Civil War Battles
State War Records
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After the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the Union and Confederate armies drifted south and for three months sparred with one another on the rolling plains of northern Virginia. Little was accomplished, however, and in late October General Robert E. Lee withdrew his Confederate army behind the Rappahannock River, a line he hoped to maintain throughout the winter.
A single pontoon brigade at the town of Rappahannock Station was the only connection Lee retained with the northern bank of the river. The bridge was protected by a bridgehead on the north bank consisting on two redoubts and connecting trenches. Confederate batteries posted on hills south of the river gave additional strength to the position.
The bridgehead was an integral part of Lee's strategy to defend the Rappahannock River line
. As he later explained, by holding the bridgehead he could "threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part." The Union Army of the Potomac's commander, Major General George G. Meade, divided his forces just as lee expected. He ordered Major General John Sedgwick to attack the Confederate position at Rappahannock Station while Major General William French forced a crossing five miles downstream at Kelly's Ford. Once both Sedgwick and French were safely across the river, the reunited army would proceed to Brandy Station.
The operation went according to plan. Shortly after noon on November 7th, French drove back Confederate defenders at Kelly's Ford and crossed the river. As he did so, Sedgwick advanced toward Rappahannock Station. Lee learned of these developments sometime after noon and immediately put his troops in motion to meet the enemy. His plan was to resist Sedgwick with a small force at Rappahannock Station while attacking French at Kelly's Ford with the larger part of his army. The success of the plan depended on his ability to maintain the Rappahannock Station bridgehead until French was defeated.
Sedgwick first engaged the Confederates at 3 p.m. when Major General Albion Howe's division, Sixth Corps, drove in Rebel skirmishers and seized a range of high ground three-quarters of a mile from the river. Howe placed Union batteries on these hills that pounded he enemy earthworks with a "rapid and vigorous" fire. Confederate guns across the river returned the fire, but with little effect.
Major General Jubal Early's division occupied the bridgehead defenses that day. Early posted Brigadier General Harry Hays's Louisiana brigade and Captain Charles A. Green's four gun Louisiana Guard Artillery in the works and at 4:30 a.m. reinforced them with three North Carolina regiments led by Colonel Archibald Godwin. The addition of Godwin's troops increased the number of Confederate defenders at the bridgehead to nearly 2,000.
Sedgwick continued shelling the Confederates throughout the late afternoon, but otherwise he showed no disposition to attack. As the day drew to a close, Lee became convinced that the movement against the bridgehead was merely a feint to cover French's crossing farther downstream. He was mistaken. At dusk the shelling stopped, and Sedgwick's infantry rushed suddenly upon the works. Colonel Peter Ellmaker's brigade advanced adjacent to the railroad, preceded by skirmishers of the 6th Maine Volunteers. No Union regiment gained more laurels that day nor suffered higher casualties. At the command "Forward, double-quick," it surged over the Confederate works and engaged Hays's men in hand-to-hand combat. Without assistance, the 6th Maine breached the Confederate line and planted its flags on the parapet of the easternmost redoubt. Moments later the 5th Wisconsin swarmed over the walls of the western redoubt, likewise wresting it from Confederate control.
On the right, Union forces achieved comparable success. Just minutes after Ellmaker's brigade penetrated Hays's line, Colonel Emory Upton's brigade overran Godwin's position. Upton reformed his lines inside the Confederate works and sent a portion of the 121st New York to seize the pontoon bridge, while the rest of his command wheeled right to attack the confused Confederate horde now massed at the lower end of the bridgehead.
Confederate resistance dissolved as hundreds of soldiers threw down their arms and surrendered. Others sough to gain the opposite shore by swimming the icy river or by running the gauntlet of Union rifle fire at the bridge. Confederate troops south of the Rappahannock looked on hopelessly as Union soldiers herded their comrades to the rear as prisoners of war. In all, 1670 Confederates were killed, wounded, or captured in the brief struggle, more than eighty percent of those engaged. Union casualty figures, by contrast, were small: 419 in all.
For the North the battle had been "a complete and glorious victory," an engagement "as short as it was decisive," reflecting "infinite credit upon all concerned." Major General Horatio Wright noted that it was the first instance in which Union troops had carried a strong entrenched Confederate position in the first assault. But perhaps the highest praise came from Harry Hays, who claimed to have been attacked by no less than 20,000 to 25,000 Union soldiers -- a figure ten times the actual number.
The battle had been as humiliating for the South as it had been glorious for the North. Two of the Confederacy's finest brigades, sheltered behind entrenchments and well supported by artillery, had been routed and captured by an enemy force of equal size. Colonel Walter Taylor of Lee's staff called it, "the saddest chapter in the history of this army," the result of "miserable, miserable management." An enlisted soldier put it more plainly. "I don't know much about it," he said, "but it seems to be that our army was surprised."
Lee would later call on subordinates to submit reports on the battle in an effort to determine what had gone wrong, but on the night of November 7th more pressing matters demanded his attention. Loss of the bridgehead destroyed his plans for an offensive and left his army dangerously extended on a now indefensible front. Meade, acting quickly, might pin Lee's army against the Rapidan River just as Lee had tried to pin John Pope's army against the Rappahannock River one year earlier. Lee immediately cancelled his plans for an attack on French and within hours had his army marching south.
As the weary gray troops trudged through the dark night, some may have reflected upon the army's recent failures. Not since the great Jackson had fallen at Chancellorsville had the Confederate infantry scored a victory. Were Lee's generals still capable of leading the army? Could the Confederates win without Jackson?