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.
Meade Resumes His Pursuit of Lee
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.
Lee Strikes Back
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. Lee’s offensive was short-lived, however. After suffering a defeat at the Battle of Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863, Lee withdrew his army south of the Rappahannock River and to establish a defensive line as he prepared to go into winter quarters.
Rebels Protect Bridge at Rappahannock Station
In anticipation of a spring offensive aimed at driving the Army of the Potomac out of Northern Virginia, Lee left one pontoon bridge across the river at Rappahannock Station intact. To protect the bridge, Lee ordered the construction of a bridgehead on the north bank of the river, complete with earthworks and trenches. Artillery batteries on both sides of the river protected the bridgehead. Lee charged Major General Jubal A. Early’s Division of Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps with protecting the bridgehead. Early manned the position with some of his finest troops, Brigadier General Harry T. Hays’s Louisiana brigade, known as the Louisiana Tigers.
November 7, 1863 — Clash at Rappahannock Station
Meanwhile, Meade, who was under intense pressure from Washington to continue to pursue Lee’s retreating army, did not attack. On November 7, Meade ordered Major General William H. French’s 3rd Corps to force its way across the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford, five miles downstream from Rappahannock Station. Concurrent with French’s assault, Major General John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps advanced against the Rebel defenders at the bridgehead.
Upon learning of the two-pronged attack, Lee mistakenly presumed that Sedgwick’s movement toward the pontoon bridge was a feint to support French’s attempt to cross the river at Kelly’s Ford. Thus, he sent only one brigade to Rappahannock Station in response to Early’s request for reinforcements.
Meade’s Plan Goes Well
Meade’s battle plan could hardly have gone better. French’s 3rd Corps brushed aside the Confederate defenders at Kelly’s Ford and easily gained the south side of the river. In the meantime, Sedgwick’s men established artillery positions on the high ground north of the pontoon bridge and began shelling the 2,000 Rebel defenders.
Successful Federal Attack at Dusk
As dusk approached, the shelling stopped. Hays and his men may have assumed that Sedgwick had called a halt to the day’s action. Suddenly, however, soldiers from Brigadier General David A. Russell’s division, led by the 6th Maine and the 5th Wisconsin Infantries, charged the Rebel works from two sides. Many of the shocked Confederates threw down their arms and surrendered.
Following a futile attempt to organize a counterattack, the hapless defenders made for the bridge to escape harm or capture. As the Yankee sharpshooters cut down the fleeing Rebels on the bridge, others jumped into the icy waters and tried to swim to freedom.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Union victory resulted in Russell’s men capturing nearly 1,600 Confederate soldiers, and roughly 600 more Confederates perished in the assault. The Union reported 419 casualties (killed, wounded, or captured) at both combat sites.
The loss 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 engaged again during the Mine Run Campaign.