Lee, meanwhile, settled into a defensive line along the Rappahannock River. Unable to guard the crossing at Kelly's Ford because of the lay of the land, Lee placed troops on the north side of the river at Rappahannock Station. There, he could hold off more Union men with fewer of his own, freeing up resources he could use to contest any advance across Kelly's Ford. Despite the fact that Lee felt confident about the fortifications at Rappahannock Station, Confederate general Jubal A. Early—filling in for Richard S. Ewell as commander of the Confederate Second Corps—expressed reservations. Being stuck north of the river, he reasoned, meant that the only Confederate line of retreat lay across a pontoon bridge.
Rather than attack Lee head on, as Ambrose E. Burnside had done to disastrous effect the year before at Fredericksburg, Meade devised a more modest plan to turn Lee's right flank. He would send Warren's Second Corps, French's Third Corps, and George Sykes's Fifth Corps across the Rapidan and then west to the high ground across a small, north-to-south-running creek called Mine Run. Unfortunately for Meade, French had trouble crossing the rain-swollen Rapidan, causing traffic jams down the line of Union forces; then he took a wrong turn on his way to Mine Run.
Meade followed Lee to the creek, but attempted no crossing. Warren moved with some success against Lee's right on November 29 but ran out of daylight. He urged Meade to launch a full-scale assault from his end of the line the next day, his confidence bolstered by the arrival of two additional divisions. The next morning, however, with Lee's entrenchments in plain view, he changed his mind. "I would sooner sacrifice my commission … [than] my men," he declared. Meade agreed, and echoed Warren's sentiments in a letter to his wife: "I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing."
As such, he stayed put until December 2, and then withdrew his Army of the Potomac north.
The Mine Run campaign left both Lee and Meade frustrated. Lee, true to form, seethed that he had failed to land a crushing blow on the Army of the Potomac. His soldiers seemed similarly annoyed, if the memory of a North Carolina infantryman is typical. He remembered the campaign as "one of hard marching day after day and preparations for battles that did not materialize." In addition, Lee was concerned about his top lieutenants. Ewell and Hill had been promoted to corps command following the death of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought just down the road the previous spring. But at Mine Run, Ewell was out sick, and neither his temporary replacement, Early, nor Hill had accomplished anything inspiring.
Meade, meanwhile, suffered politically for his refusal to attack. While there was a fear among Union men of repeating the debacle of Fredericksburg—Warren wrote his wife that his corps "all feel that for once there was a senseless slaughter saved by the action of their commander"—there was a steady disillusionment among those who preferred advancing to retreating. Lincoln and Halleck were certainly chief among them. Wishing that Meade might for once retreat south, they would finally get their wish the following spring, when Ulysses S. Grant launched his Overland Campaign. "If you see the president," Grant told a journalist then, "tell him there will be no turning back."
December 2, 1863 - Union general George G. Meade withdraws from his position opposite Robert E. Lee's line at Mine Run Creek. The Mine Run Campaign ends without a climactic confrontation between Union and Confederate forces.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: March 30, 2010 | Last modified: May 17, 2012