Prelude to the Battle
Lee Escapes After Gettysburg
Following the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), Major General George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac cautiously pursued General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as it retreated into Virginia. Despite encounters at the Battle of Williamsport (July 6–16, 1863), the Battle of Boonsboro (July 8, 1863), and the Battle of Manassas Gap (July 23, 1863), Meade could not prevent Lee’s escape and called off the chase.
Lee’s Army Depleted
In September, Confederate officials pressured Lee into sending Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps to Chattanooga to reinforce Lieutenant General Braxton’s Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, which was being battered by Major General William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland. When Meade learned that Lee had weakened his army, he renewed his pursuit. In mid-September, Meade sent two columns forward to engage the remnants of Lee’s army, encamped along the Rapidan River.
Meade’s Army Depleted
The tables quickly turned, however, when Washington officials ordered Meade’s 11th and 12th Corps to Tennessee after the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). With the size of Meade’s army also depleted, Lee responded by crossing the Rappahannock River and launching an offensive aimed at Meade’s right flank. Meade countered by beginning a withdrawal to secure his supply depot at Centerville.
On the morning of October 14, 1863, near Bristoe Station, Confederate General A. P. Hill’s corps was in pursuit of Major General George Sykes’s 5th Corps, which was serving as the rearguard of Meade’s army. When Hill caught sight of Sykes’ corps early in the afternoon, he ordered his lead division, commanded by Major General Henry Heth, to attack.
Because of poor reconnaissance, Hill was unaware that Major General Gouverneur Warren’s 2nd Corps was also in the area. When Warren saw Heth’s division approach, he deployed his own troops in a strong defensive position along the embankment of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. As Heth continued his pursuit of Sykes, Warren’s men unleashed a hail of lead into the right flank of two brigades of the unsuspecting Confederates. Heth desperately tried to turn his men around to face their assailants but with little success. A futile charge into the murderous fire did not dislodge the stubborn Yankee defenders.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Union victory resulted in the loss of approximately 550 men. By the time that the Rebels escaped, Hill had lost nearly 1,400 soldiers and a battery of artillery.
During the night, Warren’s corps withdrew and rejoined the Army of the Potomac, prompting Lee to call a halt to his offensive and to move back south. The next day, as Lee and Hill rode across the battlefield and surveyed the damage, Lee reportedly said to Hill, “Well, well, General. Bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.”