[The Bristoe Campaign: General Lee's Last Strategic Offensive with the Army of Northern Virginia October 1863 by Adrian G. Tighe (Xlibris Corp., 2010). Softcover, 61 maps, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:438/534 ISBN:978-1-4535-4990-2 $23.99]
Absent any major battles and sandwiched between the bloodbaths of Gettysburg and the following year's Overland Campaign, the autumn 1863 Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns have received comparatively minimal coverage in the literature. Short works for both have appeared in the H.E. Howard Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series *, but Adrian Tighe's The Bristoe Campaign: General Lee's Last Strategic Offensive with the Army of Northern Virginia October 1863 is the first truly full length treatment of the fluid sparring between the armies of Robert E. Lee and George Meade that took place between September 12 and October 31.
The 1863 Bristoe Campaign was the first to feature the downsized versions of both Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and Meade's Army of the Potomac, with the former losing Longstreet's 1st Corps and the latter a pair of corps (11th and 12th) soon after the decisive Union defeat at Chickamauga. The campaign began with Meade's army deployed along the Rappahannock River's north bank, with JEB Stuart's cavalry opposite and Lee's infantry to south covering the Rapidan fords. What followed was six weeks of operational strike and counterstrike, as each side sought an opening. The Union cavalry (divisions under Gregg, Kilpatrick, and Buford) got off to a good start, outmaneuvering their Confederate counterparts and driving them back behind the Rapidan. At this point, Lee took the offensive, launching the first of several sequential left hooks, all with the goal of getting behind Meade's right flank and rear. Countering this, Meade pulled back. Finally, on October 14, the advance division (Heth's) of A.P. Hill's corps caught the temporarily isolated Union 2nd Corps (G.K. Warren) at Bristoe Station as the federals were attempting rejoin their comrades across Broad Run. With the Union divisions strongly posted behind a railroad embankment, the resulting fight was a bloody repulse for Heth. Lee declined to continue the attack with the remaining daylight, and the Army of the Potomac safely redeployed across Bull Run. Unable to supply his army that far forward, Lee, after destroying the railroads, withdrew behind the Rappahannock, ending the campaign.
Tighe's skillfully crafted narrative, a very detailed rendering of weeks of small scale infantry and cavalry maneuvers and skirmishes, makes for fascinating reading for those inclined to appreciate Civil War operational warfare. Additionally, the study's regimental-scale rendering of the Bristoe Station fight is the best to date.
The amount of source material consulted, both published and unpublished, is impressive, and the author's critique and analysis of the campaign and battle well supported by the evidence presented. Tighe is critical of Lee's decision to suspend further assaults with several more divisions at hand and two hours of remaining daylight. His argument that Lee's uncharacteristically lengthy October 13/14 march pause was the primary factor leading to the ultimate failure of the Confederate campaign is persuasive. By placing the afternoon attack on the 14th at Bristoe Station in the proper context of a progression of mistakes, the author avoids the excessive criticism that has been traditionally placed at the feet of Hill by contemporaries and historians alike. Although Hill deserves some degree of censure for his force dispositions, he was undoubtedly feeling the urgency of confronting an escaping enemy with fading light. On the Union side, some of the book's harshest criticism is leveled at Fifth Corps commander George Sykes, who ignored orders to maintain contact with Warren, leaving the Second Corps in the lurch at Bristoe. His case against Sykes is damning. Although not exploited by the enemy, Meade also bungled his own operations on at least two occasions during the campaign, getting caught by Lee's movements with his own army divided by a water barrier.
Eastern theater cavalry enthusiasts will find Tighe's very extensive coverage of mounted operations of great interest. In addition to the myriad of skirmishes between the screening forces of both sides, the author devotes a long chapter to the Buckland Mills fight, as well as several supporting actions in the Shenandoah Valley. He praises John Buford's handling of his division, both on the offensive and in escorting to safety the army trains when the wagons were vulnerable in the latter stages of the campaign. Undermanned in response to the initial Union cavalry blitz to the Rapidan, Stuart recovered to perform well on the offensive (with one potentially dangerous exception, where he found himself isolated and surrounded). After Bristoe Station, Stuart and Fitzhugh Lee cleverly defeated the federal cavalry at Buckland Mills and additionally kept Union forces from halting the army's destructive work on the railroads before retiring.
The book's maps, which contain better than average terrain and unit position representations, are plentiful and the author's promise to his readers to have them contain all important locations mentioned in the text is fulfilled. The operational maps are at corps and division level, while the tactical drawings are scaled to brigades and regiments. Seemingly every skirmish has a corresponding map, a rare occurrence in publishing.
The first appendix delves into the post-battle lives of a select group of officers involved in the campaign, and others provide order of battle information and unit strength and loss data. Supplemental information about Stuart's position at Auburn, campaign weather, Confederate march routes, flag mysteries, and Medal of Honor awards round out the appendices.
In terms of flaws, the book joins many self-published efforts in that it remains badly in need of a copy editor. Also, the author might have been better served to go with the traditional method of identifying regiments in the text (e.g. 14th Maine instead of Fourteenth ME). Given the depth of research and overall quality of the writing and analysis found in The Bristoe Campaign, to say nothing of just how satisfyingly it plugs a significant gap in the literature, it is a bit surprising no publisher was willing to take this project on [assuming the author made the attempt]. One hopes that Mr. Tighe might be prevailed upon to do so, as it will add to the credibility of a book that is immensely deserving of a wider audience.
* - The Road to Bristoe Station: Campaigning with Lee and Meade, August 1-October 20, 1863 by William D. Henderson (H.E. Howard, 1987) and Mine Run: A Campaign of Lost Opportunities October 21, 1863-May 1, 1864 by Martin F. Graham & George Skoch (1987).