By October 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac stared at one another on either side of the Rapidan River. Lee’s army held the land south of the Rapidan around Orange. North of the Rapidan, Meade’s army was centered on Culpeper. Since the victory at Gettysburg, the Lincoln administration and Maj. Gen. Halleck pushed Meade to keep up the pressure on Lee. But for one reason or another, Meade was unable to draw Lee into battle. Meade’s inaction in September led the Confederacy to send Longstreet with two of his divisions west to join Maj. Gen. Bragg in northern Georgia.
On September 19-20, Longsteet’s reinforcements to Bragg proved crucial to the Confederate victory over Rosecrans at the Battle of Chickamauga. Now Rosecrans was bottled up at Chattanooga and it seemed the northern victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were for naught. Since Meade was not taking the offensive, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton proposed moving two corps from the Army of the Potomac west to assist Rosecrans. Meade was called to Washington for a conference with Stanton, Halleck and Lincoln.
On September 22-23 Meade argued to keep his army intact and he left on the 23rd believing that the forces to sent west were to be found somewhere else. But Stanton continued to lobby Lincoln and Halleck. Finally on the morning of September 25th, Halleck wired Meade:
“Please answer if you have positively determined to make any immediate movement. If not, prepare the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps to be sent to Washington as soon as the cars can be sent to you.”
With the movement of the XI and XII Corps, 20,000 men were on their way to Chattanooga. Now reduced in numbers, Meade believed he and Lee were near equal in numbers, though in reality he still held a numerical advantage of 20,000 men.
Lee learned quickly of Meade’s recent departures and planned an offensive. Lee, always the audacious, thought the removal of the two corps would make Meade more cautious than ever. He hoped to catch Meade by surprise and turn his western flank. Best case scenario was to catch Meade flat-footed in Culpeper or possibly attack Meade in motion northward. There was little to lose and a lot to gain.
On October 9, columns of Confederates crossed the Rapidan River. Lt. Gen AP Hill’s corps led the way, crossing at Cave’s Ford with Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s men crossing at Barnett’s Ford. Lee ordered his men to travel back roads to avoid detection by the Federal signal stations. The march avoided marching over hills, through dusty roads—all to hide the destination of Lee’s march.
The morale of the southerners was high. Recovered from their loss at Gettysburg, they believed it was a minor setback. With news of the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, the Confederates marched with a renewed spirit. As William Long wrote, “we were in fit shape for a rift with Meade.”
As the Confederates began to move northward, Federal signal stations spotted the
movement. Meade knew Lee was on the move, but where was he going? Was Lee moving west to the Shenandoah Valley? Or possibly retreating to Gordonsville? Maybe Lee was trying to turn the Federal western flank or possibly sending more reinforcements to Bragg.
Meade decided to send his men in motion to cross the Rapidan near Germanna Ford and find out what Lee was up too. A little known but important campaign of the Civil War was about to begin. Autumn 1863 would not be a season of inaction.
For more information on the Bristoe Station campaign, see the upcoming release of “A Want of Vigilance, The Bristoe Station Campaign” by Rob Orrison and Bill Backus. Available at www.savasbeatie.com