One of the most written about episodes that took place during the Bristoe Campaign was that of “Stuart’s Hideout” on the evening of October 13, 1863. The Confederate cavalry was very active during the entire campaign and performed admirably. Maj. Gen. JEB Stuart successfully screened Lee’s infantry as it moved northward and provided excellent intelligence. The Federal cavalry was bested on several occasions already during the campaign by the southern horsemen. All of that changed on the evening of October 13th.
In the midmorning hours of the 13th, Lee along with Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps arrived in Warrenton. The Confederates at the time didn’t know it, but they were about to pass up on a perfect opportunity to get behind Meade and the Army of the Potomac’s rear and flank. With his men under supplied and hungry, Lee ordered Ewell’s men and soon arriving Hill’s men to make camp and prepare rations. This was a costly decision as at that time, the Federals were racing up the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to Manassas Junction.
With Lee that morning was Stuart and the commanding general had an important task for the Confederate cavalry. Lee ordered Stuart to take his cavalry and ride east to find the Army of the Potomac and report on their location, their line of march and scout out other details that could be helpful in Lee’s plans. Stuart took his own division and Brig. Gen. Lunsford Lomax’s brigade with him towards Catlett. After clearing the important crossroads of Auburn, Stuart left Lomax behind to protect the crossroads and retain communication with Warrenton.
Stuart arrived on the hills above Catlett later that morning, and what Stuart saw before him must have brought a smile to his face. Parked in and around the fields of Catlett was the majority of the Army of the Potomac supply train with thousands of wagons and teamsters, all ignorant to the threat of the Confederate cavalry. Buford’s cavalry division was also nearby, unaware of Stuart. More importantly, Stuart had located the bulk of Meade’s army and realized that the Confederates were in a great position that day to strike Meade. Stuart messaged Lee “I believe you can reach the rear if Hill is up.” With the Confederate infantry only 9 miles away, the timing was perfect.
But soon Stuart’s joy turned to concern as he received word of large Federal infantry in his rear. As Lomax’s men guarded the important crossroads they found themselves confronted with the entire III Corps under Maj. Gen. French. Amazingly French himself with his staff led the column with no scouts in front. The Confederate cavalrymen soon opened fire and a bullet went through French’s hat. As Pvt. John Haley wrote “had it gone through his heart or head, it would not have grieved us.” Soon, Lomax was pushed out of Auburn by the III Corps and now the II Corps was in the area as well. Stuart was cut off from Lee.
The Federals that Lomax and Stuart encountered were part of the III and II Corps marching north following the path of the old Rogues Road from Fayettville to Auburn and Greenwich. These two corps would be in supporting distance of each other and would screen the rest of the Army of the Potomac that marched north along the O&A Railroad from Rappahannock Station.
Leaving Catlett Stuart and his cavalry rode back to find Auburn in Federal hands. Lomax was no match for two Federal corps and he rode west to join with Fitz Lee’s cavalry. Stuart considered his options – riding east was not possible, there were at least 20,000 Federals in that direction. Riding north was out of the question as the III Corps blocked that route. He could not ride south or west as his route was blocked by the II Corps. Stuart decided to “conceal my whereabouts, if possible, from the enemy” and hide his two brigades of cavalry in a small ravine a few hundred yards east of Auburn. Surrounded by low lying hills with a small creek running along the floor of the ravine, the area was narrow near the road but broadened northward from the road. A small patch of woods along the road concealed the entrance and it could fit Stuart’s two brigades, wagons and horse artillery.
One of the tensest nights for the Confederate cavalry of the war was remembered well by
those who experienced it. W.W. Blackford recalled that “we were so close to the enemy that it was necessary to place a man at the head of every mule in the ambulances to keep them from betraying our presence.” Nearly a thousand horses, mules and men hid in the small ravine as thousands of Federals marched and camped within 150 yards. John Esten Cooke wrote after the war “the men sat motionless and silent in the saddle, listening, throughout the long hours of the night. No man spoke, no sound was heard from human lips.” Many of the thoughts of the Confederates that night were summed up by Henry McClellan “how thankful we were for those hills! How thankful for that darkness!”
Stuart decided to send five riders to alert Lee, hoping at least one would get through the Federal lines. These men would have to navigate through Federal infantry and cavalry pickets then ride hard for Warrenton, 6 miles to the west. Stuart wrote later that he believed a great opportunity could arise if he could “cooperate with any attack made by our main body upon the flank.” But this was hindsight for Stuart, on the night of the 13th he was mostly concerned with escape.
For more information on Stuart’s hideout, the Battle of Auburn and the Bristoe Station campaign, see the new release of “A Want of Vigilance, The Bristoe Station Campaign” by Rob Orrison and Bill Backus. Now available at www.savasbeatie.com