The Second Battle of Rappahannock Station

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Bristoe Campaign
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After the Battle of Bristoe Station, there was a three-week interlude until the two armies fought again at the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station on November 7, 1863. During that three week period, the only engagement was between the opposing cavalry forces of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick at Buckland Mills in Fauquier County, Virginia.

The Battle of Buckland Mills took place on October 19th when Stuart’s cavalry was covering the Confederate retreat from Bristoe Station. Lee’s forces were being pursued by Kilpatrick’s cavalry and on the 19th the Confederates turned on the Union troopers. Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton’s Map of the Second Battle of Rappahannock Stationcavalry division attacked the Union force frontally while Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee‘s division charged the Union flank.

Kilpatrick’s forces was chased for some five miles to Haymarket and Gainesville in Prince William County. Some Confederates derisively referred to the engagement as the “Buckland Races” while others likened it to a fox hunt. Corporal William A. Freed of Company E, 1st Virginia Cavalry, wrote home after the battle: “We had a hard fight day before yesterday with Gen Killpatrick’s Division at Buckland and we gave them one of the worst whippings they ever had, took a great many prisoners, killed a great many and ran them near to Gaynes Mill.”

General Robert E. Lee withdrew his forces across the Rappahannock River and set up a defensive line. He hoped that his army would be able to rest there throughout the winter while they continued to recover from the Gettysburg campaign.

The Confederates had a single pontoon bridge across the river at Rappahannock station. They had set up a strong bridgehead on the northern bank with redoubts manned by artillery and a strong defensive entrenchment, all with connecting trenches. In addition, the had positioned artillery batteries on the south side of the river to support their forward positions.

General Lee saw the Rappahannock bridgehead as a key position for the spring campaign. Maintaining it, he would have a position from which he could advance against the Union forces ensconced in Northern Virginia. In his own words, 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 commander, Maj. Gen. George Meade, had other ideas. As Lee anticipated, Meade divided his forces. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was ordered to attack the Rappahannock Station bridgehead while Maj. Gen. William H. French forced a crossing five miles downstream at Kelly’s Ford. Once safely across the river both forces would unite and head in the direction of Brandy Station.

Meade’s plan went forward without a hitch. French’s forces drove off the Confederates at Kelly’s Ford and seized the crossing. Sedgwick’s forces advanced against the Confederate strongpoint at the pontoon bridge. General Lee received word of the Union movements at about noon and Pontoon for the bridge at Rappahannock Stationmistakenly assumed that Sedgwick’s advance was a feint.

He planned to resist Sedgwick’s advance with a small force while the greater part of his force would engage French. In order for his plan to succeed, his forces would need to maintain a firm hold on their position at Rappahannock Station while French’s force was defeated.

Sedgewick’s forces drove back the Confederate skirmishers and seized the high ground about 3/4 of a mile north of the bridge. The Union forces promptly emplaced artillery on the heights and began to bombard the Confederate positions with a “rapid and vigorous” fire. The Confederate guns returned the fire but to little effect.

Maj. Gen. Jubal Early‘s division occupied the bridgehead defenses that day. Early posted Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays‘s Louisiana brigade and Captain Charles A. Green’s four gun Louisiana Guard Artillery in the works and at 4:30 p.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.

The Union shelling continued throughout the afternoon but it appeared that they were not going to advance. However, at dusk the shelling ceased and the Union infantry surged forward to the attack.

Col. Peter Ellmaker‘s Brigade (of Horatio Wright’s Division) advanced adjacent to the railroad, preceded by skirmishers of the 6th Maine Infantry. They stormed the easternmost Confederate redoubt and engaged the Louisianans in hand-to-hand fighting. The men of the 6th Maine subdued the enemy in quick order. Moments later the western redoubt fell to the veteran troops of the 5th Wisconsin.

On the right, Col. Emory Upton‘s Brigade overran Godwin’s position. The young brigade commander reformed his troops inside the trench line, Second Battle of Rappahannock Stationturned, seized the pontoon bridge and advanced against the rest of the defenders.

Faced with a swift and startling attack, hundreds of Confederates threw down their muskets and surrender. Their compatriots could only watch while they were marched off into captivity as prisoners of war.

The Battle of Rappahannock Station was a complete and overwhelming victory for Sedgwick’s VI Corps. Some 1,670 Confederates were killed, wounded, or captured in the brief struggle, more than eighty percent of those engaged. Union casualty figures were small: 419 total casualties.

Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright noted that it was the first instance in which Union troops had carried a strongly entrenched Confederate position in the first assault. Brig. Gen. Harry Hays claimed to have been attacked by no less than 20,000 to 25,000 Union soldiers—a figure ten times the actual number.

Col. Walter H. 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, but it seems to be that our army was surprised.”

While Lee was to ask his subordinates for complete reports in an effort to determine the cause of such an overwhelming defeat, his concerns were more immediate. With the loss of Rappahannock Station and French’s seizure of Kelly’s Ford, any plans for an offensive were cancelled.

He immediately decamped his entire army and began to march south to positions on the south bank of the Rapidan River. The two armies would continue their maneuvering at Mine Run some three weeks later. The Second Battle of Rappahannock Station would mark the end of the Bristoe Campaign.

 

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