Events Leading Up to the Bristoe Campaign
Following the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), Major General George G. Meade and his Army of the Potomac cautiously pursued General Robert E. Lee and his 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.
In September, Confederate officials pressured Lee into sending Lieutenant General James Longstreet and his 1st Corps to Chattanooga to reinforce Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee, which was being battered by Major General William Rosecrans and his 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.
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.
Cavalry Skirmish at Auburn
On October 13, Confederate cavalry under the command of Major General J. E. B. Stuart skirmished with the rearguard of the Union 3rd Corps near Auburn, in Fauquier County, Virginia. On the next day, as skirmishing continued near Auburn, Confederate General A. P. Hill and his corps pursued Major General George Sykes and his 5th Corps, which was serving as the rearguard of Meade’s army. When Hill caught sight of Sykes’ corps near Bristoe Station early in the afternoon, he ordered his lead division, commanded by Major General Henry Heth, to attack.
Battle of Bristoe Station
Because of poor reconnaissance, Hill was unaware that Major General Gouverneur Warren and his 2nd Corps were 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 failed to dislodge the stubborn Yankee defenders. By the time the Rebels escaped, Hill had lost nearly 1,400 soldiers and a battery of artillery. Union losses at the Battle of Bristoe Station totaled approximately 550 men.
Battle of Buckland Mills
Following the Union victory at Bristoe Station, Lee called off his short-lived offensive and slowly fell back to the Rappahannock River, destroying the Orange & Alexandria Railroad on the way. With Lee in retreat, Meade reversed his course and, once again, became the pursuer. On October 19, 1863, Stuart, who was shielding Lee’s withdrawal, lured the Union cavalry, under the command of Brigadier-General Judson Kilpatrick, into an ambush near Buckland Mills on a small stream named Broad Run. Stuart’s horsemen routed the surprised Blue Coats and sent them fleeing. The Union retreat was so speedy that the Confederates derisively referred to the Battle of Buckland Mills as the Buckland Races. The next day, Stuart’s cavalry rejoined Lee’s main army.
Battle of Rappahannock Station
By early November, Lee’s army had safely crossed the Rappahannock River, leaving intact a pontoon bridge at Rappahannock Station. Meade, who was under intense pressure from Washington to continue to pursue Lee’s retreating army, launched an attack on November 7, 1863. Meade directed Major General William H. French and his 3rd Corps to strike Lee’s lines at Kelly’s Ford. He also ordered Major General John Sedgwick and his 6th Corps to assault the bridge at Rappahannock Station. French’s forces attacked first and secured the ford. When they began crossing the river, Lee hastily shifted troops to halt the advance. At dusk, Sedgewick’s men surged forward and overran the Confederates guarding the bridge. During the rout, they captured over 1,600 soldiers from a division under the command of Major General Jubal Early.
The Union victory at the Battle of Rappahannock Station forced Lee to retreat even farther south than he had hoped before the onset of winter. It also emboldened Meade to launch another offensive before cold weather arrived. In late November and early December, the two armies would engage again during the Mine Run Campaign.
Outcome of the Bristoe Campaign
During the Bristoe Campaign, the Union suffered nearly 1,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured). The Confederacy lost approximately 3,500 soldiers, many of whom the Federals captured at Rappahannock Station. Although the campaign began as a Confederate offensive, it resulted in a Union success because Meade forced Lee to concede the land between the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers.