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From Gettysburg to the coming of Grant.

by Martin T. McMAHON, Brevet Major.-General, U. S. V.
The chief events of this chapter in the history of the Army of the Potomac were the pursuit of Lee to Virginia, the affair of the Vermont brigade at Beaver Creek, in Maryland, the cavalry engagements at Hagerstown and Williamsport, the action at Bristoe Station, the taking of the Rappahannock redoubts, the movement to Mine Run, and the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid to Richmond.

After the battle of Gettysburg two corps of the army, the First and the Sixth, under Major-General John Sedgwick, pressed Lee's retreating forces to the pass at Fairfield. [See maps, Vol. III., pp. 381 and 382.] A strong rearguard held the pursuit in check, compelling frequent formations of the leading brigades in line of battle. Every house and barn along our route of march was filled with wounded Confederates. Lee passed through the mountains in the night of July 5th. One brigade, General T. H. Neill's, was detailed by General Sedgwick to follow and observe the enemy's movements, and the rest of the corps rejoined the main body of the army in the neighborhood of Emmitsburg, crossed the Catoctin range at Hamburg, and came upon the enemy at Beaver Creek July 10th, 1863. At this point it seemed that Lee intended to make a decided stand. His position was a strong one, and apparently was held by a sufficient number of troops. The Vermont brigade, under Colonel L. A. Grant, was ordered to the front as skirmishers and deployed in a piece of woods covering a front of about half a mile. The rest of the command was massed in readiness, and a general engagement was confidently expected. The enemy advanced in line of battle upon the woods [82] where the Vermonters with one battery, somewhat in the rear of their skirmish-line, were posted. In general, a skirmish-line, upon being confronted by the advance of a line of battle, is expected to retire. The Vermonters, however, did not so understand it, and, each one holding his position, they delivered such a steady and telling fire that the enemy's line was twice repulsed. The history of war furnishes few instances such as this, yet the Vermonters did not seem to think that they had accomplished any-thing out of the usual line of duty.

The enemy, moving from Beaver Creek, took position on the 12th in the neighborhood of Funkstown and fortified heavily. His line ran in general to the right from Funkstown, forming the arc of a circle, the right resting near the field of Antietam. The country was familiar to many of us, who had served in the South Mountain and Antietam campaign. A council of war was called that night at General Meade's headquarters, and the question was discussed whether an attack should be ventured on the following morning upon Lee's intrenched position. Our right covered Hagerstown without occupying the city. Our general line extended to the left, following the direction of the enemy's position. General Sedgwick proposed at the council to take the Sixth and Eleventh corps from our right and, moving by night through and beyond Hagerstown, to occupy by daylight a position upon the enemy's flank and rear, and by a determined attack cut him off from the Potomac while the rest of the army moved directly on his front. This proposition, it appears, was negatived in the council. [See Vol. III., p. 382.] The next day was passed in observation and in preparations for an attack. In the night-time (July 13th) Lee's army withdrew, and, falling rapidly back, crossed the Potomac in safety. Longstreet's corps moved up the valley, crossed the Blue Ridge by way of Chester Gap, and proceeded to Culpeper Court House,

Fort Ramsey, Upton's Hill, Virginia, showing Mrs. Forney's House and signal Observatory, 1863.


View of Aldie Gap, Virginia.

where it arrived on the 24th. Hill's corps followed closely by the same route. Ewell, delayed by a fruitless pursuit of General Kelley's force west of Martinsburg, found the Gap obstructed by Meade, crossed the mountains farther up at Thornton's Gap, and joined the other corps in the vicinity of Culpeper.

Kilpatrick's cavalry, which had been sent by way of the Monterey pass, destroyed some of the enemy's trains but had accomplished little in the way of interrupting the passage of the river. The pontoons were again brought into use, and once more the Army of the Potomac entered upon “the sacred soil.” The men were in excellent spirits and condition, and as they marched over the bridges of boats at Harper's Ferry and Berlin the men broke out into the refrain, “Carry me back to old Virginny.” Meade advanced to Warrenton and the Rappahannock, where he took position confronting Lee. Before the season for operations had finally closed, Meade had pushed his advance to and beyond the Rapidan, the enemy giving up Culpeper Court House, which Meade occupied as headquarters September 13th.1

On the 7th of October the enemy's signal-flags, which were read by our signal-officers on Pony Mountain as ours no doubt were read by the enemy, communicated intelligence which indicated that General Lee was making a formidable movement. This proved to be a movement to his left — with the evident purpose of turning our right flank. For reasons never fully explained nor understood, the whole Army of the Potomac, which had marched all the way from Gettysburg for the purpose of engaging Lee, was ordered to retreat. It fell back in good order, certainly, but without apparent occasion. After passing the Rappahannock, General Meade ordered a halt and directed [84]

Map of Northern Virginia.

General Sedgwick to recross in the direction of Brandy Station and give battle. The movement was executed; but General Lee was not found in the position indicated, being actually engaged in crossing the Rappahannock some miles above, at the Sulphur Springs. General Sedgwick desired and proposed to move in that direction and attack him while crossing. General Meade did not approve of the suggestion and the retreat continued. On the 14th Warren was attacked at Bristoe Station and won a brilliant victory.2 The situation at that time was singularly precarious. All the trans-portation of the army was massed in fields off the road, and a breaking of our line at any point would have inflicted incalculable damage. A panic among teamsters is a thing greatly to be dreaded in an army.

When we reached the vicinity of Centreville the army was halted and took position to await attack. Lee had followed closely, destroying the rail-road as he advanced. After a brief reconnoissance he started in his turn to retreat to the Rapidan. Meade pursued, pressing him closely and rebuilding [85] the railroad as rapidly as he marched. At Gainesville, or Buckland Mills, on October 19th, there was an affair with the cavalry advance in which both Custer and Kilpatrick distinguished themselves, each in his own way. Custer with one brigade became engaged with part of Fitzhugh Lee's command, which retired before him after crossing the stream at Gainesville. The rest of Lee's command had been drawn off to the left for the purpose of attacking in the rear in case Kilpatrick afforded the opportunity, which he promptly did. With his second brigade he moved forward in support of Custer, who needed no support, however, and the enemy's cavalry came in upon Kilpatrick's rear and scattered him. Kilpatrick believed and reported that he had been routed by infantry. General Custer and the evidence were to the contrary, however; those who came in upon the rear were dismounted cavalry. Some sensation was created throughout the army by this repulse of the cavalry and by the reports of General Kilpatrick, and an order was issued by General Meade, evidently in anticipation of a general engagement the next day. One division of infantry sent over the stream at nightfall, however, developed the fact that all of Lee's army except Stuart's cavalry had already recrossed the Rappahannock. The next day Warrenton was occupied and the Army of the Potomac halted for some time in the vicinity of the river.

On the 7th day of November there was a general movement. The Fifth and Sixth corps under Sedgwick were directed to the redoubts of the Rappa-hannock near the site of the old railroad bridge, which had been destroyed. The rest of the army, under General French, was to force the passage at Kelly's Ford, some distance below. Sedgwick's orders were to “push the enemy across the river before dark, if possible.” The redoubts of the Rappahannock

On the road to Warrenton.


Warrenton junction, Virginia, October, 1863. The smoke shown in the picture was caused by burning buildings and piles of railway ties fired by the Confederates when they abandoned this region. [See p. 84.] The troops on the left are Birney's division, Third Union Corps.

hannock were two formidable works, both on the left of the railroad, and connected by a curtain or chain of rifle-pits; a further line of rifle-pits ran left from the left redoubt some distance along the river. Two brigades of General Early's corps held the works. The Sixth Corps went into position about midday to our right of the railroad and opened fire from its batteries. The Fifth Corps occupied the river-front below the line of the railroad. The batteries made but little impression. Daylight was fast disappearing. General Sedgwick asked the writer for the order of the day; he read it through and, riding slowly forward, joined General Wright, commanding the Sixth Corps. “Wright,” he said, what do you think are the changes of an assault with infantry on that position? “General Wright replied, somewhat inconsequently,” Just as you say, General. “” What does Russell think about it? “asked Sedgwick. Russell's division was in line of battle upon the rough and somewhat stony slope leading up to the works, one brigade, Colonel Upton's, being deployed as skirmishers.” Here comes Russell; he can speak for himself, “answered Wright. As Russell joined the group, Sedgwick asked, `” Russell, do you think you can carry those works with your division?7 Russell replied very quietly, “I think I can, sir.” “Go ahead and do it.”

In less than five minutes Russell's line was seen advancing at trail-arms, picking up the skirmish-line as it was reached, and moving forward until lost in the smoke and the darkness. The enemy's fire was steady, destructive, and continuous, and was accompanied by derisive yells. The 6th Maine and the 5th Wisconsin, moving directly upon the redoubts, broke over the parapet. A sergeant of the 6th Maine, who was the first man inside the works, finding [87] himself surrounded called out that he surrendered, but instantly seeing men of his command tumbling over the parapet, he yelled, “I take it back,” and made a dash for the colors, which he secured. He was mentioned in orders the next day. Upton's men had swarmed over the rifle-pits and rapidly advanced to the head of the pontoon-bridges, thereby cutting off the enemy's retreat. This affair was singularly brilliant. More than 1600 prisoners, eight colors, all the guns, 2000 stand of small-arms, and the pontoon-bridges were captured.3 Colonels D. B. Penn and A. C. Godwin, commanding the two brigades of Hays's Confederate division, shared the fate of their men. They break-fasted with me on the following morning, and were both very complimentary to our troops in speaking of the engagement. One of them described it as the most brilliant feat of arms he had yet seen, and said, with some mixture of humor and pathos, that less than half an hour before our attack he made reply to a question from General Lee, who had ridden over to the works with General Early, that he wanted no more men, and that he could hold the position against the whole Yankee army. The position captured was commanded, and in some sense supported, by works on the farther side of the river, but the capture of the redoubts was so quick and complete that the enemy's guns on the right bank were of no service to him. They could indeed have swept the interior of the redoubts, which were open in the direction of the river, but it would have been very destructive to the garrison.4

Army Forge, Brandy Station. From a photograph.


At Kelly's Ford, on the same day, a slight success was achieved, and the Army of the Potomac on the next day effected the passage of the Rappahannock.5 Headquarters were established at Brandy Station and pickets thrown out over forty miles of territory.

There was a period of inaction, of fun and festivity, until the 26th of November, when the army crossed the Rapidan at Germanna and

Camp of the Military telegraph Corps, Brandy Station, Va.

other fords and moved in the direction of Mine Run. The season was not favorable. The weather was bitterly cold and the roads were difficult. General French with the Third Corps, crossing the Rapidan at Germanna Ford, became engaged with the enemy on the 27th at Payne's Farm. He advanced through heavy undergrowth and an almost impassable tangle and was sharply resisted by the enemy — Edward Johnson's division and Gordon's brigade. French's advance was checked. Part of the Sixth Corps was hurried forward to French's support but took no part in the action. Night coming on, a further attempt to advance was deemed unadvisable. Meanwhile, and several miles to the left, on broader and better roads, the other corps of the army had passed the Rapidan and had moved out to the position of Mine Run. This little stream runs northward into the Rapidan through a valley bordered on both sides by gradual slopes more or less wooded, with here and there a farm-house. The enemy occupied the crest of the western slope. Our position was naturally on the eastern ridge. During the night Sedgwick was ordered to withdraw his own corps and French's and join the main body of the army, connecting with Warren's right at Locust Grove. This movement was completed by [89] daylight on the morning of the 28th of November. An angry skirmish-fire continued all (lay, and upon our part reconnoissances were made in various directions.

On the evening of the 28th a council of war was called, and at this council it was decided that a flank movement to the left under the command of General Warren, who had proposed and advocated it, should be attempted. The troops assigned to this duty under Warren were his own corps, A. H. Terry's division of the Sixth, and 300 cavalry, reinforced later by the divisions of Prince and Carr of the Third Corps. It was generally understood that Warren's movement as a flank operation was to have been upon a much wider scale than it subsequently proved to be. It was thought that he was to make a circuit of perhaps several days' march, cutting Lee off from all communication, and coming in not so much upon his immediate flank as upon his line of communication and his rear, while Meade with the rest of the army moved upon his actual front.

Warren's command marched in the night-time. During the next day, November 29th, Sedgwick, holding our right, discovered that the enemy's left flank was unprotected by earth-works, slashings, or abatis, and reported to General Meade that a movement during the night of a strong body of troops, passing them before morning upon the enemy's left, might by a

Map of the field of operations of November, 1863.

[90] sudden attack at daylight reach his flank and rear and double him up on Warren, who was expected to come in on his extreme right. After some delay and further examination of the position this movement was ordered, and two corps, the Fifth and the Sixth, under Sedgwick, proceeded during the night to the position indicated, and were massed in the woods without having attracted the attention of the enemy. Meade's orders were to open with artillery at 7, and at 8 to attack along the line with infantry. These orders were also sent to Warren.

Warren's movement had been made upon a more circumscribed line than was understood in the council which had approved it. It was,

1. “the Shebang,” quarters of the United States Sanitary commission.6 2. General Post-Office, Army of Potomac, December, 1863, at Brandy Station.7

moreover, anticipated or discovered by the enemy, who diligently and heavily fortified to resist it. Upon reaching the position he sought, Warren, with the good instincts of a soldier, recognized that an attack upon a position so defended would be foolish and disastrous, and so reported to General Meade.

In the meantime Sedgwick opened fire with all his batteries at the hour indicated. The enemy replied with spirit, but in such a manner as to confirm [91] the view that his line at this point was not strongly held. Our infantry as yet were concealed in the woods, the two corps massed in column of brigades, and held like hounds in the leash. There was much rivalry between these two corps, and between the divisions and the brigades of each, and they sent committees inviting each other to a reunion in the enemy's works, each one promising to be there first to receive the others.

The fire of the batteries prevented anything looking to the reinforcement of the enemy's position, which was in our left front. Our right, when deployed, would have overlapped them. Suddenly over the wires came a message from General Meade, “Suspend the attack until further orders.” We stopped firing. The enemy did likewise, gun for gun. Meade had heard from Warren that his movement had failed. Sedgwick, Sykes, and Wright believed, however, that their movement on the right, if it had not been suspended, would have been completely successful. A few minutes later another dispatch directed Sedgwick to report at the headquarters of the commanding general. I accompanied him. We found General Meade evidently greatly disappointed and angry at the failure of Warren's movement. He had sent for Sedgwick to take command at headquarters while he rode to join Warren, who could only be reached by a long and somewhat difficult route. He returned later in the day in the worst possible humor and ordered the with-drawal of the troops of the Fifth and Sixth corps to the position held by them the day before, closer to the center of the line. That night he asked Sedgwick by telegraph as to the chances of success of an attack in his immediate front, or of an attack upon that part of the enemy's lines which had been threatened by him in the morning. Sedgwick replied that the line threatened by him in the morning had been so heavily intrenched and fortified after the suspension of his fire that he deemed it now the least available point of assault, and that the chance of carrying the position then in his front, moving across the open valley and up the other slope against well-constructed lines of rifle-pits, was not encouraging.

In this movement the men suffered greatly from the rain, which froze as it fell; they were without shelter, and had had long marches and severely trying ones; yet they were in excellent spirits and physically in good condition; but the heart was taken out of everybody when on the 1st of December the order came to retire across the Rapidan and resume the camps from which we had started out so gayly a week before.8 The troops burrowed in the earth and built their little shelters, and the officers and men devoted themselves to unlimited festivity, balls, horse-races, cock-fights, greased pigs and poles, and other games such as only soldiers can devise.

At this time the abuses of the conscription system were made manifest to the men at the front by the character of a large part of the recruits who were sent through that agency. The professional bounty-jumper and the kidnapped emigrant and street boy, who were “put through” the enlistment [92]

From a photograph. Major-General John Sedgwick, killed at Spotsylvania in the Wilderness campaign, May 9, 1864.

[93] offices in New York and elsewhere, came in large numbers, the professionals with the intention of deserting at the earliest opportunity and repeating the profitable experiment of enlisting for large bounties. Their favorite time for leaving was during their first tour of picket duty, and it was found necessary to throw a cordon of cavalry outside our own picket lines. A gallows and a shooting-ground were provided in each corps, and scarcely a Friday passed during the winter-while — the army lay on Hazel River and in the vicinity of Brandy Station that some of these deserters did not suffer the death penalty. During the winter the army grew again into superb condition, and awaited with high spirits the opening of the spring campaign.

On the 23d of March a reorganization of the Army of the Potomac took place, when its five corps were consolidated into three. The First Corps was transferred to the Fifth; two divisions of the Third were incorporated with the Second, but permitted to retain their distinctive flag and badge; the other division of the Third Corps was transferred to the Sixth, but directed to abandon its own flag and badge and assume that of the Greek cross. The corps commanders retained were — of the Second, General W. S. Hancock; of the Fifth, General G. K. Warren; of the Sixth, General John Sedgwick. The First and Third corps thus passed out of existence.

The only other event of note, before the arrival of General Grant, was the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid upon Richmond. It was authorized directly from Washington, and was not the suggestion of General Meade, nor (lid it have his approval; however, he set about carrying it into effect with all proper spirit and energy. The movement depended largely for its success upon its secrecy, and, therefore, when Colonel Dahlgren arrived from. Washington before the preparations were completed, and asked to be permitted to accompany Kilpatrick, Meade was annoyed to learn that the expedition was currently discussed in the capital. The plan was for Kilpatrick to move generally from our left, passing the right flank of Lee's army, and to proceed to Richmond by as direct routes as possible, while, as diversions, and to cover his movement, Custer, with 2000 cavalry, was to make a raid beyond Gordonsville, and the Sixth Corps and Birney's division of the Third were to move in support of Custer to Madison Court House on Robertson's River. No effort was made to conceal this movement, as it was intended to convey the impression to the enemy that a formidable attempt was to be made upon his left flank. Upon the arrival of Sedgwick and Birney at Robertson's River at nightfall of the 27th of February, Custer went by with his command, with instructions to proceed toward Charlottesville, and, if possible, to destroy the railway bridge near that place.

While his command was passing, Custer inquired of Sedgwick as to the relative importance of his movement as compared with that of Kilpatrick, and asked whether in the council at which the movement was discussed it was stated or understood that the bridge-head near Charlottesville was fortified and defended with infantry; also whether it was known that Rosser with 5000 Confederate cavalry was in the valley through which Custer might be [94] obliged to return after doing his work, and that, moreover, probably the road by which he advanced would be occupied in his rear by Stuart and the main body of the cavalry of Lee's army. Sedgwick assured him that all these points had been discussed and considered. Custer thought a moment and said, “Well, then, I may have to do one of two things: either strike boldly across Lee's rear and try to reach Kilpatrick, or else start with all the men I can keep together and try to join Sherman in the south-west.” Upon reaching the neighborhood of Charlottesville he found, as he expected, that the bridge-head was heavily held by infantry and artillery, and retraced his march. Stuart meantime had placed his troops across the road by which Custer had advanced, and was awaiting him. Through the treachery of a guide the head of Custer's column was turned off to the right for the purpose, it was believed, of bringing it in upon the main body of Lee's infantry, where its capture would be certain. Custer discovered the attempt in time and retraced his steps to the main road which he had left. Stuart meantime had learned of the departure of Custer from the direct route, and at once moved his command to intercept him. This cleared the way for Custer and enabled him to return within the lines of the Sixth Corps, with only an affair with a rear-guard. His movement had certainly had the desired effect as a diversion, While these operations were taking place Kilpatrick had advanced in the direction of Richmond and had divided his forces, sending a portion under Dahlgren to strike the James River above Richmond, retaining the main body under his own command until he was satisfied that the experiment was not feasible. He made his way down the Peninsula in the direction of Butler's command, and was subsequently transferred by boat to rejoin the Army of the Potomac, or more properly the horse-hospital camp, near Washington. Aside from our losses in men, and among them the gallant and heroic Dahlgren, the result of this movement was to disable for the time being 3000 or 4000 of the very flower of our cavalry.

Fugitive negroes at the Rapidan. From a photograph.

1 It was on the 25th of September, on receipt of the news of Rosecrans's defeat at Chickamauga, that the Government withdrew the Eleventh Corps (Howard's) and the Twelfth (Slocum's) from the Army of the Potomac for service in Tennessee under Hooker. The transfer of these troops was a notable achievement of the Quartermaster-General's Department.--editors.

2 The Confederate troops engaged at Bristoe were the divisions of Heth and Anderson of A. P. Hill's corps. On the Union side the action was sustained by the divisions of Hays and Webb. The main attack was made by Heth's division and fell upon the first and third brigades of Webb's division and the third brigade of Hays's. Colonel James E. Mallon, commanding a brigade under Webb, was among the killed. The following order shows the importance of the action:

headquarters, Army of the Potomac, Oct. 15, 1863.
The Major-General commanding announces to the army that the rear-guard, consisting of the Second Corps, was attacked yesterday while marching by the flank. The enemy, after a spirited contest, was repulsed, losing a battery of five guns, two colors, and 450 prisoners.

The skill and promptitude of Major-General Warren, and the gallantry and bearing of the officers and soldiers of the Second Corps, are entitled to high commendation.

By command of Major-General Meade.

S. Williams, Asst. Adjt.-General.

The Union loss was 50 killed, 335 wounded, and 161 captured or missing= 546. The Confederate loss was 136 killed, 797 wounded, and 445 captured or missing = 1378.--editors.

3 The loss of the Union Army was 83 killed, 330 wounded, and 6 missing = 419. The Confederate loss (as reported by General Lee) was 6 killed, 39 wounded, and 1629 captured or missing = 1674. But General Lee says, “Some reported as missing were probably killed or wounded and left in the hands of the enemy.”--editors.

4 The brilliant affair of the Rappahannock re — doubts was very gratifying to the commanding general, and the captured flags, eight in number, were ordered to be formally presented at headquarters by General David A. Russell, escorted by one company of each of the regiments engaged, the column under the command of Colonel Emory Upton. It was an interesting occasion. The flags of all the regiments represented were carried in the same group with the captured colors, preceded by the band of the New Jersey brigade. General Meade ordered General Russell to Washington, accompanied by the sergeant of the 6th Maine (Otis O. Roberts, of Company H), to present the flags formally to the Government. In the armies of civilized nations such a mission, when intrusted to such an officer, bearing the trophies of a victory won by his skill and courage, particularly when suffering from a painful wound received in the action where the trophies were won, results, as a matter of military etiquette, in his promotion. Russell was also offered a leave of absence after the presentation of the flags, although he insisted that his wound was so slight as not to require care or treatment. He returned in three days. His experience was interesting if unsatisfactory. Upon arriving in Washington he addressed the Secretary of War, informing him of his mission and asking at what time it would be agreeable to him to receive the flags. After waiting the entire day and receiving no answer he called in person at the War Department, sent in his name, and was promptly informed that the Secretary was busy and could not see him. He thereupon sent the flags to the War Department and rejoined his command by the next train, but his wound proving more serious than he was willing to acknowledge, he was subsequently sent to the hospital. Having remained there more than the sixty days limit, it required the combined influence of Generals Wright, Sedgwick, and Meade to prevent his being mustered out under an arbitrary rule then in force. General Russell was subsequently killed in battle at the Opequon, in the Shenandoah Valley. He was one of the bravest and most beloved of officers.--M. T. M.

5 At Kelly's Ford the Union loss was 6 killed and 36 wounded, and that of the Confederates 5 killed, 59 wounded, and 295 captured or missing.--editors.

6 the object of the Sanitary commission was to alleviate the hardships of soldier life, to afford physical comfort to the sick and wounded, and supply such of the well as were needy with suitable underclothing, etc. The funds of the commission were raised by means of Sanitary fairs in the principal cities, and by voluntary subscription. The report of the treasurer shows that from June 27th, 1861, to July 1st, 1865, the receipts were $4,813,750.64, and the disbursements $4,530,774.95.--editors.

7 in the Army of the Potomac each regiment had a Post-boy, who carried the letters of his command to brigade headquarters. There the mails of the different regiments were placed in one pouch and sent up to division headquarters, and thence to corps headquarters, where mail agents received them and delivered them, at the principal depot of the Army, to the agent from General headquarters. The cases for the letters were made of rough boards, which on a march were packed away in the bottom of an Army wagon, one wagon being sufficient to carry the whole establishment, including the tent and its furniture.--editors.

8 During this campaign the Union army lost 173 killed, 1099 wounded, and 381 captured or missing=1653; and the Confederates 98 killed, 610 wounded, and 104 captured or missing = 812.--editors.

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