Every year on October 14th, I grab a cigar and walk over the battlefield of Bristoe Station. It is a weird tradition that many of my non-history friends don’t understand, but for me it’s a fitting way to remember the men who came and died here – many who are still buried under the earth here. As I walk down the hill from the Confederate batteries of David McIntosh in the footsteps of the 27th North Carolina, I wonder what was going through the minds of these men. They had been chasing the Federals for the past week all the way from Orange. Now, many believed they had an opportunity to catch Meade and possibly repeat the feats of August 1862 (Battle of Second Manassas).
As the men cleared the hill they could see the Federal batteries setting up on the hills east of the railroad. Many believed these batteries were unsupported – ripe for the taking. But suddenly, almost surprisingly, Federal infantry appeared along the railroad. These men of Owen’s and Mallon’s brigades raced towards the natural defensive barrier of the railroad embankment. Soon the Confederates were now approaching well placed Federal artillery and infantry stacked behind a high embankment. Soon the enemy artillery shells began to take their toll.
Brig. Gen. John Cooke soon went down and the command of the brigade fell upon Col. Edward Hall of the 15th North Carolina. Faced with a withering fire, they could not stay where they were. In a quick decision, Hall said “I guess we better charge.” Onward the North Carolinians went, but none would get within 50 yards of the railroad. A valiant but futile attack.
The short but deadly fight was costly to Cooke’s Brigade and the entire division of Maj. Gen. Harry Heth. Nearly 1,200 North Carolinians were casualties. Lee’s last offensive campaign was thwarted here on the hills around Bristoe Station. Today the Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park is a place for historians and passive recreation users. Its quiet and pleasant nature is a stark contrast to what happened here 152 years ago this afternoon.