Meade and Lee at Bristoe Station
by Jeffrey Hunt
Is the second in a trilogy covering the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia from mid-July 1863 through the end of the year. The first book was Meade and Lee After Gettysburg, covering the second half of July 1863 and the story of how the two armies got from the Potomac to the Rappahannock. I read and enjoyed that book.
There are 450 pages of main text with footnotes, plus an extensive bibliography. The maps are simple but reasonably effective, and of the same style as the first book in this trilogy. There are some contemporary photos and sketches scattered throughout (typical Library of Congress fare), with the ones I found most interesting being the extent of the railroad destruction by Lee.
A little over a hundred pages covers August and most of September 1863. This includes the cavalry battles of Second Brandy Station, Culpepper Courthouse, and Jack's Shop. Hunt admits in the Preface that he didn't go into as much detail with the early cavalry battles as he could have. This part wraps up Longstreet west going west and Lee's withdrawal from the Rappahannock to the Rapidan, with Meade following. I was very surprised to learn that by the time Longstreet left both the AOTP and ANV were essentially back to their pre-Gettysburg strength, at least in terms of numbers.
We then move into the Bristoe Campaign proper. Howard and Slocum go west prompting Lee to go on the offensive. Battles at Morton's Ford and Third Brandy Station, and Meade withdraws back across the Rappahannock. Meade's counterattack across the Rappahannock while Lee crosses upstream.
The skirmish at Auburn gets three chapters and about a hundred pages, as Warren's II Corps finds itself in an unexpected jam. The Battle of Bristoe Station gets almost another hundred pages. The cavalry clash and chase at Buckland gets about 40 pages. The book ends with Lee back across the Rappahannock and Meade slowly moving that direction, repairing the wrecked railroad as he goes.
Hunt wraps things up an analysis of the command decisions during this three-month period. His most interesting conclusion is that sending Longstreet west was a mistake. Longstreet's prescience in the West achieved a Pyrrhic victory at Chickamauga and was otherwise a failure. If had he remained in Virginia then Lee's offensive would have been more effective, even if Meade had retained the XI and XII Corps. Longstreet at Chickamauga also resulted in Grant at Chattanooga, which helped bring Grant to Virginia in 1864.
I entered this trilogy as a fan of George Meade and I must say that at this point my opinion of him is badly shaken. I don't think Meade was a bad general, much less an incompetent one. But he was cautious and hesitant to a fault, needed strong direction from above, and lacked a certain assertiveness necessary for defeating Lee and winning the war (a quality which Grant possessed). Hunt makes it clear the Lincoln-Halleck-Meade command situation was not good and contrasts it to Lee-Davis. Meade seems to have been to sensitive to the possibility of being blamed should something go wrong. He also seems to have believed poor intelligence that overestimated Lee's manpower, especially after Longstreet left, and feared Lee might move into the Shenandoah and/or strike for the Potomac again. (I am reminded of the famous incident during the Battle of the Wilderness where Grant tells off an anonymoous panicked Union officer for being so worried about Lee.)
Meade made a number of mistakes during this period. He was too slow with his planning toward and across the Rapidan. He failed to properly guard the upper Rappahannock, and on the contrary made an overly aggressive push back across the Rappahannock. As a result, when he learned Lee was across he made a long and hasty withdrawal to Centerville, not making any effort to intercept Lee or strike his flank. His failure to pursue the ANV once it began to withdraw back toward the Rappahannock is understandable due to the weather.
Something repeatedly referenced, but (unless I missed it) never really addressed in detail was Meade's desire (prior to Lee's offensive) to make a move to Fredericksburg, a strategy which Lincoln opposed. Pages 145 and 447 have the most to say on the subject that I could find, and if I understand the citation this may be based entirely off Andrew Humphrey's essay in Battles & Leaders. Hunt also states that Meade believed the James River approach was best, which makes me wonder if that was another reason Grant retained him. I'm curious to see if this matter comes up again in the final volume about Mine Run since Meade successfully positioned himself during that offensive between Lee and Fredericksburg meaning he could have easily fallen back to where he wanted to be.
This period does not come across as the Union cavalry's finest hour, even excluding Kilpatrick's incompetence at Buckland. They seem to have mostly been outfought by Stuart's cavalry during the Bristoe Campaign, which impaired Meade's ability to react effectively to Lee's offensive. Other than being caught between the two wings of the AOTP at one point, Stuart seems to been at the top of his game during this period.
Like the first part of this trilogy, this is another solid work covering a badly neglected part of the Civil War. A must read for Civil War buffs. I look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy with Mine Run (no publication date or full title announced that I'm aware of).
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