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[319]

Chapter 29: skirmishing at Mine Run.

General Lee had discovered that the enemy was crossing some of his troops as low down as Germana Ford, and to prevent him from getting too far to his rear, he determined to move forward, and not await the advance against this new line; and during the night I was ordered to advance at daylight next morning as far as Locust Grove on the three roads leading to that point, to wit: the stone pike, the road by Zoar Church, and the one by Bartlett's Mill.

In accordance with General Lee's instructions, the three divisions of the corps were advanced at light on the morning of the 27th, as follows: my own division under Hays on the stone pike on the right, Rodes' on the road by Zoar Church, and Johnson's on the road by Bartlett's Mill; and while the troops were moving forward I rode to meet General Lee at Verdierville, in accordance with a request from him to that effect.

Rodes' was a little in advance of the other divisions, and as the advance of his column came in view of the open ground around Locust Grove (Robertson's Tavern) a very large force of the enemy was discovered moving up and occupying the high ground at that point. General Rodes then formed his division in line across the road on which he was advancing, in a body of woods, and the point at which that road united with the one by Bartlett's Mill on which Johnson was. In a short time Hays came up from Bartlett's Mill and finding Rodes in position in possession of Locust Grove, formed his line across that road confronting him-Johnson in the meantime coming up from Bartlett's Mill and finding Rodes in positon in front of him, halted his division along the road with his advance a short distance in rear of Rodes' line, and his division extending back towards Bartlett's Mill, so as to [320] make his position nearly at right angles with the line occupied by Rodes. The enemy opened with artillery on both Rodes and Hays, and some skirmishing ensued.

While I was in consultation with General Lee at Verdierville, the information that the enemy had been encountered at Locust Grove reached me in the afternoon, and I rode to the front to Hays' position. I found the enemy occupied commanding ground in front and around Locust Grove, while the position Hays had been compelled to assume was low and very unfavorable. The enemy's guns raked the road as far as they could reach, and each side of it the ground, ascending towards the enemy, was very rough and so obstructed with young pines and underbrush as to make an advance very difficult. Causing Hays to connect his left with Rodes' right and so post his troops as to render them as secure as possible, I rode to Rodes' position, which I found equally disadvantageous for defence or attack. General Rodes informed me that the force seen entering the plains around Locust Grove was very heavy and that it was evident other troops were moving up to that position.

After reconnoitring I was fully satisfied that I could not make an attack upon the enemy with advantage, and that he had decidedly the advantage of the ground for attacking me. An examination of the ground on Hays' right had caused me to suppose that an attack might be made on the enemy's left by a force coming up on that flank from the Plank road, and information of that fact had been sent to General Lee.

While we were endeavoring to find out all we could about the enemy's position and strength, a little before sunset, General Johnson sent me word (to the point of intersection of the Bartlett's Mill and Zoar Church roads where I then was, just in Rodes' rear) that a party of the enemy had fired on his ambulances, on the road from Bartlett's Mill. I had received information that a body of the enemy's cavalry had crossed in front of Fitz. Lee at Morton's Ford, and had been cautioned by General [321] Fitz. Lee to look out for my left flank against molestation of the enemy's cavalry, and supposing the party firing on Johnson's train might be a body of cavalry that had crossed at some of the fords below Morton's, I sent word to General Johnson that such was my opinion and directed him to attack and drive off the cavalry. He at once formed his division and moved forward to the attack, soon encountering, instead of a cavalry force, a very heavy force of infantry advancing towards the Bartlett's Mill road.

A very heavy engagement with both artillery and infantry ensued, in which Johnson's division encountered the enemy's 3rd corps under French, supported by the 6th corps under Sedgwick, and, after a very obstinate fight lasting until after dark, Johnson effectually checked the enemy's advance, driving his troops back, and maintaining full occupation of the road. His brigades behaved with great gallantry, encountering many times their own numbers, and by the check thus given to the enemy in this quarter saved the whole corps from a very serious disaster, for if the enemy had got possession of this road, he would have been able to come up in rear of the other division, while they were confronting the large force at Locust Grove.

During the engagement one of Rodes' brigades was taken from his left and sent to Johnson's assistance, but before it arrived the action had closed. Johnson's division did not then exceed 4,000 men, if it reached that number. The two corps moving against it numbered not less than 30,000 men, though French's corps, the 3rd, was the only one which became actually engaged.

This affair satisfied me that the enemy's whole army was in the immediate neighborhood, and as Ewell's corps, under my command, was then in a most unfavorable position, I determined to fall back across Mine Run about two miles in our rear, where I had observed a good position as I passed on. Accordingly after Johnson's fight was over, and all his wounded and dead had been collected [322] as far as practicable, in the darkness, the divisions were withdrawn across Mine Run, my own and Rodes' on the stone pike, and Johnson's on the road to Zoar Church. Division commanders were directed to place their divisions in position at light next morning, on the west side of the run, Hays' left and Rodes' right resting on the stone pike, and Johnson's division across the Zoar Church road so as to connect with Rodes' left. Anderson's division of Hill's corps had been sent from the Plank road to my assistance, by General Lee, arriving about dark in rear of Hays' right, and before withdrawing my own troops I communicated to General Anderson my purpose, and he also withdrew across the run, so as to take position on Hays' right next morning. A strong line of pickets having been posted in front, the troops lay down on their arms a short time before day to rest from their fatigue.

In the affair between Johnson's division and the enemy's 3rd corps, there was some loss of valuable officers and men in killed and wounded, among the former being Randolph of the Stonewall Brigade, and among the latter Brigadier General J. M. Jones; but a much heavier loss was inflicted on the enemy.

After light on the morning of the 28th I rode to see General Lee at Verdierville for the purpose of advising him fully of the condition of things and receiving his further instructions. After being there a short time, information was sent me that the enemy was advancing on the stone pike from Locust Grove, and on riding to the front I found his skirmishers on the hills beyond Mine Run. The line on the west bank was now taken and the men commenced strengthening it with Trifle trenches. Previous to this time not a spade of earth had been thrown up on the whole line. In the course of the day the enemy moved up his whole force in our front; Hill's corps, which had come up, having taken position on my right extending across to the Plank road, and covering that also.

Some skirmish firing ensued between the advance line [323] of skirmishers, but no serious move was made by the enemy.

Our position was a very good one and it was rapidly strengthened with the ordinary rifle trenches and some epaulments for artillery. The enemy's position on the opposite banks of Mine Run was also a strong one for defence, the ground there being a little higher than that occupied by us; and he proceeded to throw up strong epaulments for his artillery in numerous favorable positions. A direct attack from either side would have been attended with great difficulties, on account of the necessity of having to descend the slopes to Mine Run and then after crossing that stream to ascend the opposite slopes under the fire of artillery as well as infantry.

As the enemy had crossed the river to attack us, we calmly awaited his assault for several days, with full confidence that we would be able to punish him severely for disturbance of us at this inclement season.

The weakest part of the line occupied by me was on the left, where Mine Run made a turn somewhat around that flank, so as to afford the enemy an opportunity of placing guns in position to partially enfilade the line. He was slow, however, to take advantage of this, and our lines at the exposed parts were protected in some measure by traverses hastily made. On the 30th, he was observed moving troops to his right beyond our left, and dispositions were made to meet him by extending Johnson's line to the rear around towards Zoar Church. There had been occasional artillery firing by the enemy, and on this day he opened quite heavily for a time, our fire being generally reserved for the attack when it should be made. Andrews' battalion of artillery, however, near Johnson's left, supported by some guns from the reserve artillery, replied to the enemy's for a time.

A force of infantry crossing Mine Run in front of my division, under cover of some woods on the bank of the stream, came up to an imperfect line of trenches in front, which had been abandoned for a better and shorter line [324] in their rear and were then only held by a line of skirmishers, but was soon compelled to retire.

The enemy had possession of Bartlett's Mill road which ran on our left towards the fords above, and connected with a road from Bartlett's Mill to Zoar Church in our rear; and as there was great danger of our left being turned in this direction, a watch was kept by videttes and pickets on that flank, so as to advise us of any movement, and enable us to move the line in prolongation until it connected with the one on the river.

The enemy made no such movement, however, and though on the 30th there were indications as if he were going to attack our left, yet he did not do so.

At the same time there had been indications of a purpose to attack our right beyond the Plank road, and corresponding movements were made to meet an attack there.

We remained in position awaiting the enemy's movements until December, when, all purpose to attack on his part being apparently abandoned, General Lee determined to attack him on his left flank, and for that purpose drew out two of Hill's divisions on the right to make the attack early next morning, the other division being moved to occupy their positions and my divisions being extended out to the right to occupy the part of the line evacuated by Hill's left division (Anderson's). During the night, however, the enemy withdrew from our front, and next morning he was found gone.

As soon as this was discovered I moved forward with the whole corps on the stone pike and then towards Germana Ford, capturing some two or three hundred prisoners, but the enemy's main force had crossed the river early in the morning.1 After going to within a short distance [325] of Germana Ford, and finding that there was no prospect of accomplishing anything further, I returned that night across Mine Run and encamped. The next day we returned to our former positions and the old state of things was resumed.

During our absence a division of the enemy's cavalry had crossed at Morton's Ford, and after some fighting, had been compelled by Fitz. Lee's cavalry to retire.

The loss in the corps during this affair was slight, nearly the whole of it being sustained by Johnson's division in the fight of the 27th.

1 Though Meade's performance on this occasion was somewhat like that of a King of France on a certain occasion, yet he had not failed to accomplish something towards the “suppression of the rebellion.” There was a little tanyard near Locust Grove, in sight of his headquarters, which belonged to and was operated by a poor man who took in hides to tan on shares for the neighbors, but who was in no wise engaged in tanning for the government or the soldiers. The community around it was very poor, and this was the sole dependence for shoes for the women and children of that neighborhood. The tannery building and the house of the owner were burned, the leather all destroyed, and the hides in the vats taken out and cut to pieces so as to be worthless. In addition to this, all the plows and farming utensils, and wheeled vehicles, including old ox-carts and dilapidated buggies, in the neighborhood and on the road to Germana Ford were burned, and the houses of a number of citizens ransacked and the furniture destroyed. In the very few cases where there were pianos or libraries, the former were hacked to pieces with axes, and the books in the latter torn up and scattered over the ground, private papers sharing the same fate. I saw the evidences of these things myself. The women and children around Locust Grove had no new shoes that winter, and the people in all that country were deprived of the means of properly cultivating their crops next season, to say nothing of those who lost what little source of amusement, recreation or mental employment there was left to them.

Can it be doubted that this was calculated to break the spirit of the “rebellion” ? Meade's expedition to Mine Run accomplished this much if no more.

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