November 7, 1863: Second Battle of Rappahannock Station



In the fall of 1863 the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia engaged in fruitless maneuvers of no ultimate strategic significance.  Lee, with Longstreet in the West, was too weak to want to fight a general engagement and Meade lacked the capacity to force Lee to fight a major battle if he did not wish to.  Several small battles were fought during this time, however, including the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station which resulted in a convincing victory for the Army of the Potomac and an embarrassing defeat for the Confederates.

By the end of October Lee had withdrawn south of the Rappahannock River, hoping that his Army could hold the river line during the coming winter.  He kept a fortified position north of the river at Rappahannock Station, wanting to use this as a handy point at which he could cross the river, threatening the flank of any movement by Meade south of the Rappahannock, or along the Rappahannock.  This made sense, but it also exposed the Confederate defenders of the bridgehead to a sudden Union attack.

Such an attack occurred on November 7.  Jubal Early’s division held the bridgehead defenses that day.  Meade ordered Major General William French and his III Corps to cross the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford five miles downstream, while Major General John Sedgwick would take the Confederate bridgehead at Rappahannock Station with his VI Corps and cross the river.  The plan went like clockwork.  French crossed at noon while Sedgwick, after an artillery bombardment of the Confederate bridgehead attacked at dusk.  The Confederate defenses collapsed.  Union losses were 419 while Confederate casualties were 1607, most of them prisoners of war.  Although nothing came of the battle as Lee immediately marched south to avoid allowing Meade to force him into a general engagement, the battle was a shot in the arm for Union morale, and a bad day for the Army of Northern Virginia.  Here is General Lee’s report of the engagement:





GENERAL: I have the honor to report that after the return of the army of the Rappahannock it was disposed on both sides of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, General Ewell’s corps on the right and General Hill’s on the left, with the cavalry on each flank. The troops were placed as near the river as suitable ground for encampment could be found, and most of the artillery sent to the nearest point in the rear where the animals could be foraged. 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 earth-works on these hills to repel an attack from the south. That on the north side was converted into a tete-de-pont, and a line of rile 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 embarkment, under cover of which the enemy might advance. These 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 tete-de-pont and eight others on the works opposite. The defense of this position was instructed to Lieutenant-General Ewell’s corps and the troops of Johnston’s and Early’s divisions guarded them alternately, Rodes’ division being stationed near Kelly’s Ford.

The enemy began to rebuilt the railroad as soon as we withdrew from Bristoe Station, his army advancing as the work progressed. His movements were regularly reported by our scouts, and it was known that he had advanced from Warrenton Junction a few days before the attack.

His approach toward the Rappahannock was announced on November 6, and about noon next day his infantry was discovered advancing to the bridge, while a large force moved in the direction of Kelly’s Ford, where the first attack was made. At the later point the ground on the north side of the Rappahannock commands that on the passage of the river as would suffice to gain time for putting the troops in a a position selected in rear of the ford, with a view to contest the advance of the enemy after crossing. In accordance with this intention, General Rodes had one regiment (the Second North Carolina) on picket along the river, the greater part of it being at Kelly’s, with the Thirtieth North Carolina in reserve supporting a battery.

As soon as he perceived that the enemy was in force, he ordered his division to take the position referred to in rear of the ford. While it was getting into line the enemy’s artillery opened upon the Second North Carolina and soon drove it to shelter, except a few companies near the ford, which continued to fire from the rifle-pits. The Thirtieth was advanced to the assistance of the Second, but in moving across the open ground was broken by the concentrated fire of the enemy’s artillery, and took refuge behind some buildings at the river. The enemy, being unopposed except by the part in the rifle-pits, crossed at the rapids above the ford and captured the troops defending it, together with a large number of the Thirtieth North Carolina, who refused to leave the shelter of the houses. A pontoon bridge was then laid down, on which a large force crossed to the south bank.

General Rodes in the meantime had placed his division in position, the resistance of the Second North Carolina having delayed the enemy sufficiently for this purpose. The advance of the Thirtieth does not appear to have contributed to this result, which, as previously stated, was the object of contesting the passage. It was not intended to attack the enemy until he should have advanced from the river, where it was hoped that by holding in check the force at the bridge, we would be able to concentrate upon the other. With this view General Johnson’s division was ordered to re-enforce General Rodes.

In the meantime a large force was displayed in our front at the bridge, upon receiving information of which General A. P. Hill was ordered to get his corps in readiness, and Anderson’s division was advanced to the river on the left of the railroad. The artillery was also ordered to move to the front. General Early put his division in motion toward the bridge and hastened thither in person. The enemy’s skirmishers advanced in strong force with heavy supports, and ours were slowly withdrawn into the trenches.

Hoke’s brigade, of Early’s division, under Colonel Godwin (General Hoke being absent with one regiment on detached service), re-enforced General Hays, whose brigade occupied the north bank. No other troops were sent over, the two brigades mentioned being sufficient to man the works; and though inferior to the enemy in numbers, the nature of the position was such that he could not attack with a front more extended than our own. The remainder of Early’s division was placed in supporting distance, one regiment being stationed in the rifle trenches on the south bank east of the railroad. A gun from the works on the left of the road was also ordered to be placed in the battery at this point, to command the approach by the railroad embankment on the opposite side, but the enemy’s sharpshooters had advanced so near the river that the order was countermanded, the preparations already made being deemed sufficient.

The enemy placed three batteries on the hills from which our skirmishers had been forced to retire, and maintained an active fire upon our position until dark, doing no damage, however, so far as has been reported. Our batteries replied from both sides of the river, but with so little effect that the two on the south bank were ordered to cease firing.

Light skirmishing took place along the line. It was not known whether this demonstration was intended as a serious attack or only to cover the movement of the force that had crossed at Kelly’s Ford, but the lateness of the hour and the increasing darkness induced the belief that moving would be attempted until morning. It was believed that our troops on the north side would be able to maintain their position if attacked, and that in any case they could withdraw under cover of the guns on the south, the location of the pontoon bridge being beyond the reach of a direct fire from any position occupied by the enemy.

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 movement from being heard. It was essential to the maintenance of the position under these circumstances that sharpshooters should have been thrown forward to give early information of his approach, in order that he might be subjected to a 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 enable them to press into the works. No information of the attack was received on the south of the river until too late for the artillery there stationed to aid in repelling it; and it does not appear that the result would have been affected, under the circumstances, by the presence of a large number of guns.

The artillery in the works at the south end of the bridge was relied upon to keep it open for the retreat of the troops, as it could sweep the crest of the opposite hill at a short range. The darkness of the night and the fear of injuring our own men who had surrendered, prevented General Early from using it. The bridge, however, seems to have remained accessible to the troops on the left up to the last moment, as Lieutenant-Colonel Tate, with a few men, crossed just before it was fired by order of General Early.

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 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.

The loss of General Rodes at Kelly’s Ford was 5 killed, 59 wounded, and 295 missing. General Early’s loss, including that of the artillery, was 6 killed, 39 wounded, and 1,629 missing. Some reported as missing were probably killed or wounded, and left in the hands of the enemy, and others failed to report to their commands.

Among the wounded were Colonel Cox, of the Second North Carolina, and Lieutenant-Colonel Sillers, of the Thirtieth – the latter, it is feared, mortally.

I forward herewith the reports of Generals Rodes and Early, the latter inclosing those of General Hays and Lieutenant-Colonel Tate, of Hoke’s brigade.

A map of the locality is also annexed.*

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE,


General S. COOPER,

Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.

Published in: on November 7, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on November 7, 1863: Second Battle of Rappahannock Station  
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