The March to Bristoe Station - Triangle of Disaster
Eric Hislop reports on the lecture by James Falkner
The period between the close of the Gettysburg Campaign and the opening of Grant's spring offensive, although bereft of any major action, which was the natural outcome of the winter months, saw strategic maneuvering, comprising several actions, too large to be called a skirmish, yet falling well short of a main battle.
Because of the uneasy lull, both sides had been reduced by the transfer troops to the western theatre. Lee, who had resisted an attempt to be transferred himself, dispatched Longstreet, and Meade lost Hooker and two corps. Lee was further weakened by the losses sustained in the Gettysburg campaign, far more than was Meade, and also by shortcomings in two of his corps commanders, A.P.Hill and Ewell. Moreover both army commanders had reputations to protect. Lee was mindful of the glory days of his army, before the death of Jackson, and Meade was the victor of Gettysburg.
Meade had crossed the Rappahannock pushing on toward the Rapidan, thus overstretching his communications. Lee saw a chance to move around the right flank of Meade and disrupt these communications. Hill and the Third Corps were dispatched to accomplish this. Hancock wanted to stand firm, but was overruled by Meade and both armies raced north towards Centerville attempting to reach the vital river crossings first. Hill and Ewell approached Bristoe Station, about half a mile to the west of Broad Run. Stuart, who should have supported the right flank, had been driven back by Kilpatrick at Brandy station. Hill made better time than Ewell who also was unable to support Hill. Ahead lay the fords of Broad Run and Hill could see Sykes' Fifth Federal Corps marching off and French's Third Corps yet to cross. Always an impulsive warrior, Hill saw a chance to hit hard and pushed forward Heth's division. The Orange and Alexandria railroad ran at right angles to Broad Run. On the south-east side of the railroad was the second corps of Union general Warren, concealed by an embankment, and consequently was not seen by Hill when he made his initial assessment. He now realised that there was a Federal force on his flank and sent word back for the Division of Anderson to come up and protect his right flank. Heth realised that his Division would be taken on the right flank by Warren, reporting this to Hill. Nonetheless Hill ordered Heth to attack the crossings who pushed forward the Brigades of Kirkland and Cooke on the left and right flanks respectively. Hill had thought that Anderson would be up in time to support the right flank, but this was not to be. A crucial half hour, needed for Anderson to come up, proved decisive. The Brigades of Kirkland and Cooke were exposed to enfilading fire from Warren's Corps and both suffered heavy casualties, particularly Cooke's Brigade. The Union forces made good their crossing. Hill's total casualties amounted to 1,378 against 350 by Warren. The prime cause of the disaster was a lamentable failure to send out an adequate reconnaissance, which in a soldier of Hill's seniority and experience almost amounted to a dereliction.
The next morning Hill showed Lee over the battlefield. Lee, notably tolerant of shortcomings in his subordinates, particularly when they were difficult to replace, issued, which was for him a damning admonition, "Well General, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.", which by its very restraint much have wounded Hill to the core. Hill himself admitted that he had been hasty but added that had he delayed for half an hour until Anderson was up the Union troops would have escaped. Davis, on reading Hill's report commented that there had been a want of vigilance.
An amusing tailpiece was the outcome of the trap set by Stuart for the Union cavalry. Stuart harassed the still retreating federals and they fell back. The Federal cavalry, under Kilpatrick, in turn pressed strongly and Stuart retreated across Broad Run. Fitz Lee with his cavalry Division was coming up fast. He sent a message to Stuart advising him to retreat further so that the two forces could combine and spring an ambush. The Federals swallowed the bait and pursued with Custer in the van, no doubt eager for his share of the glory. The firing of a cannon was the starting gun; the combined Confederate divisions emerged from the depression behind the ridge and charged. The Union cavalry turned tail and fled pursued hotly by the Confederate cavalry . Union losses were about 1350 against 408 by the Confederates. Coming as it did five days after the fiasco at Broad Run "the races" did much to restore Confederate morale. However the victory was more apparent than real as the Federal cavalry was soon operational again.
These events, which occurred in the latter half of October 1863 ended when the Federal forces were dug in again in the vicinity of the old Bull Run battlefields. When Meade reported to Halleck that he did not know where Lee was, Halleck sarcastically replied that Meade should go out and find him or Lee would be sure to find him. In short however, in this minor campaign, neither Lee nor Meade performed well. Meade overextended his communications and was not punished as he should have been. Lee's lieutenants were no longer sparking.
A lively question time followed, but space will not permit a reporting of the proceedings apart from Col Falkner's remark, en passant, that despite Hookers' deficiencies as a battlefield commander, he was an excellent administrator, and in fact inaugurated the Union army's intelligence service, which was a vast improvement on that previously provided by the Pinkerton organisation.