The American Civil War Overview
THE EASTERN THEATER: LEE AND MEADE
Ever since the retreat from Pennsylvania, Lee had looked for an opportunity to resume the offensive against the Federal Army of the Potomac. However, the detachment of most of Longstreet's corps to Bragg had reduced Lee's strength to less than 50,000 men, only about half as many as Meade, and made taking the offensive impossible. Upon learning that Meade had detached two corps to aid Grant at Chattanooga however, Lee decided to try and repeat his success of a year ago against Pope, who had been in a similar position at that time.
Lee began his march north on October 9, 1863. As expected, Meade like Pope, fell back from the constricting "V" between the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. Unlike Pope however, Meade did not stop to contest Lee's crossing of the Rappahannock but continued to fall back along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
On October 14, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill saw what he thought was an opportunity to bag half the Union III Corps, caught mid-way across Broad Run and apparently milling in confusion. Without conducting a proper reconnaissance, he rushed two of the brigades from his corps directly into a well-laid Federal trap. Warren's II Corps was hidden behind a railway embankment and when the Confederate troops had advanced far enough, they fired directly into their flank. Not realizing the strength of the Union position, the Southerners charged the Federals and were cut to pieces. It was two brigades against three divisions and the Confederates lost heavily. About 1400 were killed and wounded and another 450 taken prisoner. This action is generally known as Bristoe Station.
Lee continued his pursuit but discovered that Meade had entrenched in a very strong position along the Centerville-Chantilly ridge. With the approach of cold weather and an inadequate supply line, Lee decided he could not remain in the area and withdrew on October 17. Meade sent his cavalry in pursuit but the Federal troopers were ambushed by Jeb Stuart's Southern horsemen and driven back.
Meade moved forward again, but not very rapidly because he was forced to repair the railroad along the way. By the end of October however, he was back on the banks of the Rappahannock where Lee had stopped and entrenched. Although it was a strong position, an unexpected night attack on Kelly's Ford succeeded in turning Lee's position and forcing him back across the Rapidan.
By the end of November, Meade was receiving intelligence reports that Lee's army now numbered only about 40,000 troops (Lee actually had 48,000) against Meade's own 84,000 effectives. He decided to move against Lee and so crossed over the Rapidan into the fringe of the Wilderness where Hooker had come to grief seven months ago. Meade employed no diversionary movements but depended on speed and superior numbers and hoped to catch Lee unprepared.
There were the inevitable delays however, and by the time the Federal troops arrived at Mine Run, they found Lee's Army of Northern Virginia strongly entrenched behind seven miles of earthworks, all with cleared fields of fire and overlapping fire support. Still, if he could only locate a weak spot, Meade was determined to break Lee's lines. When reports came in that indicated weakness on Lee's flanks, Meade ordered a dawn assault by Warren's II Corps while Sedgwick's VI Corps conducted a diversionary attack with artillery on the opposite end of the line. When Warren reported that the attack no longer looked feasible, Meade went forward to see for himself. Agreeing with Warren's assessment, he canceled the attack.
Meade abandoned his positions after sunset on December 1. Lee had ordered an attack for the morning of December 2, but the Federals were already gone. Lee again began a pursuit, but Meade's head start allowed him to recross the Rapidan. Both sides then went into winter camps.
This Page last updated 11/13/01
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CHAPTER XIV, The Eastern Theater: Grant Takes Command