150 Years Ago This Week: Engagement at Bristoe Station

October, 1863

In an effort to learn the intentions of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the Federals of Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac began probing the Rapidan River area of Culpeper County on Saturday, Oct. 10.

Extensive skirmishing between both armies broke out in a number of locations in the vicinity, notably at the fords of the Rapidan — Morton’s, Germanna and Raccoon — and on the Robertson River at Russell’s Ford. Other fighting took place near Bethesda Church and James City.

Once again President Lincoln wired Gen. Meade with “How is it now?” Gen. Meade thought Gen. Lee might try to return to the Shenandoah Valley, but the next day, Gen. Meade wired his commander-in-chief: “The enemy are either moving to my right and rear or moving down my flank” on the Rappahannock River. In actuality, Gen. Lee’s men were marching by the right flank of Gen. Meade’s army, seeking to get behind the Army of the Potomac and pin them against the Rapidan River.

Maj. Gen. Joseph “Jo” Shelby and his Confederate cavalry were active again in Missouri on Oct. 11, and there was fighting in Mississippi, Kentucky and eastern Tennessee. With Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee south of Chattanooga, President Davis surveyed the military scene and attempted to establish harmony among Gen. Bragg’s dissident subordinate commanders.

Serious fighting broke out between Union and Confederate troops in and around Culpeper Courthouse, at Stevensburg, Brandy Station, at Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock and at Fauquier White Sulphur Springs near Warrenton. On Oct. 12, President Lincoln asked Gen. Meade for the third time: “What news this morning?”

In Washington, reports of a major Confederate offensive in Virginia widely circulated. Gen. Lee’s troops were indeed moving, and there was fighting in Rappahannock County at Gaines’ Crossroads (today’s Ben Venue), as well as Jeffersonton and Brandy Station in Culpeper County. Also in Washington, President Lincoln wrote Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans at Chattanooga that “both you and Gen. Ambrose Burnside in east Tennessee now have the enemy by the throat.”

Following the same pattern that the Army of Northern Virginia used in August 1862, which culminated in the successful Battle of Second Manassas, Gen. Lee had his Third Corps under Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill moving toward Manassas and Washington on Oct. 13. Fighting between isolated units of both armies took place around Warrenton and at Auburn in Fauquier County. Gen. Meade advanced his army toward Manassas and Centreville in Fairfax County.

On the same day, Ohio voters decisively defeated Democratic candidate for governor Clement Vallandigham in favor of War Democrat John Brough, who ran on the Union or Republican platform. Despite his exile to Canada and condemnation as a Copperhead, Vallandigham polled a surprisingly large vote. In Pennsylvania, the staunch Unionist Gov. Andrew Curtin was reelected as governor. Union candidates were also elected to state houses in Indiana and Iowa.

In northern Georgia, President Davis toured the Chickamauga battlefield with Gen. Bragg and his officers, and authorized Gen. Bragg to relieve Lt. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill from corps command.  The two generals had long been at odds.

On Oct. 14, Gen. A.P. Hill’s corps struck Union troops along the Orange and Alexandria railroads at Bristoe Station in Prince William County. In a coordinated attack, Gen. Hill’s troops lacked the sufficient strength to defeat Gen. Meade’s strongly posted Federal troops, and the fighting was both intense and bloody.

Brig. Gen. Carnot Posey, commanding Mississippi troops in Gen. Hill’s corps, was mortally wounded and was conveyed to a Confederate hospital on the grounds of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, where he died and was buried.

The Union army remained on the defensive, offering protection for Washington, and Gen. Hill’s troops attempted to maintain the offensive, but could not penetrate the Union positions near Centreville, Catlett’s Station, Gainesville, McLean’s ford on Bull Run and Brentsville.

On Oct. 15, both sides fought it out in isolated areas of Prince William, Fauquier and Fairfax counties, but nothing strategic was accomplished by either side. Gen. Lee was angry with Gen. Hill for keeping a stalemate yet sustaining almost 2,000 casualties (Gen. Meade’s troops totalled 550 killed, wounded and missing); he sternly told his Third Corps commander to “bury your dead and say no more about it.”

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.