- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

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.

Marching orders

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.

Stuck in the woods

Johnson deployed his four brigades, under (from left to right) Gens. George Steuart, James Walker, Leroy Stafford and John Jones, along the Raccoon Ford Road (modern-day Virginia Route 611). As Prince’s and then Gen. Joseph Carr’s divisions of French’s corps reached Raccoon Ford Road, Johnson concluded from personal reconnaissance that although his four brigades faced a larger Federal formation, their inaction offered him an opportunity to seize the initiative, and by 4 p.m., he ordered his men to attack.

Although the terrain impeded coordination, the attack steadily pushed the Union forces back until the fighting was halted by nightfall. Meanwhile, French and Prince had demonstrated nothing but uncertainty and inefficiency bordering on incompetence. While French’s III Corps was being stymied by Johnson’s attack and Sedgwick’s VI Corps thus was stalled behind him, Meade had to watch the planned union of these corps with Warren on the turnpike dissipate.

Johnson’s aggressiveness prevented French and Sedgwick from joining Warren and perhaps overwhelming Ewell. He kept the two Union corps of nearly 35,000 troops stuck in the woods and thus gave Lee sufficient time to react and move his army to a better defensive position overlooking the valley of Mine Run. During the night, Meade moved his headquarters forward to Robertson’s Tavern and prepared to strike a blow at daybreak.

Throughout a cold, dismal, rainy night, Newton’s I Corps and Sedgwick’s VI Corps moved up and took place to the left and right of Warren, and at dawn they advanced. However, the blow landed on thin air because Lee had abandoned the eastern slope of Mine Run in favor of better defensive positions along the ridge overlooking it from the west. Throughout the night, his men had used “tin plates, cups, and bare hands” to throw up a strong line of entrenchments, many of which still exist today.

Warren’s answer

The question of what to do next was the subject of a conference at Meade’s headquarters that evening (the 28th), and the answer was proposed by Warren, one of the Army of the Potomac’s brightest rising stars. Warren suggested taking his corps around the Confederate right flank, near the plank road crossing of Mine Run, where the Confederate defenses and earthworks petered out.

Exactly what he would do when he got there, however, was unsettled. Was he merely to threaten Lee’s flank, actually assault it, or try to maneuver behind Lee and thus force him to abandon his works? Regardless, if the movement were successful, Warren would be squarely astride Lee’s flank at daybreak on the 30th.

On the opposite flank, Sedgwick was to open with artillery at 8 a.m. and attack at 9 a.m., both to support Warren and to complete the double envelopment of Lee’s entire line. The result of the plan, however, was to be both frustration and a courageous decision by Warren and Meade.

Before dawn on the 29th, Warren’s men were on the march and would spend the day moving 10 miles through deep woods, along muddy tracks and roads, finally to reach Mine Run where the plank road crossed it. From there, they could see that the Confederate position opposite them seemed “slight and thinly occupied,” so Warren’s force would not have any difficulty assaulting it. There was one insurmountable problem, however: It was nearly 5 p.m., and they had run out of daylight. There was not sufficient time to place the troops into an attack formation and exploit the advantage.

Warren and Meade hoped perhaps Lee would realize the weakness of his position and withdraw, but Lee reacted aggressively to the news of Warren’s presence by moving all of Hill’s corps to the threatened flank.

Courageous decision

It was a desperate night for both sides. Hill’s men worked with whatever implements they had, and by dawn they had created a position that held every hope of not only successfully resisting any Federal attack, but also making such an effort extremely costly.

Across the shallow valley of Mine Run, the Union troops spent one of the worst nights of the entire war. After the rain stopped on the 29th, the temperature plummeted. Water froze inside canteens. Pickets could spend no more than 30 minutes on duty or risk freezing to death, and no fires were permitted.

At daylight, Warren’s men could see what they were up against, as Confederates stood on their works and taunted the Federals. By 3 a.m., the Federals had formed ranks and started moving to where they would begin the assault at 8 a.m. The men pinned slips of paper to their coats with their names and regiments so their bodies could be identified.

Warren — who had been augmented by two divisions from Newton, bringing his force to nearly 28,000 men, well more than half the size of Lee’s entire infantry force — rode ahead and was dismayed by what he saw. Although he mentioned to one of his staff that “If I succeed today, I will be the greatest man in the Army,” his engineer’s eye quickly calculated that it would take his men a minimum of eight minutes to cross the open ground to the Confederate line, every inch covered and swept by the Confederate artillery and infantry fire.

There was no time to consult with Meade, so Warren made one of the most courageous command decisions of the war, especially for the youngest and most untested corps commander in the Army: He canceled the attack. Sending word to Meade saying “I cannot succeed,” he wrote: “The works cannot be taken. I would sooner sacrifice my commission … than … my men.”

Meade’s initial reaction was as expected from one well-known for his short-fused temper: He exclaimed, “My God. General Warren has half my army at his disposition.” At the same time, he realized that with the left-flank attack halted, the right-flank attack by Sedgwick also must be stopped, which was done, although not without difficulty.

Meade then rode to Warren’s headquarters, “looking as savage as anyone could,” but after looking at the ground, he realized Warren had made the right decision. Upon his return to his own headquarters, Meade was challenged by French, who taunted both Meade and his faith in that “beardless boy,” Warren. This was not wise behavior because Meade rightly blamed French for much of the army’s hesitant movements in the preceding days. French’s days as a corps commander in the Army of the Potomac were numbered.

That evening, Meade brought his commanders together, but it was clear what must be done. The next night, the army began its retreat across the Rapidan.

Lee frustrated

Lee, aggressive as always, hoped to strike a blow at Meade once it was obvious that he had given up his plan to attack on Nov. 30. During the daylight hours of Dec. 1, the Army of Northern Virginia prepared to attempt a turning movement around Meade’s flank, but when they moved, they found nothing but empty space.

Lee angrily exclaimed, “I am too old to command this army. … We should never have let those people get away.” The Mine Run campaign was over.

In the North, there was a great deal of popular and political dissatisfaction with the outcome, as Meade clearly had foreseen, and some quarters of the press called loudly for his relief. The final responsibility for the canceled attack on the 30th was his, and he stepped up to it squarely. He wrote his wife on Dec. 2, “I therefore consider my fate as settled; but … I would rather be ignominiously dismissed … than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing. It was my deliberate judgment that I ought not to attack; I acted on that judgment, and I am willing to stand or fall by it.”

In a war marked by all-too numerous instances of doomed attacks leading to thousands of casualties — Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, Pickett’s Charge, Cold Harbor and Franklin, to cite just five — Warren’s and Meade’s decision to forgo a costly and hopeless attack was a notable example of moral courage and battlefield wisdom.

The battlefield today

Little has been written about Mine Run, which appears as an afterthought in most histories. Today the campaign ground remains relatively unknown and unmarked. There are two Civil War Trails panels at the site of Robertson’s Tavern, and a few old roadside markers stand where the turnpike — Virginia Route 20 — crosses Mine Run, but the battlefield is occupied mostly by small farms and private homes. The eastern approaches to Mine Run follow the two main roads, the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road, which cross the Wilderness Battlefield, major sections of which have been lost to residential developments such as Fawn Lake.

Mine Run is not immune to such threats. Much of the ground traversed by Johnson’s division while marching to the engagement at Payne’s Farm on Nov. 28 has become the site of an estate properties development. However, thanks to the generosity of the current owner of Payne’s Farm, Bill Meadows, and the hard work of groups such as the Civil War Preservation Trust and the Piedmont Environmental Council, the scene of the actual fighting there has been preserved,

Daniel T. Kuehl is a professor at the National Defense University and leads staff rides to several area battlefields as part of the curriculum at the National War College.

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