The perspective of years seems to suggest that Gettysburg turned the war onto a new axis, especially when taken with Federal conquest of the Mississippi river through the fall of Vicksburg on 4 July. History is, of course, lived forward but written backward. Americans struggling to further their opposite causes in 1863 saw little of what is now said to have been obvious. Confederates who fought at Gettysburg, and their families writing from home, rued the reverse they had suffered, but almost never displayed any notion of impending doom. When the Yankees came back across the Potomac, they believed, the invaders would be as susceptible to defeat as they always had been - and the veteran Confederate army set about to prove it.
Back on Virginian soil, Lee resumed his adroit maneuvering to counter each Unionist initiative, and proved to be almost uniformly successful in foiling his enemy. The armies edged southward and eastward, out of the Shenandoah valley and into piedmont country, finally fetching up about 40 miles (64km) of latitude south of the Potomac. Through the late summer and fall of 1863, operations centered on a corridor between Warrenton and Culpeper and Orange. None of the sallies and probes evolved into a major engagement. Lee dispatched Longstreet in early September with one-third of the army's infantry to the Western Theater, where the reinforcements would arrive just in time to play a crucial role in
the Battle of Chickamauga. Two Federal corps followed Longstreet west, where they spent the rest of the war. Longstreet returned to Virginia in the following spring.
Lee's reduced strength threw him squarely on the defensive. Meade promptly pushed his foe south of the Rapidan river in mid-September, but on 9 October Lee grasped the initiative again, as he so much preferred to do. The Confederates advanced columns around both of Meade's flanks, forcing the Federal army to fall back north beyond Warrenton toward Manassas. A. P. Hill's troops took the lead. Hill had been almost invisible at Gettysburg during his first battle at the helm of the Third Corps. Now he had the advance at a portentous moment on 14 October.
Unfortunately, Hill displayed more dash than judgment. Without reconnoitering the position, he threw two brigades of North Carolinians at a Union force ensconced behind a railroad embankment at Bristoe Station. The Northerners proved to be the entire Federal II Corps, veteran and unmovable. The Carolinians fell in windrows without any hope of success, losing about 1,400 men in a short interval. The Federal II Corps then withdrew unmolested. Lee conveyed his sad reaction to Hill in a typically restrained rebuke. As the two generals rode across the scene and Hill sought to explain how the disaster unfolded, Lee said quietly: 'Well, well, General, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.'
Three weeks after Bristoe Station, the Federals inflicted another minor disaster on Lee's army. Confederates in Virginia were accustomed to achieving most of their goals, and had never been driven from a fixed, well-defended position. When Lee fell back across the Rappahannock river in the aftermath of Bristoe Station, he incautiously left a tete-de-pont on the river's north bank at Rappahannock Station. A reliable brigade of Louisiana infantry occupied strong entrenchments north of the river, and artillery posted on the south bank offered supporting fire. When General Jubal A. Early, commanding the Confederates in the vicinity, noticed enemy strength concentrating nearby, he sent another brigade of infantry across to support the Louisianians.
Both brigades were doomed. Union General John Sedgwick closed in on the position with his VI Corps on 7 November 1864. A bright young West Point graduate (he had just turned 24), Colonel Emory Upton, led the advance with determination and swept over the works. Outflanked Confederates raced for safety across the pontoon bridges that connected the bridgehead with the southern bank. Only by means of a daring exploit were the Southerners able to cut loose the pontoon
bridges and put the river between themselves and the victorious enemy. The Federals had inflicted about 2,000 casualties, most of them in the form of prisoners. The youthful Upton would be heard from again with another daring attack the following May, and then as a leader in reorganizing the United States Army after the war.
With the Rappahannock line breached, Meade could move into the excellent bivouac country south of that river and north of the Rapidan. For the next six months, the Rapidan river would constitute the military frontier in Virginia. (The river
Modern aerial view ofWilderness Battlefield, looking east down the Orange Turnpike. The open space is Saunders Field, where the heaviest fighting raged on 5-6 May 1864. General Grant's headquarters were situated on the north (left) of the main road, where it bends left near the top of the photo.
had been named in colonial times for British Queen Anne. Its rapid flow prompted settlers to call the stream the 'Rapid Anne,' subsequently shortened to Rapidan.) Skirmishing through the fall of 1863 and the following winter only threatened major operations once, at the end of November. On the 26th, Confederates who had been easing into what they thought would be winter quarters learned that Meade was moving in strength toward crossings lower on the Rapidan, not far west of the familiar ground around Chancellorsville.
Elements of the contending armies collided on 27 November at Payne's Farm and a hot, confused fight blossomed. Much of it raged in densely wooded country. Captain John C. Johnson of the 50th Virginia, 'a large and stout man of about fifty years of age,' who towered over most of his men at 6'7" of height, decided that his men 'were not doing as well as they ought.' To shame them into maintaining a steadier fire, Johnson stalked to the crest of the position, lay down on the ground, 'broadside to the enemy,' and told his men that 'if they were afraid ... they could use him as a breastwork.' Undaunted and pragmatic, several infantrymen did just that, resting their rifles on Johnson and firing 'steadily from that position until the fight was over.' Johnson survived the gesture, and also a chest wound he suffered in 1864 and two periods as a prisoner of war, to return home in 1865.
Once both sides had tested their opponents around Payne's Farm, the engagement there became the nexus upon which a long set of parallel lines spread across the countryside just south of the Rapidan. During the last three days of November and the first day of December, men in uniforms of both colors spent more time digging than shooting. A weather front brought in bitter cold and whistling wind on the heels of a long downpour, making everyone miserable at the same time that it reduced the potential for major military movements on the region's few and poor roads.
Meade's lines ran north-south, facing west toward Lee's position. Between the two ran Mine Run, which gave its name to the week-long action. Meade prepared a major turning movement around the Confederate right (southern) flank for the morning of 30 November, but when the time came he recognized that his foe was ready to repulse the attack from strong works. The Pennsylvanian courageously cancelled the attack and two days later recrossed the Rapidan, having lost about 1,500 men south of the river. Lee and most of his soldiers were bitterly disappointed. 'We should never have permitted those people to get away,' Lee seethed.
Meade recognized that sending the vain assault forward would have been popular with President Lincoln and elsewhere in Washington, but he wrote officially, 'I cannot be a party to a wanton slaughter of my troops for any mere personal end.' To his wife, Meade admitted, 'I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and wilfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing.' His estimate doubtless was correct: had he thrown in attacks that cost 10,000 (or even 15,000) more men, he surely would have enjoyed, and retain to this day, a glossier image. He might have retained independent control of the Army of the Potomac and emerged as the war's great hero in the North.
As the armies filed away from the Mine Run earthworks, they were ending a year of campaigning that had taken them on broad sweeps across Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Only twice during 1863, however, had they fought full-scale, pitched engagements. Chancellorsville was the largest battle ever fought in Virginia, and Gettysburg the costliest of the entire war; but 1863 had produced far less intense combat than the armies had experienced in 1862. The soldiers who settled into winter camps in December 1863 faced, unawares, a new year that would bring far more fighting than the year just past, and under far different circumstances.
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