If all had gone according to plan, the men of the Federal II Corps would have marched across this field on the morning of November 30, 1863. They would have advanced from the far treeline toward the spot where the camera now stands, sweeping past it toward the Confederate line behind it.
The night before, though, Confederates had strengthened their previously weak position. Federals faced not the thinnest part of the Confederate line along Mine Run but—suddenly, unexpectedly—the most heavily fortified. “A damn sight worse than Fredericksburg,” one Federal infantryman complained, “and we can’t get more than two-thirds of the way up the hill.” Some soldiers, convinced of the hopelessness of their planned assault, pinned bits of paper with their names on them to their uniforms.
Just before the scheduled 8 a.m. launch time, II Corps commander Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren examined the newly constructed Rebel fortifications in front of his men. “The works cannot be taken,” he decreed. “I would sooner sacrifice my commission . . . [than] my men.”
Warren quickly sent word to the army’s commander, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. One of Meade’s staffers, Col. Theodore Lyman, recalled Warren’s message, “saying the enemy had arrived in great force, during the night, had thrown up more rifle pits, and that, on reexamination of the ground he considered an attack there as hopeless.”
The announcement, said a V Corps soldier, “was like a death-knell to General Meade.” Inspecting the position himself, he concurred with Warren and, despite enormous political pressure to bring on a major battle, he called off the attack.
“Wherever the fault lies,” Lyman wrote,
I shall always be astonished at the extraordinary moral courage of General Meade, which enabled him to order retreat when his knowledge as an engineer and a soldier showed that an attack would be a blunder. The men and guns stood ready; he had only to snap his fingers, and that night would probably have seen ten thousand wretched, mangled creatures lying on those long slopes, exposed to the bitter cold and out of reach of all help.
Standing at the site today, there’s no indication of what nearly took place there 152 years ago—no wayside signs or historical markers. The unpaved road that runs between the positions of the two armies cuts a diagonal across what would have been the attack field. Those long slopes Lyman wrote of are readily apparent on both sides.
I set my camera for “panorama” and take a slow, sweeping picture from the Federal position to the Confederate. The road runs straight up the middle of the distorted landscape, which collapses the distance between the two armies. Instead of being between the opposing positions I now stand removed from the field.
Perhaps this is how Meade felt, going from the eye of the storm to some horrific new warped reality, his great plan thrown akimbo by the shifting scene on the ground. Tens of thousands of men could have been strewn across this landscape, but instead there was no one.
And now there is nothing.
This empty battlefield that saw no battle is the greatest proof of Meade’s fitness for command.
This forgotten field was his finest hour.