Battle of Rappahannock Station II (November 7, 1863)

Updated: May 02, 2016

Fought on November 7, 1863, the Battle of Rappahannock Station II was the final and deciding engagement of the Bristoe Campaign in Northern Virginia.

Following the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac cautiously pursued General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia as it retreated into Virginia. Despite encounters at the Battle of Williamsport (July 6-16, 1863), the Battle of Boonsboro (July 8, 1863), and the Battle of Manassas Gap (July 23, 1863), Meade was unable to prevent Lee's escape and called off the chase.

In September, Confederate officials pressured Lee into sending Lieutenant General James Longstreet's 1st Corps to Chattanooga to reinforce the Army of Tennessee, which was being battered by the Army of the Cumberland. When Meade learned that Lee had weakened his army, he decided to renew his pursuit. In mid-September, Meade sent two columns forward to engage the remnants of Lee's army, which was encamped along the Rapidan River.

The tables quickly turned, however, when Washington officials ordered Meade's 11th and 12th Corps to Tennessee after the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863). With the size of Meade's army also depleted, Lee responded by crossing the Rappahannock River and launching an offensive aimed at Meade's right flank. Lee's offensive was short-lived, however. After suffering a defeat at the Battle of Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863, Lee decided to withdraw his army south of the Rappahannock River and to establish a defensive line as he prepared to go into winter quarters.

In anticipation of a spring offensive aimed at driving the Army of the Potomac out of Northern Virginia, Lee left intact one pontoon bridge across the river at Rappahannock Station.  To protect the bridge, Lee ordered the construction of a bridgehead on the north bank of the river, complete with earthworks and trenches. The bridgehead was protected by artillery batteries on both side of the river.  Lee charged Major General Jubal A. Early's Division of Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps with the task of protecting the bridgehead. Early manned the position with some of his finest troops, Brigadier-General Harry T. Hays's Louisiana brigade, known as the Louisiana Tigers. 

Meanwhile, Meade, who was under intense pressure from Washington to continue to pursue Lee's retreating army, decided to attack. On November 7, Meade ordered Major General William H. French's 3rd Corps to force its way across the Rappahannock River at Kelly's Ford, five miles downstream from Rappahannock Station. Concurrent with French's assault, Major General John Sedgwick's 6th Corps advanced against the Rebel defenders at the bridgehead.

Upon learning of the two-pronged attack, Lee mistakenly surmised that Sedgwick's movement toward the pontoon bridge was a feint in support of French's attempt to cross the river at Kelly's Ford. Accordingly, he sent only one brigade to Rappahannock Station II in response to Early's request for reinforcements.

Meade's battle plan could hardly have gone better. French's 3rd Corps brushed aside the Confederate defenders at Kelly's Ford and easily gained the south side of the river. In the meantime, Sedgwick's men established artillery positions on the high ground north of the pontoon bridge and began shelling the two thousand Rebel defenders.

As dusk approached, the shelling stopped. Hays and his men may have assumed that Sedgwick had called a halt to the day's action. Suddenly, however, soldiers from Brigadier-General David A. Russell’s division, led by the 6th Maine and the 5th Wisconsin Infantries, charged the Rebel works from two sides. Many of the shocked Confederates threw down their arms and surrendered. Following a futile attempt to organize a counterattack, the hapless defenders made for the bridge to escape harm or capture. As the Yankee sharpshooters cut down the fleeing Rebels on the bridge, others jumped into the icy waters and tried to swim to freedom. When the fighting ended, Russell's men had captured nearly 1,600 Confederate soldiers. Another six hundred or so men perished in the assault. The Union reported 419 casualties (killed, wounded or captured) at both combat sites.

The Union victory at the Battle of Rappahannock Station II forced Lee to retreat even farther south than he had hoped before the onset of winter. It also emboldened Meade to launch another offensive before cold weather arrived. In late November and early December, the two armies would engage again during the Mine Run Campaign.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Rappahannock Station II included:

Infantry units:

4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

8th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

110th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

122nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

126th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery units:

1st Regiment Ohio Light Artillery

Cavalry units:

1st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Battle of Rappahannock Station II," Ohio Civil War Central, 2019, Ohio Civil War Central. 25 Aug 2019 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1658>

APA Style

"Battle of Rappahannock Station II." (2019) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved August 25, 2019, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1658

Comments powered by Disqus

Help support the ongoing development of Ohio Civil War Central by clicking the banner and then purchasing products from Amazon.com.

Ohio Civil War Central: An Encyclopedia of the American Civil War