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.
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.
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."
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.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: March 24, 2010 | Last modified: September 19, 2012