Book Review: Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station

Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863

By Jeffrey Wm Hunt

Savas Beatie, 2021, $32.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Zachery A. Fry

General readers probably know little about the maneuvers and clashes between the Army of the Potomac and Army of the Northern Virginia in the autumn of 1863. George G. Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, struggled to launch a decisive offensive against his Rebel antagonist, while Robert E. Lee, hampered by Gettysburg casualties and logistical woes, looked to launch his own aggressive strike against Federal troops. Jeffrey Hunt’s Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station is the third volume in a proposed four-volume series that fills a woefully neglected void in Eastern Theater operational history. The first two books, one dealing with the post-Gettysburg maneuvers and another with the Bristoe Campaign, highlight the cat-and-mouse game that culminated in Lee’s daring attempt to turn Meade out of his position near Culpeper. Elements of the two armies came to blows at Bristoe Station, a stone’s throw from the old Manassas battlefields, before Meade scrambled onto the coveted Centreville heights in Fairfax County and stymied Lee’s offensive. Hunt’s third volume picks up the action with Meade’s counteroffensive back toward the Rappahannock beginning in late October.

Hunt’s superb study of the Rappahannock Station operations from October to November 1863—indeed his whole body of work so far—fulfills all the important functions of a classic Civil War campaign study. He places the Union offensive in a full strategic and political context, lays out the logistical considerations for both armies, provides biographical sketches for key leaders, and relays the tactical details in a way that articulates the gripping, chaotic nature of Civil War combat. 

Readers will walk away from this study with a renewed appreciation for the challenges Civil War commanders operated under in the field. In Hunt’s skillful prose, George Meade confronts suspicion from Washington and dutifully conforms his avenue of advance along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to the administration’s wishes. R.E. Lee likewise wages a campaign with a weakened command structure and decrepit logistical support. Both armies had only recently dispatched nearly one-third of their forces to the Western Theater—Lee having sent two divisions of James Longstreet’s Corps and Meade having forwarded the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps. Another particular concern for Meade was the integration of thousands of new recruits and draftees into the army for an offensive campaign, a challenge Hunt integrates throughout his analysis. And the president’s preferred avenue of advance, the O&A, resulted in significant strategic consumption as the Army of the Potomac hemorrhaged troops to protect its critical line of communication back to Washington.

The bulk of Hunt’s work focuses of course on the tactical actions between November 7 and 8 along the Rappahannock River, held at various points by forward elements of Lee’s army. Meade’s plan for getting at the Confederate Army relied on a pincer movement facilitated by the Fifth and Sixth Corps under John Sedgwick advancing on Rappahannock Station and the Third Corps under William French advancing on Kelly’s Ford. French’s column achieved surprise and brushed Confederate resistance aside (Hunt provides a particularly gripping account of the river-crossing under fire by the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters), but Sedgwick’s advance was more hesitant. When it finally did fall, the Union blow at Rappahannock Station overwhelmed Confederate redoubts using tactics that were almost identical to those that gave the Sixth Corps success several months earlier at Second Fredericksburg.

Confederate failures along the Rappahannock on the evening of November 7 could have spelled disaster had Lee’s army not conducted a hasty withdrawal behind the Rapidan River. Hunt highlights frustration in Meade’s army and in the halls of power in Washington with this inability to achieve decisive battle. But just as many soldiers, buoyed by their own success in a rare victory on the offensive, praised Meade for pushing Lee beyond Culpeper before winter descended on central Virginia. Across the Rapidan, the dejection in parts of Lee’s army exacerbated a post-Gettysburg blues as soldiers looked for scapegoats. One hero who emerges head-and-shoulders above the rest in Hunt’s analysis is the young, relentless Union Col. Emory Upton, who pioneers the same combination of audacity and tactical innovation at Rappahannock Station that he would apply against the Mule Shoe salient at Spotsylvania.

Overall, Hunt’s carefully-researched, well-written volume does justice to this neglected campaign. Although the book includes numerous maps, the operational ebb-and-flow is easier to follow if enjoyed alongside a copy of Brad Gottfried’s The Maps of the Bristoe Station and Mine Run Campaigns (Savas Beatie, 2013). 

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