The story of Mine Run is generally remembered thus: The Army of the Potomac found themselves facing a strongly fortified Confederate position that was so formidable, George Gordon Meade declined to attack and, instead, retreated back to the far side of the river for the winter.
As a broad-brush overview, that’s pretty much true. The Confederate defenses and Meade’s reactions to them are the story of Mine Run.
From a Confederate perspective, then, it’s easy to chalk Mine Run up as a relatively easy “win.” Lee reacted well to the initial Federal advance, and he ultimately settled into an incredibly strong defensive position (which he made even stronger as his time there passed).
Generally downplayed from this perspective is the major boost the Confederates got from the ineptitude of AoP III Corps Commander William “Blinky” French. French’s delay getting across the river on November 26, his snail’s pace on the morning of November 27, and his engagement that afternoon at Payne’s Farm—where he never should’ve gotten embroiled in a fight in the first place—all provided major opportunities for Lee that Lee took full advantage of, as any good general would. French’s poor leadership ultimately cost Meade the campaign.
In fact, other historians who have written about Mine Run have referred to as “the Campaign of Lost Opportunities,” with a focus on Meade’s missed chances.
However, Lee lost a major opportunity, as well.
On the morning of November 30, Lee found the Federal army arrayed before him, skirmishing all along the front but not making any major assaults. By that point, Meade had called off his planned attack against the Confederate right flank and was looking for any other possible opening. Lee gave him none.
On the morning of December 1, with the armies still staring each other down, Meade cut orders for the Federal artillery to begin slipping away to the rear. The rest of the army acted as though it intended to stay and fight, though. Lee, “anxious to avail himself of the strength of his position,” adopted a wait-and-see attitude, said his aide, Walter Taylor.
“General Lee could not believe that after all the display of force General Meade would retire without a battle,” Taylor said; “and so he waited another day . . . hoping Meade would attack. . . .”
But Meade did not. His activity during the day successfully masked his intent to withdraw, which he did under the cover of night after his men had stoked campfires all along the line to make it look as though they were hunkering down.
Finally tired of waiting, Lee sent a portion of A. P. Hill’s force forward on the morning of December 2. Advancing from the extreme Confederate right for a planned assault against the Federal left, Hill’s men found the area abandoned. Lee’s troops flooded forward all along the line once they discovered Federals had slipped away. Pursuit netted a few hundred stragglers as prisoners, but Meade made it back safely to the far bank of the Rapidan.
In a rare moment of defeatism, Lee complained, “I am too old to command this army. We should never have permitted those people to get away!”
He had lost an incredible opportunity to strike a blow, and he knew it.
In a dispatch to Richmond, Lee admitted that he had believed “the enemy would not abandon an enterprise undertaken with so great a display of force without giving battle….” Under such belief, he remained content to sit in his defenses and let the Federals come at him. It had worked at Fredericksburg a year earlier, and so Lee hoped history would repeat itself here, just a day’s march to the west.
After the battering his army took at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, plus the transfer of Longstreet’s Corps out West, Lee knew he didn’t have the offensive power he once had. Were he tempted to forget that, Bristoe Station had provided a sharp reminder. The twin losses at Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford—both also fought on the defensive—must have also been on Lee’s mind, but consider the mixed messages his fall engagements all provided: he didn’t have offensive strength, but fighting on the defense also hadn’t worked so well.
How should one respond?
Mine Run suggests a more cautious Lee, one whose engineer’s eye saw the many merits of his strong defensive position. He decided against his usual aggressive instincts, knowing he didn’t have the strength he once did, and bet instead that the position at Mine Run, stronger than those he’d enjoyed at Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford, would hold out. As that decision played out in a way that confirmed Lee’s assessment, he remained content to hold his ground and let Meade keep the initiative.
He eventually couldn’t contain himself and decided to strike out—but too late. Playing it safe, never Lee’s inclination, had cost him.
No, it didn’t cost thousands of lives, which Lee at that time could not spare, but if one looks at the hardships Lee’s army suffered through the winter and the rickety shape its logistics were in by the time spring came around, one can understand why Lee would’ve preferred a chance to bring on a decisive engagement at Mine Run.
Consider, too, how Mine Run must have weighed on Lee’s mind as the Overland Campaign started. Yes, defensive warfare offered plenty of advantages, but it did not offer much opportunity for actual outright victory. And when the Federals did not withdraw as they had at Mine Run, Lee understood his prospects for victory diminished the longer he stayed trapped in place. This forced him to change his approach from “winning” to “not losing” (a strategy that did almost work!).
History generally remembers Lee for his boldness and daring—a man whose “middle name is audacity itself,” as is now often quoted. But at Mine Run, Lee chose a much different option. The man who so often favored seizing the initiative instead let his opponent dictate events, and in doing so, he lost an opportunity he later regretted.
Did he gain any leadership lesson, I wonder, that offset his loss?