Today, the site of Bristoe Station reminds one of a pleasant suburban park amid the townhomes and strip malls in Prince William County, Virginia. It has waking trails, an information kiosk and all of the appropriate historical markers that one expects of a historic site.
But on the afternoon of October 14, 1863, over 25,000 men clad in blue and butternut gray clashed in a violent battle at this one-time station along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Nearly 2,000 would be killed, wounded or captured in the fighting. Where children now play and people shop, the armies of the North and the South maneuvered, attacked and withdrew.
General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac had fallen back to Centreville, preventing Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from falling on an exposed flank of the Army of the Potomac. Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, commanding II Corps was following V Corps on this retrograde movement.
The previous day, they had a sharp engagement with Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry at Auburn, south of Bristoe Station on the rail line. That very morning, they had another fight with Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes‘ Division of Ewell’s Corps and their rearguard was harassed by Stuart’s Cavalry in what has since been called the Second Battle of Auburn.
Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was on Ewell’s left as the Confederate army moved north. Hill arrived at Bristoe Station (often spelled Bristow, Bristo, Bristoe in newspapers of the time) on October 14th and thought to harass the rearguard of the V Corps on the other side of Broad Run. He didn’t realize that the II Corps was trailing the V Corps.
Warren realized that it would be possible to ambush the advancing Confederates and positioned his men behind an embankment of the railroad near the station. Initially, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Division was directed to attack the V Corps but was redirected to advance against the II Corps. As the Confederates advanced Union artillery opened fire, followed by the infantry.
Despite the heavy fire, the Confederates briefly secured a foothold in the Union line but were driven back by a determined effort from the men of Col. James E. Mallon in the second division under Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb. Colonel Mallon was killed in the counterattack.
Hill reinforced his assault with the division of Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson who attacked the lines of Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays‘s division but he too was repelled. Brig. Gen. Carnot Posey was mortally wounded in that attack. Two of Heth’s brigade commanders were also badly wounded. During the fighting a five-gun Confederate battery was captured. The Union forces were able to continue their withdrawal to Centreville after their victory.
General Hill was said to have attempted to make excuses for his failure at Bristoe Station but Lee is said to have angrily cut off Hill’s excuses for this defeat by saying, “Well, well, general, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.” Hill’s failure at Bristow Station is said to have cast doubt about Hill in Lee’s mind.
The Confederates destroyed much of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad when they began their own withdrawal on October 18th. Meade had to rebuild the railroad when he reoccupied the area around Bristoe Station. Warren won such reputation as a corps commander that he was given V Corps as a regular assignment after Hancock returned to the Army of the Potomac in 1864.