Battle of Bristoe Station

The Battle of Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863, marked the first major encounter between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac since the stinging Confederate defeat at Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) during the American Civil War (1861–1865). After Union commanders dispatched two corps to fight in the West, Confederate general Robert E. Lee attacked, but a blunder by A. P. Hill led to two Confederate brigades being destroyed by Union forces concealed behind a railroad embankment; as a result, Confederate general Carnot Posey was killed. Although a nominal Union victory, Bristoe Station led to troubling conclusions for both sides. Hill's poor performance added to concerns in the Confederate high command that he and Richard S. Ewell had been promoted beyond their abilities. (The two were given corps commands following the death, in May 1863, of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.) Union general George G. Meade, meanwhile, failed to take full advantage of Confederate missteps, strengthening perceptions in Washington, D.C., that the Army of the Potomac needed a new and more aggressive leader. MORE...

 

Background

After his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee withdrew the Army of Northern Virginia to a position along the Rapidan River in Culpeper, Virginia. In Washington, D.C., United States president Abraham Lincoln and Union general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck were upset with what they viewed to be Meade's dawdling, and prodded the commander of the Army of the Potomac to act. Meade remained largely inactive, however, prompting Halleck to send two corps—the Eleventh and Twelfth—to the Western Theater rather than not use them at all. Lee had made a similar choice, dispatching the First Corps under James Longstreet west. Lee, always combative even when substantially outnumbered, saw the Army of the Potomac as a ripe target, and attempted to move on the supply base at Centreville. Meade, aware that the Confederates were on the move, fell back from his position at Culpeper Court House to Centreville.

The Battle

On October 14, Confederate troops under the command of A. P. Hill crashed into the Union rear guard. Hill had been pursuing the withdrawing Army of the Potomac, and had passed through Warrenton earlier in the day before proceeding eastward. He also received reports that Union troops remained on his side of Broad Run, moving in a parallel path; if he pressed hard, he might be able to cut them off and destroy them. Hill caught sight of the tail of the Army of the Potomac as it withdrew across Broad Run at a bridge serving the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.

At one thirty in the afternoon, Hill ordered a division of approximately nine thousand men under Henry Heth into action against the rear guard of the retreating Union army. After some delay, Heth marched toward the Union troops along Broad Run. Soon, however, trouble arose; Heth's men began to take skirmisher and picket fire from their right flank. Unbeknownst to Hill, elements of Gouverneur K. Warren's Union Second Corps were positioned along the railroad embankment of the Orange and Alexandria. As the fire from the flank increased in intensity, Heth requested permission to swing to his right and dislodge the offending Union force. Hill, confident that Heth faced only a rear guard, ordered him forward. Thus, as the Confederate brigades of W. W. Kirkland and John R. Cooke charged forward, Union troops poured fire into their right flank. In a desperate effort to save themselves, the two brigades attempted to change front and charge the Second Corps. This maneuver, extremely difficult because of the hail of Union fire, failed. In the space of an afternoon, Hill took more than 1,400 casualties without any gains realized.

Aftermath

The Second Corps withdrew during the night, successfully retreating to the east of Broad Run and rendezvousing with the Army of the Potomac at Centreville. Lincoln and Halleck worried that Meade was too content to simply pull his men back; they wanted an aggressive pursuit of Lee. Their entreaties resulted in the Mine Run Campaign (November 7–December 2, 1863), another failure for Meade, and one that came at the cost of even more Union soldiers.

Hill realized that his rash attack had resulted in hundreds of needless casualties and remarked in his report to Lee that "I am convinced I made the attack too hastily." Lee, for his part, delivered to Hill a calm but cutting rebuke. As the two generals rode across the field, Lee turned to Hill and stated, "Well, well, General. Bury these poor men and let us say no more about it."

Time Line

  • October 14, 1863, nightfall - The Battle of Bristoe Station ends. The Union Second Corps under Gouverneur K. Warren retires across Broad Run, safely out of striking distance of Robert E. Lee's army.
Further Reading
Henderson, William D. The Road to Bristoe Station: Campaigning with Lee and Meade, August 1–October 20, 1863. Lynchburg: H. E. Howard, 1987.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Singel, K. Battle of Bristoe Station. (2012, September 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Bristoe_Station_Battle_of.

MLA Citation:
Singel, K. "Battle of Bristoe Station." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Sep. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: March 24, 2010 | Last modified: September 19, 2012


Contributed by Kati Singel, a historian for the National Park Service.