For people looking at Civil War “headliners,” the span between Gettysburg in July of ’63 and the Wilderness in May of ’64 seems like a vast, empty gulf. A lot went on during that timespan, of course, although, for a lot of reasons, those events have been lost to general memory.
“Despite the fascinating series of maneuvers, command decisions, engagements, politics, and ‘what-ifs’ that comprise the Bristoe Station and Mine Run campaigns, they remain among the least studied in the Eastern Theater,” writes author Bradley Gottfried.
However, Gottfried’s new book of maps fills in that gap in magnificent style. The Maps of the Bristoe Station and Mine Run Campaigns is the latest in Savas Beatie’s excellent series of maps books, and it’s every bit as solid as its predecessors—and because it covers an oft-overlooked timespan, I daresay it’s even more valuable.
I’m a big fan of Gottfried’s books (and of Savas Beatie’s map series, in general), and I’m a big fan of the Mine Run campaign, so I was particularly anxious for this volume. It did not disappoint.
The book covers actions between the armies from July of 1863 through February of 1864. As the subtitle suggests, the lack of headline events belies the action that took place: “An Atlas of the Battles and Movements in the Eastern Theater after Gettysburg, Including Rappahannock Station, Kelly’s Ford, and Morton’s Ford.”
The centerpiece in all that is arguably the anticlimax that was Mine Run, which I usually describe as “the biggest Civil War battle that never happened.” Both armies maneuvered into place for a major showdown. Initial contact between them teetered on the edge of all-out explosion. Lee finally settled into what was his best defensive position of the war to date—“an entrenched position stronger than any [the Federals] had ever seen,” Gottfried writes. Meade himself called it “extremely formidable.”
“An engineer by education and experience, the cautious Meade weighed the risks of a direct assault and decided against it,” Gottfried says. Meade tried to reshuffle, but Lee parried. Meade balked, refusing to throw away the lives of his men. “Attacking those earthworks under these conditions was akin to begging for a bloody defeat,” Gottfried says, explaining Meade’s decision.
I’ve always considered Meade’s decision an act of tremendous moral courage. He was under tremendous political pressure to score a big win—a “headliner,” if you will. Despite that pressure, he knew a bad hand when he saw one, and he refused to needlessly sacrifice his army for the sake of political expediency.
History has not been kind to Meade, overlooking the wisdom of his choice in its bias toward flashy battlefield exploits. That’s one of the major reason the campaign has been so overlooked for so long.
But Gottfried’s book is so particularly invaluable because it illuminates another reason why those months have largely been forgotten: for much of that time, Meade had Lee on his heels. The armies remained in nearly constant contact during that time frame, and the back-and-forth tug between them, in the long haul, kept tipping in Meade’s favor. Lee loses a tremendous amount of real estate, from the Potomac all the way back to south of the Rapidan. Few historians of Lost Cause persuasion, who generally controlled the story of the war in the East, were keen on pointing out that salient fact over the last 150 years.
Gottfried’s maps make it clear: from “Lee Pulls Back Across the Rapidan River,” through “The Army of Northern Virginia Retreats,” to “Lee’s rapid Retreat”—including the debacle at Bristoe Station, the broken line at Rappahannock Station, and the defeat at Kelly’s Ford—the overall momentum rests with Meade.
That doesn’t get Meade off the hook. He has retreats of his own, counterbalanced by pondering and “fitful advances.” For every “crisp attack” of Emory Upton at Rappahannock Station there’s a “decidedly subpar” performance by Henry Prince at Payne’s Farm. Meade’s greatest overall failure as a commander, as competent as he was, was that he often played it too safe. Perhaps that makes his ultimate decision not to attack at Mine Run less surprising and less bold, but I think it was a courageous decision nonetheless.
“When the campaign season ended in December 1863 and the armies went into winter quarters, the questions and concerns both sides possessed after Gettysburg remained,” Gottfried concludes: “Meade maintained his reputation as a cautious but capable army commander, and Lee now led an army that was weaker and less capable than it had once been.”
As usual, Gottfried’s maps are easy to read, and he has a talent for scaling them just right. He covers the scope of the action without wasting space, which can be distracting; similarly, the maps never feel cramped or crammed.
I also admire the writing, which is crisp and engaging. Each phase of the story is told in a single page’s worth of text, drawing from ample primary sources and including Gottfried’s own insightful explanations. His format allows him to offer detailed examination of the actions he portrays on each map, but his text never bogs down.
On the heels of his other superb books, The Maps of Antietam, The Maps of First Bull Run, and The Maps of Gettysburg, it might’ve been tempting for Gottfried to hit up another headliner, but instead, he provides an invaluable service to the body of scholarship by illuminating these lost months.
Gottfried, Bradley M. The Maps of the Bristoe Station and Mine Run Campaigns: An Atlas of the Battles and Movements in the Eastern Theater after Gettysburg, Including Rappahannock Station, Kelly’s Ford, and Morton’s Ford.
Hardback, 240 pages