’s right. Jeb Stuart did his best to hold back Sykes’ Federals advancing as the Union left, but he was losing ground. Should Stuart’s line fully break, Meade might just have gotten into Lee’s rear. But Hill threw out two divisions and quickly checked any further aspirations Sykes may have been entertaining, blocking any chance Meade might have had to get around Lee’s right flank.

Now that it was night, Lee decided that his advance position was precarious. He was unsure just how much of the enemy was before him, but following a personal reconnaissance, he ascertained that it was Meade’s entire army. Furthermore, they believed that an entire corps was hovering on their left and threatening their rear. This was probably Sedgwick’s VI Corps, which had finally crossed the Rapidan and was about to reinforce French when the Rebels retreated and dusk turned to night. Prior to Meade’s sweep across the Rapidan, Lee had rifle pits constructed along the west bank of Mine Run. It was to them that they would retire.

For General Meade, the day was lost. There was no concentration and no attack upon the hoped-for dispersed Confederate forces. Through the night, as the Rebels retired to Mine Run, Meade finally brought his army together, facing across the blackness General Lee’s Army, now holding a strong defensive position. Come the dawn, he would have two choices – to attack or to retreat.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p695, 742, 845-847, 863, 875-876; Part 2, p495, 498-501; Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac by William Swinton; Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (Army of the Potomac, Battle of Petersburg); 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. []
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