Events Leading Up to the Mine Run 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.
Two Armies Weakened
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 in early October and launching an offensive aimed at Meade’s right flank. Meade reacted by beginning a withdrawal toward Centerville.
The two armies parried for the next month during the Bristoe Campaign, until Union victories at the Battle of Bristoe Station (October 14, 1863) and the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station (November 7, 1863) forced Lee to move south and to concede the land between the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers.
As Lee was redeploying his army in defensive positions south of the Rapidan River beginning the second week of November, Meade was busy trying to quiet his critics in Washington by devising a final offensive against his adversary before the onset of winter. Two weeks later, he was ready to move.
On November 26, 1863, Meade’s 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Corps (commanded by Gouverneur K. Warren, William H. French, and George Sykes, respectively) moved southeast out of Culpepper Court House toward the Rapidan River. Meade planned for each of the corps to cross the river at Jacob’s Ford and then quickly to swing west in three columns and attack Lee’s right flank near Mine Run, a small stream flowing north to the Rapidan. The success of the operation depended upon the element of surprise.
Unfortunately for Meade, the weather and some poor generalship combined to eliminate any chance he had to catch Lee off guard. French was first in line for the crossing, and he had trouble getting his men and artillery to the other side of the swollen Rapidan, creating a bottleneck for the other two corps. Once across the river, French made a wrong turn and got lost on his way to Mine Run. By the time that all the Union forces were positioned to launch their assault, the day was spent, and Confederate scouts had discovered their whereabouts. Alerted to the Yankees’ presence, Lee quickly dispatched his 2nd Corps, commanded by Major General Jubal Early, to intercept them.
Battle of Mine Run
Elements of the two armies collided the next day, November 27, on the east side of Mine Run in a dense tangle of trees and brush locally known as the Wilderness. The next year, during the Overland Campaign, the Wilderness would be the site of some of the more horrific combat of the Civil War. While both sides hastened to send troops to the front, intense fighting at locations such as Robertson’s Tavern, New Hope Church, and Payne’s Farm eventually engaged over 16,000 soldiers at the Battle of Mine Run. After an afternoon of charges and counter-charges, neither side could claim a victory when the fighting subsided with the onset of darkness.
During the night, Lee pulled his men back to the west side of Mine Run and began digging in. Meade awoke the next morning to find his adversary well entrenched on the high ground protected by a stream to his front. Lee had high hopes that Meade would repeat the error that Ambrose Burnside had made at Fredericksburg less than one year earlier. Meade was not Burnside. After shelling the Confederates for the next two days, while unsuccessfully probing for a weakness in Lee’s lines, Meade grasped the futility of launching a hopeless assault against the Rebels. Instead, he wisely turned his army around during the night of December 1–2 and headed north to re-cross the Rapidan.
Outcome of the Mine Run Campaign
With his army safely across the river, and Meade went into winter quarters expecting critics in the northern press and his superiors in Washington to condemn him for the failed campaign. Still, Meade had no misgivings for his withdrawal. On the night that he ordered an end to the Mine Run Campaign, Meade wrote to his wife:
I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing. . . . As it is, my conscience is clear. I did the best I could.
The lost opportunity clearly frustrated Lee. Meade’s failure to attack had prompted Lee to order an assault on the Union left flank, scheduled for December 2. With the Rapidan River serving as a troublesome obstacle to a Union retreat, Lee envisioned the possibility of another Confederate victory on a scale with Chancellorsville. When a chagrined Lee discovered Meade’s withdrawal, he reportedly stated in front of his staff, “I am too old to command this army. We should never have permitted those people to get away.”
The results of the Mine Run Campaign were inconclusive and the casualty rates were roughly comparable. The Union suffered 2,094 casualties (261 killed, 1,460 wounded, and 373 missing). The Confederacy lost 2,826 soldiers (118 killed, 651 wounded, and 2,057 missing). However, Meade’s losses made up only two percent of the total federal forces (ninety-six thousand) engaged. Lee’s losses constituted five percent of his much smaller force of 56,000 soldiers, underscoring the Confederacy’s ultimate inability to wage a war of attrition. Ulysses S. Grant would note that fact the following spring when he came east and launched his Overland Campaign.