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Mine Run a fight of courageous choices
This year has seen the 140th anniversaries of momentous campaigns and deadly battles, including Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg and Chattanooga, but 1863’s closing campaign in the East is little remembered, although it helped shape the rest of the war in Virginia and the armies that waged it. This was the Mine Run campaign.
The weeks after Gettysburg saw both the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Gen. George Gordon Meade, and the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, rebuilding shattered units and regaining their strength after the war’s bloodiest contest. Meade had reorganized his army into five corps rather than the seven unwieldy corps of Gettysburg, while Lee had just two of his three corps present.
Worse still for Lee’s forces, mid-October and early November saw encounters that seriously shook his army’s confidence. At Bristoe Station, Kelly’s Ford and Rappahannock Station, Meade outmaneuvered and tactically battered both of Lee’s corps commanders, Gens. A.P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell. At a price of less than 1,000 casualties, Meade inflicted losses four times that many, which the weakened Confederate army could ill afford.
Lee’s response was to pull his forces south of the Rapidan River, and on Nov. 8, his men trudged through snow and foul weather to ford the icy waters and went into defensive positions several miles west of a wild tract known as the Wilderness.
President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were disappointed by Meade’s inability to further damage Lee, and they desired continued action. On Nov. 14, Meade came to Washington to plan the next movement. Though it is uncertain what detailed guidance Lincoln and Stanton provided, Meade developed an aggressive plan that held promise of results — if his army could move quickly from its camps around Culpeper to seize and cross the Rapidan fords that flank the modern-day Virginia Route 3 crossing at Germanna, then push westward along the two main roads through the Wilderness, the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road. Meade hoped to turn Lee’s flank and engage him in detail in the open countryside near Orange Court House, south and west of Lee’s lines.
Meade had reorganized his army to improve its tactical flexibility and offset the loss of three corps commanders at Gettysburg. Two Gettysburg veterans, Gens. George Sykes and John Sedgwick, were still in command of the corps they had led in July (V and VI, respectively), while Gen. John Newton replaced Gen. John Reynolds, killed on July 1, in command of the I Corps. Gen. William French now led Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’ III Corps, and the hero of Little Round Top, Gen. Gouverneur Warren, was rewarded with command of Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps while Hancock recovered from the wound he had suffered during Pickett’s Charge. As the campaign would demonstrate, not all these commanders were up to their duties.
Meade gathered all five corps commanders on the night of Nov. 23 to issue marching orders for the next day. Almost immediately, however, a cold driving rain brought up the creeks and rivers and forced a postponement to the 26th. This killed any hope of surprising Lee, who by the 25th knew that Meade’s army was preparing a movement. Though he didn’t yet know where, he prepared his two corps to move.
‘Fog and friction’
Meade’s forces finally got in motion on the 26th, but several of the pontoon bridges proved one pontoon too short, causing a significant delay in bridging the river. Meade’s plan of getting his army across the Rapidan and well down the two roads by nightfall probably was too ambitious. Not until late afternoon were all three corps across the cold and swift-running river, so late that they had to halt for the night before even entering the Wilderness, and Meade was forced to revise his plan. Now he would unite his corps the next day at Robertson’s Tavern (sometimes called Robinson’s), several miles down the turnpike at the far edge of the Wilderness. He could still hit Lee a powerful blow — if Lee were still in the same position.
Robert E. Lee, however, was never one to sit passively awaiting attack. On Nov. 26, Lee was moving to engage the Federals. Even though he did not know Meade’s intentions, he prepared to meet the most immediate threat by moving Ewell’s Corps along the Orange Turnpike and Hill’s along the plank road, thus blocking the only two significant roads leading west from the Wilderness. Both armies were in motion by daybreak on the 27th, and by noon, near Locust Grove on the turnpike, infantry from Warren’s II Corps and Ewell’s Corps ran into each other and began skirmishing while calling for reinforcements. Three miles south of that spot, on the plank road, cavalry from both armies encountered each other and waited for their supporting infantry.
With Warren facing a Confederate force of unknown size near Locust Grove, Meade wanted French’s III Corps to close up with and support Warren, but the planned movement became a textbook case of “fog and friction.” Throughout the morning of the 27th, Meade grew increasingly enraged as he heard and saw nothing of French, who was himself greatly frustrated with his lead division commander, Gen. Henry Prince. His division had been in the lead in the slow movement to the Rapidan, and French blamed Prince for the fiasco at the river.
Throughout the morning of the 27th, Prince and French fumbled around, looking for the right roads, agonizing over which fork in the road to take and issuing and receiving conflicting and confusing orders. Meade’s patience was long since exhausted, and he angrily demanded of French, “What are you waiting for?” Not until late afternoon, while Warren’s men were sparring with Gen. Robert Rodes’ division of Ewell’s Corps, did Prince’s men finally reach the road that led toward Warren’s right flank.
They found, however, that this intersection, near Payne’s Farm on the Raccoon Ford Road, was blocked by Gen. Edward Johnson’s division of Ewell’s Corps, and the ensuing engagement — the Battle of Payne’s Farm — turned out to be the biggest of the entire campaign.
By Donald Lambro
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