American Civil War: Bristoe Campaign

George G. Meade during the Civil War
Major General George G. Meade. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Bristoe Campaign - Conflict & Dates:

The Bristoe Campaign was conducted between October 13 and November 7, 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders:



Bristoe Campaign - Background:

In the wake of the Battle of Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew south into Virginia.  Slowly pursued by Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac, the Confederates established a position behind the Rapidan River.  That September, under pressure from Richmond, Lee dispatched Lieutenant General James Longstreet's First Corps to reinforce General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee.  These troops proved critical to Bragg's success at the Battle of Chickamauga later that month.  Made aware of Longstreet's departure, Meade advanced to the Rappahannock River seeking to take advantage of Lee's weakness.  On September 13, Meade pushed columns towards the Rapidan and won a minor victory at Culpeper Court House.

Though Meade hoped to conduct a wide sweep against Lee's flank, this operation was cancelled when he received orders to send Major General Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum's XI and XII Corps west to aid Major General William S. Rosecrans' beleaguered Army of the Cumberland.  Learning of this, Lee took the initiative and launched a turning movement to the west around Cedar Mountain.  Unwilling to do battle on ground not of his own choosing, Meade slowly withdrew northeast along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad (Map).

Bristoe Campaign - Auburn:

Screening the Confederate advance, Major General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry encountered elements of Major General William H. French's III Corps at Auburn on October 13.  Following a skirmish that afternoon, Stuart's men, along with support from Lieutenant General Richard Ewell's Second Corps, engaged parts of Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's II Corps the next day.  Though inconclusive, it served both sides as Stuart's command escaped from a larger Union force and Warren was able to protect his wagon train.  Moving away from Auburn, II Corps made for Catlett's Station on the railroad.  Eager to harry the enemy, Lee directed Lieutenant General A.P. Hill's Third Corps to pursue Warren.  

Bristoe Campaign - Bristoe Station:

Racing forward without proper reconnaissance, Hill sought to strike the rearguard of Major General George Sykes' V Corps near Bristoe Station.  Advancing on the afternoon of October 14, he failed to notice the presence of Warren's II Corps.  Spotting the approach of Hill's lead division, commanded by Major General Henry Heth, the Union leader positioned part of his corps behind the Orange and Alexandria Railroad embankment.  These forces mauled the first two brigades sent forward by Heth.  Reinforcing his lines, Hill was unable to dislodge II Corps from its formidable position (Map).  Alerted to Ewell's approach, Warren later withdrew north to Centreville.  As Meade re-concentrated his army around Centreville, Lee's offensive drew to a close.  After skirmishing around Manassas and Centreville, the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew back to the Rappahannock.  On October 19, Stuart ambushed Union cavalry at Buckland Mills and pursued the defeated horsemen for five miles in an engagement that became known as the "Buckland Races."

Bristoe Campaign - Rappahannock Station:       

Having fallen back behind the Rappahannock, Lee elected to maintain one pontoon bridge across the river at Rappahannock Station.  This was protected on the north bank by two redoubts and supporting trenches, while Confederate artillery on south bank covered the entire area.  Under increasing pressure to take action from Union general-in-chief Major General Henry W. Halleck, Meade moved south in early November.  Assessing Lee's dispositions, he directed Major General John Sedgwick to assault Rappahannock Station with his VI Corps while French's III Corps struck downstream at Kelly's Ford.  Once across, the two corps were to unite near Brandy Station.

Attacking around noon, French succeeded breaking through the defenses at Kelly's Ford and began crossing the river.  Responding, Lee moved to intercept III Corps in the hope that Rappahannock Station could hold until French was defeated.  Advancing at 3:00 PM, Sedgwick seized high ground near the Confederate defenses and emplaced artillery.  These guns pounded the lines held by part of Major General Jubal A. Early's division.  As the afternoon passed, Sedgwick showed no signs of attacking.  This inaction led Lee to believe that Sedgwick's actions were a feint to cover French's crossing at Kelly's Ford.  At dusk, Lee was proven wrong when part of Sedgwick's command surged forward and penetrated the Confederate defenses.  In the assault, the bridgehead was secured and 1,600 men, the bulk of two brigades, captured (Map).

Bristoe Campaign - Aftermath:

Left in an indefensible position, Lee broke off his movement towards French and began retreating south.  Crossing the river in force, Meade gathered his army around Brandy Station as the campaign ended.  In the fighting during the Bristoe Campaign, the two sides incurred 4,815 casualties including the prisoners taken at Rappahannock Station.  Frustrated by the campaign, Lee had failed to bring Meade to battle or prevent the Union from reinforcing its armies in the West.  Under continued pressure from Washington to obtain a decisive result, Meade commenced planning his Mine Run Campaign which moved forward on November 27.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Bristoe Campaign." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). American Civil War: Bristoe Campaign. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Bristoe Campaign." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).