Four Years With General Lee, by Walter H. Taylor, Chapter 9

Four Years With General Lee

General Lee retires to Virginia.—Affair at Bristoe Station.—The Tete-de-Pont.—Mine Run.—General Meade’s Advance and Retreat.ÔDahlgren’s Raid.

ON the 5th of July our army left Gettysburg. Owing to the swollen condition of the Potomac, it did not recross into Virginia until the 13th of the same month; it was not, however, seriously annoyed or molested in the interval, though confidently and anxiously expecting to be attacked. In consequence of Meade’s advance into Virginia east of the mountains, General Lee moved his army so as to confront him, and soon established his line of defense along the Rapidan River, where the army was allowed two months of comparative rest and quiet. In October General Lee again advanced, but no general engagement ensued. The following extracts from notes taken by me at the time will serve to illustrate the nature and extent of the movements then made:

BRISTOE STATION, October, 1863.

On Sunday (11th) we continued our march for Culpeper Court-House, where the enemy had been in position, with a view of reaching his flank or forcing him to retire. On arriving at a point five miles from the Court-House, we learned that Meade had taken refuge on the farther side of the Rappahannock River, and it was necessary to try another flank-movement. On Monday, therefore, we started for Warrenton by way of Warrenton Springs. On reaching the river near the latter point our progress was opposed by the enemy who held the opposite bank; but we very soon succeeded in forcing a passage at the ford. We camped near the springs that night, and passed them the next day on our way to Warrenton. On Wednesday we left Warrenton and reached this place the same day. Here Hill’s advance met a corps of the enemy and at once engaged it. Our other corps came up in good time, and we should have punished the enemy severely; but matters were not properly managed and they all escaped us, and, what is worse, they got the better of us in what little fighting there was. Our people were not put into battle correctly, too few of one corps being engaged, and the other not having its line of battle in the proper direction. By unpardonable mismanagement the enemy was allowed to capture five pieces of our artillery. There was no earthly excuse for it, as all our troops were well in hand, and much stronger than the enemy.

The next morning it was discovered that the latter had retreated toward Centreville and taken refuge behind his fortifications. For the past two days we have been destroying this railroad, which is highly essential to the Federals in their “on to Richmond;” and from present indications I think that a general engagement is improbable, and that the fighting for this season is pretty much over. We have taken about fifteen hundred prisoners, forced the enemy back to Alexandria and Centreville without any general battle, and gained from him, for a time at least, a large portion of our State.


This evening the enemy advanced upon us at Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River, and also at Rappahannock Station; effected a crossing at the former place, rushed upon our men (two brigades) who were at the latter place defending the bridge, overwhelmed and captured most of them. Thus, in a very few words, I record the saddest chapter in the history of this army. Twelve or fifteen hundred men were captured, and also a battery of artillery of four pieces.

Reference is here made to the unfortunate affair of the tête-de-pont near Rappahannock bridge. At the time, great chagrin was felt at the disaster, and much discussion was had as to the responsibility therefor.

Some maintained that the place was naturally strong, and that, with the aid of the earthworks, it could be readily defended; others contended that the works were of but little protection, and the means of escape, in event of disaster, in adequate. I cannot do better, in aiding to effect a determination of these questions, than quote, from the official reports of General Lee and Major-General Early, the views they respectively entertained.

General Lee says:

To hold the line of the Rappahannock at this part of its course it was deemed advantageous to maintain our communication with the north bank, to 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. For this purpose, a point was selected a short distance above the site of the railroad-bridge, where the hills on each side of the river afforded protection to our pontoon-bridge, and increased the means of defense. The enemy had previously constructed some small earthworks on these hills, to repel an attack from the south. That on the north side was converted into a tête-de-pont, and a line of rifle-trenches extended along the crest on the right and left to the river-bank. The works on the south side were remodeled, and sunken batteries for additional guns constructed on an adjacent hill to the left. Higher up on the same side and east of the railroad, near the river-bank, sunken batteries for two guns, and rifle-pits, were arranged to command the railroad embankment, under cover of which the enemy might advance. The works were slight, but were deemed adequate to accomplish the object for which they were intended. The pontoon-bridge was considered a sufficient means of communication, as, in the event of the troops north of the river being compelled to withdraw, their crossing could be covered by the artillery and infantry in the works on the south side. Four pieces of artillery were placed in the tête-de-pont and eight others in the works opposite.

In speaking of the assault by the enemy, he continues:

As soon, however, as it became dark enough to conceal his movements, the enemy advanced in overwhelming numbers against our rifle-trenches and succeeded in carrying them in the manner described in the reports of Generals Early and Hays. It would appear from these reports, and the short duration of the firing, that the enemy was enabled to approach very near the works before being seen. The valley in our front aided in concealing his advance from view, and a strong wind effectually prevented any movements from being heard. It was essential to the maintenance of the position, under these circumstances, that sharp-shooters should have been thrown forward to give early information of his approach, in order that he might be subjected to fire as long as possible, but it is not stated that this precaution was taken. The breaking of the enemy’s first line and the surrender of part of it, as described in the reports, also contributed to divert attention from the approach of the second and third, and enabled them to press into the works. The darkness of the night, and the fear of injuring our own men who had surrendered, prevented General Early from using the artillery on the south bank. . . .

The suggestions above mentioned afford the only explanation I am able to give of this unfortunate affair, as the courage and good conduct of the troops engaged have been too often tried to admit of any question.

The loss of this position made it necessary to abandon the design of attacking the force that had crossed at Kelly’s Ford, and the army was withdrawn to the only tenable line between Culpeper Court-House and the Rappahannock, where it remained during the succeeding day. The position not being regarded as favorable, it returned the night following to the south side of the Rapidan.

General Early, whose division alternated with that under General Johnson in furnishing a garrison for the works, and whose troops were on duty the day in question, says:

The works on the north side of the river were, in my judgment, very inadequate and not judiciously laid out or constructed. . . . There was no ditch on the outside of the work. . . . I had myself pointed out some of the defects of the works to the engineers having charge of them, and I had urged the necessity of having another bridge farther up the stream. The fact is, in my opinion, the position was susceptible of being made very strong, but, in order to enable a small force to hold it against a large attacking force, the works ought to have been entirely in closed, and with a deep ditch on the outside, so that an attacking column could have had its progress checked. But the works were so constructed as to afford no obstacle in themselves to an attacking enemy, and only furnished a temporary protection to our troops. . . . In a short time some firing of musketry at and in front of the rifle-trenches was observed from the flashes of the guns, it being impossible to hear the report by reason of the wind, though the distance was but short. After this firing had continued for some minutes it slackened somewhat, and, not hearing from it, we were of opinion that it was from and at the enemy’s skirmishers.

The works were quickly overran, and, as before stated, the greater part of two brigades was captured, as also the four pieces of artillery in the tête-de-pont. After this the pontoon-bridge was burned.


We are all packed up and will move to-night. We are now in the line of outposts, and this is not exactly the place for the commanding general. No sleep to-night, and to-morrow an active, stirring Sunday. How singular it is that most of our battles and movements occur on that day, when, of all others, we should most enjoy quiet and be most reminded of peace!

I think that General Meade means to fight, and General Lee will accommodate him, but on ground of his own choosing.

The movements here alluded to only resulted in both armies being reestablished in their old lines along the Rapidan River, without an engagement.

CAMP NEAR ORANGE, November 26, 1863.

We are just on the eve of another move. This morning and afternoon all the indications favor the supposition that the enemy is moving down the river, and we have been busy preparing for a counter-move in the same direction. Matters seem to be drifting toward our old and renowned battle-fields, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. The enemy occupies the line of the Rapidan on the north side, we on the south side. He will in all probability move to Germania Ford, near the confluence of the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, where he will cross. Then, as we will be advancing in that direction, there will be a clash somewhere between that point and Fredericksburg. We have all our arrangements made to move before dawn in the morning.

CAMP NEAR ORANGE, December, 1863.

By the dawn of day on the 27th of last month, we were many miles from Orange on our way to meet Meade’s army, which had crossed to the south side of the Rapidan. It was intensely cold. We left camp at 3 A.M.—as usual, the general was ahead of every one else—and we arrived at Verdiersville without any army whatever, the troops not having progressed that far. During the morning the army caught up with us, and we proceeded to advance toward Fredericksburg. In the afternoon we first met the enemy; on the right there was a little skirmishing; on the left, Johnson’s division engaged and severely chastised a corps of the enemy; at the same time our cavalry, under General Rosser, attacked and destroyed a large ordnance-train in the enemy’s rear. With the exception of one other cavalry affair, no more fighting of any consequence occurred. On Saturday we selected our position on the line of Mine Run, and proceeded to fortify it. In an incredibly short time (for our men work now like beavers) we were strongly intrenched, and ready and anxious for an attack. The general gave his attention to the whole line—directing important changes here and there; endeavoring to impress the officers with the importance of success in the impending engagement; and presenting a fine example of untiring energy and zeal. He was busy the whole time.

On Sunday, as we were riding down the lines, attended by General Hill with his staff and others, we came upon a collection of men engaged in divine worship. We had been riding at a pretty fair gait, but the general at once halted, and listened to the singing of the men. He heard the entire hymn, and as the benediction was pronounced, reverently raised his hat from his head, received the blessing, and then continued his ride along the fortifications. It was a striking scene, and one well calculated to impress solemnly all who witnessed it. The parapet was crowded with men; here and there at proper intervals waved the battle-flags; and from many dozen embrasures frowned the now silent artillery. This all looked exceedingly warlike, and it was a cheering thing to see that, while ready for action, our men did not forget that, to secure victory, divine help should be implored.

On Monday we confidently looked for an attack. It passed without one. The enemy was in our immediate front, and he, too, had intrenched. This looked rather queer, to see two large armies face to face, each busily constructing works for defense.

Tuesday came and went without an attack. General Lee had now become impatient, and, seeing how reluctant the enemy was to bring on an engagement, he determined to relieve him of further embarrassment by becoming the aggressor, and forcing him into a fight. Consequently, during the night two fine divisions were relieved from the trenches and concentrated on our right, ready to be thrown on the enemy’s left flank; other necessary arrangements for a grand battle were completed before morning.

Information received during the night indicated some activity in the enemy’s lines, and at dawn of day it was found that he had fled, and was fast making his way back toward the river. Pursuit was immediately ordered and made; but General Meade had too much the advance of us, and reached the north side of the Rapidan before we could overtake him. Both armies then retired to their original positions. Undoubtedly we were most benefited by the movement. We captured about seven hundred prisoners, four hundred mules and horses, and destroyed or secured one hundred and twenty or one hundred and thirty wagons; the enemy’s loss in killed and wounded will reach perhaps one thousand. So, all things considered, we may be said to have canceled Bristoe Station. It was an almost bloodless victory; for we enjoy all the moral effects of a victory, without its usual and distressing losses. General Meade expected either to take us unawares, turn our flank, and force us from behind the fortifications on the Rapidan, or 6lse he concluded that, as soon as he crossed, General Lee would retreat to Hanover Junction; but our general is not so easily frightened into a retreat, and can very readily change his front.

Both armies remained in a state of comparative inaction during the months of January and February, 1864, until the 28th day of the latter month, when a powerful cavalry expedition, embracing three columns, under Kilpatrick, Dahlgren, and Ouster, started from the Federal lines with the avowed purpose of capturing and sacking the city of Richmond. At this time General Lee was at Richmond. The indications of the advance of Ouster’s column on our left, received at army headquarters on the evening of the 28th, were confirmed on the 29th, when the whole movement was fully developed. The route of this column was to have been via Charlottesville, at which point there was no Confederate force, and the country intervening was filled with our artillery and wagon camps. Upon the receipt of the first intelligence of this movement on the evening of the 28th, all the trains moving in the direction of the threatened route were diverted. On the 29th a force of infantry was dispatched by rail to Charlottesville; but the advance of the enemy operating on this flank was effectually checked before reaching that place by our horse-artillery and dismounted cavalry.

The column which moved upon our right, under Kilpatrick, was more successful. The entire Confederate cavalry picket stationed at Eley’s Ford was captured; and this column of the enemy reached the Central Railroad before any intelligence was received of its advance. After cutting the road, it proceeded toward Richmond. General Lee returned to the army on the last train, which passed up but a few hours before the enemy reached the road, and thus barely escaped capture. The fate of this column, and especially of that portion of it commanded by Colonel Dahlgren, is well known. The results were most disastrous to the Federals, including the death of that officer, and the capture of his orders, exposing the damaging fact of the intention of the enemy to pillage and burn the city and kill the most prominent Confederate officials.

Early in April General Lee was directed to inquire of General Meade, by nag of truce, if he or his Government sanctioned what Colonel Dahlgren had proposed and ordered in his address to his troops. On the 18th of April a reply to this communication was received, to the effect that neither General Meade, General Kilpatrick, nor the authorities at Washington, ordered or approved the burning of Richmond, the killing of Mr. Davis and his cabinet, or anything else not rendered necessary by military causes or not legitimate in civilized warfare. General Kilpatrick stated that the photographic copy of the “address” which had been received through General Lee was a fac-simile of an address which Colonel Dahlgren had submitted to him for his approval, and which he had approved in red ink, except that it lacked that approval and contained the objectionable exhortations or orders, which were not in that submitted to him. The disclaimer of General Meade was most candid and emphatic.

Information was received, about the latter part of April, of the advance of the Ninth (Federal) Corps from the neighborhood of Annapolis to reënforce General Grant, who had now assumed command of the Army of the Potomac.

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