guest post by Rob Orrison
After the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee spent the rest of the summer months refitting and resting his army. By mid-August, Lee could count 60,000 effectives, a remarkable feat considering the losses of the July campaign. By September, events in the western theatre left Lee and his Federal counterpart, Gen. George Meade, to send portions of their armies to northern Georgia. Lee believed he could seize the initiative that fall with the reduction of Meade’s force. It would be a risky affair, as Lee was still outnumbered–but it would not be the size of his army that would frustrate him. The Confederate Quartermaster and Commissary Departments began to seriously fail the men in the field. Poor wagons, draft animals and lack of food and clothing seriously impacted Lee’s ability to hold the initiative and directly affect the outcome of a campaign. It would not be a military defeat that would thwart this campaign.
On October 9, 1863, Lee ordered his army to cross northward across the Rapidan River in an attempt to attack the Army of the Potomac in Culpeper. Though his men were not adequately supplied for cooler weather, Lee decided that to do nothing hand over the initiative to the Federals. Newly appointed Confederate Quartermaster Gen. Alexander Lawton had his hands full keeping the men supplied and equipped. The army took off from their camps around Orange “barefooted or [in] fragments of shoes…all without overcoats and blankets.”
Quickly, as the men began their march, logistical support for the men broke down. The supply trains could not keep up the pace with what was to be a rapid march. Men such as James Graham of the 27th North Carolina wrote, “We did not get into camp til after dark….and our wagons did not come up and most of us were left without anything to eat next morning.” The delays in the trains and in getting the men rations led to an unusually slow march for the Army of Northern Virginia.
On two occasions, Lee missed chances to attack Meade in the flank directly due to logistical woes. The first opportunity was on the march to Culpeper. The slow march allowed Meade to pull northward before Lee could attack his flank near Griffinsburg. One Confederate wrote that they waited in Griffinsburg for rations but “there were no rations!”
A second chance came when Lee was in Warrenton, squarely ahead of Meade on his retreat northward. There, Lee ordered his men to bivouac in the afternoon so they could wait for the supply wagons to catch up to the army and ordered the men to resupply and prepare rations. To their dismay, the wagons only brought meager foodstuffs and very few shoes and clothing. This delay gave Meade adequate time to remove the Army of the Potomac out of danger.
The desire to repeat their feats of acquiring loot at the hands of the Federals was on the minds of Lee’s men as they marched. As the Confederates entered Culpeper after Meade’s departure, they expected to add winter blankets and overcoats to their ragged uniforms. They soon realized, though–to their despair–the Federals were thorough in their removal of their stores. Even the press in Richmond reported the Federals “destroyed along their line of flight all commissary and other stores.” Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s near entrapment at Auburn on the night of October 13 was a direct result of his desire to attack and capture the Federal supply train at Catlett. If Lee could not supply his men appropriately with his own quartermasters, he continued to hope the Federals would provide him some captured stores.
After the Confederate disaster at Bristoe Station on October 14, Lee knew he could not stay in war-devastated Prince William County. It was not the defeat at Bristoe that influenced Lee’s decision, though, but the condition of the army. There was no forage for the animals or supplies for his men, and the Confederate quartermasters had already proven unreliable to supply the army. “Never have I witnessed as sad a picture as Prince William County now presents,” wrote Walter Taylor.
It was an easy decision for Lee to make. He would have to call off his campaign and return closer to his base of supply. Lee’s frustration with his quartermasters and supply situation is easily seen in his personal writings to his wife in Richmond: “if they had have been property provided clothes I would certainly have endeavored to have thrown them north of the Potomac.”
At the same time he was opening up to his wife about his situation, Lee wrote to Secretary of War James Seddon about the future of supplying the army. Concerning clothing, blankets, and shoes, Lee wrote, “the want of these articles will entail great suffering and sickness on the troops, and incapacitate them for military movements.” The inefficiency of the Confederate supply system was directly impacting the army’s ability to maintain operate effectively.
Lee wrote to his wife on October 28 that Meade was preparing to move on him in Culpeper, but “if I could only get some shoes and clothes for the army, I would save him the trouble.” Lee’s aggressiveness was hampered by the practicality of supplying his men. As the days grew colder, Lee knew his men could not survive without proper clothing and shoes. His only option was to pull back closer to his supply lines and spread out his army to allow the animals and men a wider area.
Lee laid out the failure of the Bristoe Campaign himself in a letter to Lawton in November. He wrote that he would have continued his campaign against Meade except “his unwillingness to expose the men to the hardships…unless they were better provided for.”
Though some historians have questioned Lee’s decision to take the offensive with such shortcomings of supply and logistical support, Lee saw a chance to act in concert with other Confederate forces that were on the offensive. Lee believed that an opportunity arose with Meade’s army being reduced by two corps and gambled that the reward that outweighed the risks. Unfortunately for the Confederate cause, the ineptitude of the quartermasters and commissary in the fall of 1863 proved too much to overcome for Lee and his men in the field. Never again would the Confederate war effort be able to support an offensive campaign for Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Rob has been working in the history field for over 20 years. He has a wide range of interests and has worked in museums and historic sites that range from the Colonial era to the early 20th century. Born and raised in Loudoun County, Virginia, Rob’s love of the field of public history stem from his childhood love of local Civil War history.
Rob received his bachelor’s degree in Historic Preservation at Longwood College and received his master’s degree in Public History from George Mason University. Rob has worked at various historic sites and Civil War parks and is now with the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division. Since 2006 he has worked as Historic Site Manager of Ben Lomond Historic Site and Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park and is now the Historic Operations Supervisor, overseeing the day-to-day operations, programs, and events of all Prince William County-owned historic sites.
Outside of work, Rob is serves on the board of Civil War Trails as the Northern Virginia regional director, treasurer of the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, D.C.; vice president of the Bull Run Civil War Roundtable; and is a member of the Governing Council of the Virginia Association of Museums. He lives in Dumfries, VA with his wife, Jamie, and his son, Carter.