November 29, 1863 (Sunday)
By dawn, the ground was frozen. Still, General Meade’s Corps commanders inspected their troops and the terrain before them. The Confederate Army, under General Robert E. Lee, was secure behind entrenchments and the seemingly impassable boundary of Mine Run.
Meade understood that attacking Lee’s front would prove impossible, and so agreed with Gouverneur K. Warren’s plan to disengage his (Warren’s) II Corps before light and, augmented with another division, move to strike the Confederate right. The plan was more of a probe than an attack, though should Warren discover a weak point, he was to exploit it and hopefully roust the Rebels from their position.
As Warren marched into position, other officers saw to their own fronts. It would take the better part of the day to sort all this out. Meanwhile, Confederate hands were not idle. Their position was a strong one, but even so, they took the time to improve it greatly.
Before long, a simple line of rifle pits tucked behind a stream was transformed into a veritable fortress. To the front of their entrenchments, pine trees had been felled, their branches cut into spikes. The pits were deepened and strengthened with additional logs.
But even before throwing themselves against this Rebel bastion, the Union troops would have upwards of 1,000 yards of open ground to cover. Though frozen in the morning, by noon, this ground was a thick marsh. Any attack launched by Meade would have to overcome these obstacles even before firing a shot.
While Warren’s troops slid closer to their position, General John Newton, who commanded the center, probed the enemy position. Beginning with a short cannonade, soon Newton threw skirmishers across the creek. They were able to hold their ground, but the Rebels picked them off regularly. He constructed a few bridges in the hope that soon they could be used by the rest of his men, but when looking over the ground, he concluded that it was pointless. “Success at the best was only probable,” surmised Newton, “and must have been attended with heavy sacrifice of life.”
Of similar opinion was William French, who held the Union right. “I have looked at the ground occupied by the enemy,” wrote French to Warren, “and cannot see a practicable point or line upon which my command, supported or unsupported, could do anything but carry in such an exhausted state, while they will be in full force to take advantage of it.” He conceded that if Warren could turn the Confederate right flank, “a bold movement on the left in conjunction would change the result, but even then there would be no decisive result to compensate.”
General Warren, upon having a look at the ground before him, couldn’t agree more. He estimated that it would take his men eight minutes to cross the marshy open ground. And in that short span of time, his men would be slaughtered by Rebel shot and shell raining down upon them. But still he deployed his men. By 1pm, they were in line of battle and pushing back the Rebel skirmishers. And there was where things broke down. Warren had advanced with only a brigade to the front, and needed more time to bring up the rest of his men. His troops, however, were spread out, and the Rebels were even able to sever communications with his cavalry. All across his two-mile line, his officers were calling for reinforcements.
The time lost ultimately cost him the daylight he needed to open a full assault. The sky now dark, Warren, along with the other corps commanders, reported to General Meade’s headquarters.
Meade had called the meeting on account of two slivers of good news. First, from a general in the VI Corps, he learned that Lee’s army might just be vulnerable on their extreme left. An attack could be made upon it with what was considered little loss of life. Second, from an engineer, Meade discovered that a point before French’s III Corps, might just be open to an attack, though French himself heartily disagreed. General Meade also concluded that the Rebel lines in Warren’s new front were equally assailable.
In this Warren would agree, but by the time he arrived at Meade’s headquarters, the decision was already made. The Federal Army would attack at 8am the following morning, following a barrage of artillery. Though Warren’s attack upon Lee’s right was the centerpiece of the assault, Meade also called upon the V and VI Corps to hit the enemy left, while the I and III Corps demonstrated upon the center.
All this was based upon Warren’s boast that the Rebel lines in his front were up for the taking. Meade made no reconnaissance of his own to check Warren’s aspirations.
And so all returned to their respective commands and prepared their men for the next day’s work.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 29, Part 1, p687, 696, 742; Part 2, p514-515; 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. [↩]