Thursday, June 24, 2021

Review - "Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863" by Jeffrey Hunt

[Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863 by Jeffrey Wm. Hunt (Savas Beatie, 2021). Hardcover, 27 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiv,273/333. ISBN:978-1-61121-539-7. $32.95]

Regardless of their size, strategic significance, or worthiness of study as exemplars of the operational art, military campaigns that lack a major culminating battle often inspire little attention until coverage saturation naturally redirects research and writing toward a conflict's more obscure events. A good, perhaps even the best, example from the American Civil War is the 1863 Tullahoma Campaign, which did not receive a full-length published history of any kind until just last year1. Another example is the fighting in northern Virginia between the end of the Gettysburg Campaign and the onset of the 1864 Overland Campaign. Beginning in August 1863 and stretching into December, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and George Meade's Army of the Potomac traded offensive blows, none of which were decisive in result (though they produced a series of small-scale infantry and cavalry battles along with numerous skirmishes). While all had the potential for major results, their sputtering nature (albeit with rather significant casualties on the Confederate side) led to little modern interest beyond the release of a pair of book-length overviews published by H.E. Howard in the mid-1980s. Coverage has greatly improved and expanded over the past decade, though, with published output including a full-length Bristoe Campaign history from British author Adrian Tighe, a major atlas study, and a pair of Emerging Civil War series overviews2.

As good as much of that recent work is, the most significant development has been the emergence of historian Jeffrey Hunt's exhaustive treatment of the subject matter spread among multiple volumes. Originally conceived as a trilogy but since expanded to a planned four volumes, Hunt's "Meade and Lee" series offers by far the most complete military history of the period. Preceded by 2017's Meade and Lee After Gettysburg and 2019's Meade and Lee at Bristoe Station3, Hunt's Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863 examines General Meade's first opportunity to conduct his own major offensive operation (albeit with some constraints and interference from Washington) from start to finish as an army commander in Virginia. Though the sharp repulse of A.P. Hill's corps at Bristoe Station took some of the sting out of Meade being thoroughly outgeneraled and thrown on the defensive by Lee during that October operation, the Lincoln administration remained mostly disappointed with Meade's overall performance that summer into fall and anticipated further action before mud and winter set in. The dilemma lay in finding a way to catch Lee's army, which had fallen back behind the Rappahannock River after the Bristoe Campaign ended in early November and was thoroughly ensconced there, at a disadvantage.

Restricted by the administration to operations along the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, Meade was confronted by significant challenges in planning and executing his next move. A casual glance at a period map of the area's road and rail network might suggest that Culpeper County possessed fine campaigning possibilities; however, a deeper look reveals significant, and at the time thoroughly recognized, problems for both attacker and defender. All of these are shrewdly noted and analyzed at length by Hunt in the book. A Union advance southward along the O&A would angle away from rather than toward the Confederate capital while also exposing the army's ever lengthening lines of supply and communications to interdiction by cavalry raiders and guerrillas, but the bigger problem was not wanting to be caught at a disadvantage within the narrow confines of the sideways-slanted "V" formed by the confluence of the Upper Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. Because fighting within the dreaded V meant that both attacking and defending forces would have a significant river barrier to their immediate rear, neither Meade nor Lee looked forward to being involved in a major battle there. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the Bristoe Campaign Lee's army settled into what increasingly seemed like winter quarters behind the Rappahannock while Meade, under pressure to resume operations before seasonal weather shut down the roads, pondered the best way get at his foe.

In the book Hunt presents readers with a clear description and insightful appraisal of the potentially dangerous "trap" laid by Lee and the ways by which Meade, who well recognized the inherent dangers imposed by Lee's crafty dispositions but was forbidden from altering his line of operations, might deal with it. By establishing both a fortified bridgehead north of the river at Rappahannock Station and light covering defenses along the south bank at Kelly's Ford (the two places that Meade needed possession of to support his leap across the Rappahannock), Lee hoped to force Meade to divide the Army of the Potomac in a way that might give the Confederate commander an opening to mass his own army against a portion of the enemy's. Meade, seeing that a Confederate force could use the Rappahannock Station bridgehead to launch a counterattack on his flank and rear if he used Kelly's Ford as his main crossing point, was indeed induced to divide his army, though if Meade could attack quickly and successfully enough at both places he could neutralize the threat and reunite enough of his army on the other side of the river to minimize the chances of being defeated in detail. If the bridgehead could not be taken quickly and a strong force pushed across, Meade's right wing commander (John Sedgwick) was to mask the position and reinforce the Kelly's Ford front. This back up plan would lessen the amount of time the Union army would be divided with equal halves on both sides of the river. What follows that perceptive introductory assessment of Meade's options and problems is the author's narrative detailing the Union advance (two wings of two corps each against Rappahannock Station and Kelly's Ford), the November 7 Union victories at both bridgehead and ford, the hurried Confederate retreat, the cautious federal follow-up movement toward Culpeper Court House, and, finally, the escape of Lee's army across the Rapidan without a major battle. All of the accounts of these events are amply supported by the volume's excellent set of over two dozen strategic, operational, and tactical-scale maps.

The author's thorough knowledge and nuanced appreciation of the military challenges imposed by the area's contested ground is readily apparent throughout the book, and detailed explanation of how terrain influenced operational and tactical decision-making during the campaign is one of the book's chief strengths. A good example can be seen in Lee's defense arrangements for the river line. An armchair general unfamiliar with the ground might expect that all crossings would be closely defended, but the physical features of the ground on both sides of the river dictated otherwise. Due to disadvantageous topography (ex. the higher ground was on the north side of this stretch of the Rappahannock), Lee did not intend to vigorously contest a full-scale assault on the crossings. The bulk of his army was deployed a few miles to the rear, hidden and out of range of the enemy's superior weight of long-range artillery, but ready to take advantage of any opportunities that might be offered.

Leadership performances on both sides during movement and battle come under similarly judicious consideration in the book. In his new role as wing commander, Union general William French efficiently marched his two corps to Kelly's Ford, captured it after a brief fight, and secured the south bank with a small force while the bulk of his troops remained on the north side of the river. Up to that time, French had had little opportunity to distinguish himself in command responsibilities commensurate with his high rank, and Hunt appropriately praises his performance before and during the battle as meeting all expectation. Sedgwick's right wing of the army approached its more strongly held fortified target far more cautiously. Hunt persuasively argues that Sedgwick, seemingly content with developing the enemy bridgehead and bringing it under bombardment, would not have ordered a storming of the enemy works at all on November 7 had one of his more enterprising subordinates, division commander David Russell, not pressed for permission to conduct a dusk assault. Using only a tiny part of Sedgwick's available force, Russell's attack was a splendid success, the victory a function of approaching darkness limiting cross-river artillery fire, enemy disorganization, and high-order tactical competence on the part of the assault units. The availability of only a single escape route also substantially increased the prisoner haul, with Russell's victory reducing two of the Army of Northern Virginia's best brigades to mere skeletons. The lack of defensive improvements such as deep ditches, abatis, and the like also contributed to the Confederate mini-disaster, but the author astutely reminds critics that the bridgehead's usefulness as a jumping off point for offensive movement would have been limited by such obstructions. On the other hand, Hunt might also have conceded that the very small capacity of the fortified bridgehead, its exceedingly shallow depth (the trenches were backed up close to the river along their entire length), and single bridge crossing would have made it suboptimal as a point from which to swiftly launch a major counterstroke. One might argue that the bridgehead, as constructed and manned, was improperly sized for both effective defense and offensive springboard roles. Lee, and to a lesser extent Jubal Early, whose division was tasked with defending that sector, were criticized for not withdrawing the troops in the face of Sedgwick's overwhelming force, but Hunt is more forgiving than some observers. By late in the day, Lee's overall plan was working as designed and Sedgwick's command had demonstrated for hours little inclination to do anything beyond bombarding the Rappahannock Station bridgehead from afar. Hindsight is always 20/20, and in Hunt's view Lee, who rode away from the front very late in the day in full expectation that the status quo would remain, assumed a reasonable risk by maintaining the bridgehead.

With the mini-disaster suffered at Rappahannock Station ending all hope of engaging Meade's army to advantage, Lee ordered a retreat. According to Hunt, Confederate teamsters and quartermasters were the heroes of the hour. With only moments of advance notice, they managed to save a mountain of supplies, ammunition, and personal baggage accumulated for winter. The transport of that amount of material, which could not be evacuated in a single trip, was covered by the withdrawal of the army to a new position near Culpeper Court House. Though the Army of Northern Virginia quickly dug a strong line of entrenchments there, both flanks were in the air and an impetuous Union advance could have caused Lee serious problems. However, Meade was not one for risky throws of the dice, and his methodical concentration and measured advance only covered half the distance to Lee's entrenchments by nightfall on November 8. While listing compelling reasons for Meade's exercising caution (or overcaution), Hunt notes that the Union commander's assignment of the bulk of his cavalry to flank protection rather than screening duties made his forward march even slower and left the general underinformed as to Lee's dispositions. Confederate cavalry also conducted an effective delaying action that contributed another element to Meade's painfully slow pace of advance.

Still out of close contact with the enemy and free to finally withdraw without risking disaster, Lee's army and its supply and baggage trains crossed the Rapidan without incident, leaving both armies roughly where they were back in August. In the early stages of his first major Virginia offensive Meade had acquitted himself well, but, as the author maintains, the general's "deliberate" command style almost immediately surrendered the initiative so effectively seized from the start. Lacking the audacity that might turn local tactical success into glorious victory, Meade in the end accomplished little beyond a chunk of Virginia front and another incremental increase in Army of the Potomac self-confidence. One might imagine that the final volume in the series will contain a full summation of the author's thoughts on Meade's strengths and weaknesses as an army commander. On the other side, none of Lee's hopes of striking a divided enemy army came to fruition and his own command suffered a heavy blow to its order of battle with the near destruction of two veteran infantry brigades. Both combatants in Virginia would not be going into winter quarters just yet, however, and the ensuing Mine Run Campaign will be covered in Hunt's fourth and final installment of this definitive-scale series. With the exceptional quality of its prose, research, depth of description, and informed analysis, Hunt's masterful multi-volume effort is well on its way to becoming a modern classic every bit deserving of rank and praise similar to that bestowed upon Gordon Rhea's Overland Campaign series.

1 - See David Powell and Eric Wittenberg's Tullahoma: The Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 - July 4, 1863 (Savas Beatie, 2020).
2 - Both H.E. Howard titles were published in 1987. They are William Henderson's The Road to Bristoe Station: Campaigning with Lee and Meade, August 1 – October 20, 1863 and Mine Run: A Campaign of Lost Opportunities, October 21, 1863 – May 1, 1864 by Martin Graham and George Skoch. The self-published Adrian Tighe title referred to in the review is 2010's The Bristoe Campaign: General Lee's Last Strategic Offensive with the Army of Northern Virginia October 1863. The largest and most significant revival of interest in the Meade vs. Lee campaigning in Virginia during the latter half of 1863 has been led by publisher Savas Beatie. This ongoing effort has produced a number of worthy titles large and small, including Bradley Gottfried's The Maps of the Bristoe Station and Mine Run Campaigns: An Atlas of the Battles and Movements in the Eastern Theater after Gettysburg, Including Rappahannock Station, Kelly's Ford, and Morton's Ford, July 1863 - February 1864 (2013), 2015's A Want of Vigilance: The Bristoe Station Campaign, October 9–19, 1863 by Bill Backus and Robert Orrison [CWBA review], and Chris Mackowski's The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign, November 26–December 2, 1863 (2018).
3 - Links: Meade and Lee After Gettysburg: The Forgotten Final Stage of the Gettysburg Campaign, from Falling Waters to Culpeper Court House, July 14-31, 1863 (2017) and Meade and Lee at Bristoe Station: The Problems of Command and Strategy after Gettysburg, from Brandy Station to the Buckland Races, August 1 to October 31, 1863 (2019). The established pattern suggests that volume four will be released sometime in 2023.


  1. Drew, thanks for taking the time to pen such a well-written, thoughtful and thorough review. I am delighted you liked the book and are enjoying the series so far!

  2. Drew, thanks for taking the time to pen such a well-written, thoughtful and thorough review. I am delighted you liked the book and are enjoying the series so far! Jeff Hunt


If you wish to comment, please sign your name. Otherwise, your submission may be rejected, at the moderator's discretion. Comments containing outside promotions and/or links will be deleted.