Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 32

Camp-Fires of General Lee



A PERIOD of rest and inactivity now followed in Northern Virginia. The vast conflict was pushed in other quarters, and tremendous campaigns were lost and won in the South and South-west. In September, Longstreet’s corps was sent to Tennessee to help Bragg against Rosecrans. The veterans acquitted themselves with the same courage and skill they had shown in the East.

General Meade’s army was also weakened by the withdrawal of a large portion, which was forwarded to North Carolina, while another force was sent to New York to assist in quelling the riots that had broken out there from the attempt to enforce the Conscription act. But, deeming himself strong enough to make a demonstration against the Confederate army when weakened by the withdrawal of Longstreet’s corps, Meade sent his cavalry across the Rappahannock, and General Lee, believing that a general attack was contemplated, retired to a strong position behind the Rapidan. Meade was afraid to assail him, and prepared for a flank movement; but before he could put it in execution he was notified from Washington that it was necessary to detach two more corps from his army and send them to Tennessee, where matters were in a critical state on account of the defeat of Rosecrans at Chickamauga—an achievement with which the fire-tried veterans of Longstreet had much to do.

The Eleventh and Twelfth Corps were transferred, with Hooker as their commander, to the West. This left Meade in such a weakened condition that he was obliged to remain strictly on the defensive. When his absent men were returned to him and he was about to assume the offensive, Lee himself initiated a series of important operations. His purpose was to deliver a blow which would seriously disable the Army of the Potomac or compel it to keep beyond the Rappahannock until the season was so far advanced that it could attempt nothing until spring. His first move was intended to take the Confederate army around the right flank of Meade and lodge it between him and Washington. The Rapidan was crossed on the 9th of October, and, advancing with great care and secrecy, he passed by way of Madison Court-House well to the right of Meade. Hampton’s cavalry division, under Stuart, moved on the right of the column, while that of Fitzhugh Lee remained to guard the southern line of the Rapidan and to mask the general movement.

The first definite tidings reached Meade on the 10th in the shape of an attack on his outpost at James City, consisting of a detachment of Kilpatrick’s cavalry and an infantry force belonging to the Third Corps. They were pushed back to Culpeper Court-House, where the Federal army lay.

Meade saw that his right flank had been turned, and without delay he started his trains toward the Rappahannock, following with his army the same night. When Lee, therefore, approached Culpeper, on the 11th, he discovered that the Federal army had passed beyond the Rappahannock. He halted for the rest of the day. Stuart bore hard upon the rear of Meade’s column, covered by Pleasanton’s cavalry. General Fitz Lee’s division, which had repulsed Buford, rejoined General Stuart. In the afternoon the Federal cavalry near Brandy Station was driven across the river by Stuart. The next morning, October 12, Lee resumed his advance with the purpose of reaching the Orange and Alexandria Railroad north of the city and checking the retreat of the Federal army. A force of their cavalry was encountered and defeated at Jeffersonton, and late in the afternoon Lee reached the Rappahannock opposite Warrenton Springs. Cavalry and artillery were drawn up on the opposite bank, but they were driven away and the river was crossed. Pushing on, Stuart speedily reached Warrenton, where the Confederate army was concentrated on the 13th. Uncertain of the whereabouts of Meade, Lee believed he had halted between Warrenton Junction and Catlett’s Station, on the railroad. To settle the question, General Stuart with two thousand cavalry was sent in the direction of Catlett’s.

A curious complication was brought about by Meade’s change of mind and subsequent course. Believing he had been too hasty in retreating across the Rapidan, he turned back toward Culpeper to meet Lee and give him battle. This movement was begun on the afternoon of the 12th, so that it came about that, while the Confederate army was hurrying to interpose itself between the Federal army and Washington, the Federal army was groping southward in search of its opponent. The scattering of the cavalry at the crossing of the Rappahannock speedily became known to Meade, who saw at once the compromising situation in which he was placing himself by his false move. He immediately recalled the troops on the way to Culpeper Court-House; and on the day that Lee concentrated at Warrenton, Meade returned to the north side of the Rappahannock. The unexpected movement of Lee had “disjointed” French’s corps, and Meade was therefore compelled to await his arrival. General Warren, with the Second Corps, was ordered to halt until French could be brought into his right place, and to cover the retreat “of the army with his own corps, moving through Fayetteville and Auburn to Catlett’s Station, after which he was to follow the line of the railroad northward.” This movement was under way when Stuart set out on his reconnoissance to Catlett’s Station. Observing French’s column in the act of withdrawing from the river, he fell back toward Warrenton. On entering the road leading from Warrenton to Manassas, Stuart suddenly found himself confronted by the corps of General Warren, and the still more alarming discovery was made that he was hemmed in between the Federal columns and in imminent danger of being captured or destroyed. The cavalry were in the most perilous situation that can be conceived. Their immunity for the time depended on not being seen by the Federals, who, it may be said, surrounded them; but it looked as if discovery must come every minute. The cavalry were in a strip of woods, in which they hid themselves on seeing their danger; but their enemies were so close that the neigh of a horse, the clank of a sabre or an incautious word would betray them.

Stuart called his officers around him to consider what should be done. By way of introducing the subject, he stated that the question of surrender was not before them: under no circumstances would he consider that. The conclusion was that the only course was to abandon their nine pieces of horse-artillery and cut their way out under cover of the darkness. But Stuart was not satisfied with this decision, which compelled him to lose his guns, and he decided on another course. Several of his men were dismounted, and each was given a musket and an infantry knapsack. Trusting the night to conceal their uniforms, they were directed to make their way through the Federal lines to Warrenton, tell General Lee that Stuart was surrounded and ask him to send some friends to help him out. A couple of these men succeeded in stealing through the Federal lines, and lost no time in hastening to Lee and apprising him of the perilous situation of Stuart. It would have been an irreparable loss to the Confederate army should the dashing officer be captured or slain, and Lee was quick to respond to the appeal of his lieutenant. But the hours were most anxious ones to Stuart and his command as they crouched among the trees, expecting every moment to be discovered. During the night two of Meade’s officers wandered among the troopers with no suspicion of their danger until each felt the cold muzzle of a pistol against his nose, lit up, as it seemed, by the gleam of the soldier’s eyes behind it, and the whole endorsed by the whispered threat that the least move or outcry would bring instant death. The prisoners submitted quietly, and caused no trouble. Early the next morning, Caldwell’s division, posted on the heights of Cedar Run to protect General Warren’s rear, stirred up their camp-fires and began preparing breakfast. It was not long before they were alarmed by the sharp firing of musketry from the advance of General Ewell’s column, approaching over the Warrenton road. The sounds thrilled the anxious troopers with delight, for it was the announcement that their friends were at hand and danger was past. Immediately, Stuart opened with his artillery on the Federal line, causing great confusion and the loss of a number of lives; then, limbering up his guns, he dashed off and joined General Ewell.

General Lee intended, after crossing the Rappahannock, to leave Warrenton in two columns. His left, under Hill, was to march along the turnpike to New Baltimore, there to move to the right and hasten to Bristoe Station. The right, under Ewell, was to proceed through Auburn and Greenwich to the same point, where the two wings would unite. When General Warren found himself attacked by Ewell and Stuart, he believed he was surrounded, and hastily prepared to make a good fight to save himself; but Stuart, having sent his compliments, was only too glad to extricate himself from his dangerous position, and the Confederate advance was checked until Ewell arrived with his main body. Then the pressure became too great, and Warren retreated across Cedar Run.

In the mean time, General Meade was advancing along the railroad toward Centreville, with Warren bringing up the rear. It was at Centreville that the Federal commander had determined to give battle. Lee bent all his energies to intercept his opponent before he could reach that point, but Meade was hurrying over the interior and shorter line, and easily maintained the lead. The whole force was beyond Bristoe Station when General Hill and two of his brigades came panting to the spot. Hill quickly formed his line for the purpose of attacking the rear, when, to his astonishment, Warren and his troops appeared, coming toward Bristoe. They had been delayed by the causes explained, and, hurrying along the railroad, reached Bristoe just in time to find themselves confronted by Hill’s corps. The situation again became critical for Warren, who was in danger of being overwhelmed by the whole army of Lee; but the Federal commander disentangled himself with highly creditable vigor and skill. Warren was thoroughly acquainted with the ground, and he posted his men along the railroad, where most of them were protected by a steep embankment. The attack of Hill was repulsed with heavy loss, including four hundred and fifty prisoners, five pieces of artillery and two standards. It may be said that Warren’s situation in a brief while became more dangerous than before, for the battle was hardly over when Ewell’s corps appeared. Before the dispositions for attack, however, could be made, night set in, and under its protection Warren withdrew and joined Meade at Centreville.

The position of the Federal commander was admirable. He was not only strongly entrenched, but in the event of defeat he could fall back on Washington, the effort of Lee to cut him off from the national capital, having been foiled. Lee saw that nothing was to be gained by assault, and he therefore withdrew in the direction of the Rappahannock. With a view of hindering as much as possible Meade’s return to Culpeper, he destroyed the Orange and Alexandria Railroad between Bull Run and Warrenton Junction.

The withdrawal of the Confederate army was covered, as usual, by Stuart, who was continually skirmishing with the Federal cavalry. On the 19th he was at Buckland with Hampton’s division. A brisk interchange of shots took place with the Federals, and he retreated slowly toward Warrenton, with a view of drawing his enemies after him, so as to give Fitzhugh Lee, who was approaching by the Auburn road with his division, a chance to assail Kilpatrick, who commanded the Federal cavalry, in front and rear. The programme was carried out without halt or hitch. A few miles from Warrenton, Fitzhugh Lee made his attack, and Stuart wheeled about and assailed Kilpatrick in front. The latter retreated in confusion, followed by Stuart to the vicinity of Haymarket, and by Fitzhugh Lee to Gainesville.* At the latter point the Federal infantry rallied to the support of the cavalry. Having secured a number of prisoners, Stuart fell back toward Buckland.

The Army of the Potomac advanced to Warrenton, where it was forced to wait until the Orange and Alexandria Railroad could be repaired. This was soon accomplished, and it resumed its advance in two columns toward the Rappahannock, behind which Lee had taken position near Culpeper, with Ewell on his right, Hill on the left and his cavalry on each flank. The major part of the army was well back from the river, but outposts were established at Kelley’s Ford down stream and at Rappahannock Station above, and on the north bank of the Rappahannock. The Federal army was divided into two columns, the left under General French, consisting of the First, Second and Third Corps, and the right under General Sedgwick, consisting of the Fifth and Sixth Corps. The latter was ordered to cross the river at Rappahannock Station, while French was to force the passage at Kelley’s Ford. This ford was guarded only by Rodes’s division of Ewell’s corps, and they were easily driven away by French, who secured a number of prisoners.

At Rappahannock Station, General Early threw Hoke’s and Hays’s brigades into the strong works which had been erected some time before by the Federals on the northern bank. The force numbered about two thousand men, and it was believed that if defeated they would be able to recross the stream under fire of the guns. It was a foolish and costly mistake to the Confederates. The column of Sedgwick came up late in the afternoon, and as quickly as they could make ready stormed the works, killing and wounding a hundred, capturing fifteen hundred prisoners and four guns. The few men who escaped did so by swimming the river. Not wishing to be drawn into a general engagement, Lee withdrew behind the Rapidan, while Meade resumed the position he held before his retreat to Centreville.

The campaign was without substantial result to either side. It consisted mainly of manœuvres accompanied by little fighting, and the relative position of the two armies at its close was the same in effect as at its opening.


* “I pursued them from within three miles of Warrenton to Buckland, the horses at full speed the whole distance, the enemy retreating in great confusion.”—Stuart’s Report.

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