Civil War Battles
State War Records
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Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, believing that Gen. Robert E. Lee would attack the Union army at Centreville, issued orders on October 13 instructing his corps commanders to mass there the next day. Lee, however, had no intention of engaging Meade's army at Centreville. He planned to intercept it sooner, preferably along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Bristoe Station was on the railroad.
Early on October 14, Meade's I and VI corps, followed by the III and V corps, crossed Broad Run north of Bristoe, heading toward Manassas. Marching from Catlett's Station along the south side of the railroad, the rear of the Union infantry— Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren's II Corps—arrived at Bristoe early in the afternoon. Lee ordered Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's II Corps and Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill's III Corps to march to Bristoe via Greenwich on the 14th. At Greenwich the Confederates encountered Union army stragglers. Ewell knew the countryside and decided to go cross-country and by back roads to Bristoe while Hill's troops followed the road.
Hill rode ahead, and from a high point he sighted troops of the V Corps crossing Broad Run. He ordered Maj. Gen. Henry Heth to form a battle line anchored on Greenwich Road. North Carolinians commanded by Brig. Gen. John R. Cooke and Brig. Gen. William W. Kirkland deployed on the right and left of the road, with Brig. Gen. Henry H. Walker's Virginia Brigade behind Kirkland's Brigade. Before they were in place, the impatient Hill sent his troops forward and directed Maj. William T. Poague's artillery to fire into the Union troops.
Hill erred, and launched a tragedy. He focused on the Union troops near Broad Run and failed to see Warren's corps as it came up, its columns screened by the railroad cut to his right. He also neglected to note that Ewell's corps was too far away to reinforce him.
When Union skirmishers spotted the Confederates' advance toward Broad Run, they crossed to the north side of the tracks and shielded Warren's men as they hastened into position behind the 2-10 foot-high railroad embankment. Warren ordered the concealed troops commanded by Col. Francis E. Heath, Col. James Mallon, and Brig. Gen. Joshua T. Owen to hold their fire. Artillery under Capt. William Arnold and Capt. Robert Bruce Ricketts unlimbered on ridges behind them. Lt. T. F. Brown's artillery, positioned on a hill across Broad Run, later joined Arnold and Ricketts.
As the Confederates closed on Broad Run at 2:00 p.m., troop movements and musket fire behind the railroad drew their attention. Cooke's and Kirkland's brigades shifted to the right to face the attack. Then the hidden Union soldiers rose and fired directly into the charging Confederate soldiers. Despite the odds, the Confederates breached Mallon's line and mortally wounded Mallon. Point-blank Union fire and an artillery enfilade severely wounded Cooke and Kirkland and forced the Confederates to retreat in disarray.
Brig. Gen. Carnot Posey's Mississippians and Brig. Gen. Edward A. Perry's Floridians swarmed across the tracks and enveloped Col. Thomas Smyth's left flank. Capt. Nelson Ames's artillery roared into action and forced Perry and Posey back. When Cooke and Kirkland retreated, they left Maj. David G. McIntosh's artillery battery without infantry protection. Union soldiers rushed forward, captured five guns, and pulled them back to the south side of the tracks.
By 4:00 p.m., the Confederate battle lines had reformed about 500 yards north of the railroad, and Ewell's corps and Lee had arrived. Union and Confederate artillery units began dueling, with the Union artillery having the advantage of stronger positions. At about 5:00 p.m. Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes's Division of Ewell's Corps seized the Kettle Run railroad bridge 1 mile west of Bristoe. Darkness approached, and the battle of Bristoe Station was over.
Sporadic artillery fire continued during the evening. Confederate soldiers remained at their battle stations on the field, and it began raining. Throughout the night, the men listened to the cries of their wounded who lay near the railroad embankment and the Union line. The Federals carried their wounded off the battlefield, and by midnight they had quietly waded across Broad Run and resumed their march to Centreville.
Early the next morning Lee and Hill rode across the battlefield. Lee was displeased. He told Hill to "bury these poor men and let us say no more about it." Upon reading the battle reports, Jefferson Davis concluded, "There was a want of vigilance." Hill's misreading of the Union's troop and position strength, his failure to determine the proximity of Confederate reinforcements, and his impatience, combined with Warren's patience and effective use of the battlefield terrain—including the railroad embankment—resulted in the Confederate defeat.
Bristoe Station was the sight of Hill's first defeat by a comparable Union force. A remarkable combat officer, commander of Lee's III Corps, Hill stumbled into a sharp, bloody defeat because of his impetuosity and failure to reconnoiter; 2 Confederate brigades were slaughtered by his poor generalship.
Civil War Harper's Weekly, November 7, 1863
BATTLE OF BRISTOE'S STATION.
Mr. Waud writes: "General Warren was attacked by the rebels, already in position on the hills on the opposite side of the railroad. The attack was made on his flank, while marching in the rear of the army. The advantage thus gained by the enemy was of little use to them. General Warren put his troops at once in the best position for a fight, the railroad embankment forming a perfect rifle-pit. On a hill in his rear Arnold's battery held a commanding position behind General Webb's brigade—seen beyond the wind-mill pump, in front of a deserted camp. In the foreground is Hazard's Battery B, Rhode Island artillery, which, though much exposed, did excellent service. The two horses in front were killed by one ball. Broad Run passes under the railroad at a point between the hill where Arnold took position and the trees this side of it. The result of the battle was the capture of five guns, two battle-flags, and 450 prisoners, and the killing and wounding of 1200 men, besides the demoralizing influence of the affair on the minds of the men, who were led to regard the capture of our train as certain. Our loss was about 200, a large proportion being wounded."
On the same pages we illustrate the BURNING OF THE BRIDGE OVER THE RAPPAHANNOCK, and the STRAGGLERS WADING THE STREAM after the bridge had been burnt. Mr. Waud writes:
"This bridge was destroyed on Tuesday, the 13th of October, to prevent the rebels bringing up supplies by railroad after we evacuated the line of the Rappahannock River. Of course it could be rebuilt, but that would take a week at least. After it was set on fire a number of stragglers came up, and had to wade over at the dam just above the bridge. It is astonishing that men will loaf in the rear of the army, and thereby risk a long and hungry march into Richmond, and a still longer and a loathsome captivity."
On page 716 will be found another illustration, which depicts the DEFENSIVE WORKS at the bridge over the Rappahannock. Mr. Waud writes:
"This point, alternately held by both armies, and the scene of many skirmishes and military movements, is again in our possession. Lee, foiled in his intended movement, has declined Meade's offer of battle, and sullenly has retired, having torn up and destroyed the railroad track, to finish the destruction which we commenced by burning the bridge. The smoke in the picture shows the position of the bridge, under the crest of the hill. The fort on the other side of the river was built to defend it from attack in that direction, the bank on this side being crowned with similar works and a line of rifle-pits for some distance up and down the river. The dark-red earth of which these field-works are made gives a gloomy aspect to them, in great contrast to the beautiful autumn foliage above which they erect their frowning crests."
Some of the more humorous scenes of camp-life are portrayed on page 717. One of them, from a sketch made before the provost marshal's arrangements were as complete as they now are, shows us a group of gamblers and thieves waylaying officers off duty. At one time it was the boast of the gamblers that they were more interested than any other class in the community in getting the troops paid off, as the bulk of the greenbacks, sooner or later, fell into their hands. The other picture is described on page 717.