Second Battle of Rappahannock Station
On November 7, the Union army forced passage of the Rappahannock River at two places. A dusk attack overran the Confederate bridgehead at Rappahannock Station, capturing more than 1,600 men of Jubal Early’s Division. Fighting at Kelly’s Ford was less severe with about 430 casualties, but the Confederates retreated allowing the Federals across in force. On the verge of going into winter quarters around Culpeper, Lee’s army retired instead into Orange County south of the Rapidan River. The Army of the Potomac occupied the vicinity of Brandy Station and Culpeper County. (NPS summary)
Rappahannock Station and Kelly's Ford
Following the wild chase at Buckland Mills the Bristoe Camapign was essentially finished. By October 22nd the Confederate cavalry had retired behind the Rappahannock River. This would have been the final act but for one more seemingly poor decision by the Confederate command. General Lee, determined to leave offensive options open, opted to protect his pontoon bridge crossing at Rappahannock Station with a tete-de-pont. He explained the decision by stating;
- "...it was deemed advantageous to maintain communication with the north bank; to threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part."
With this goal in mind Lee had his troops improve some old Federal works on the north bank into a line of rifle trenches. The south bank, overwatching the crossing was similiarily strengthened. The whole of the works were covered by 12 artillery piece; four in the tete-de-pont on the north shore and eight more in the works on the south shore. The responsibility for the defense of the crossing at Rappahannock Station and nearby Kelly's Ford fell to Ewell's Second Corps. Ewell alternated the divisions MG Jubal Early and MG Edward Johnson at Rappahannock Station, while MG Robert Rodes division covered Kelly's Ford. The terrain at the ford did not lend itself to defense and only a delaying action was considered practical there.
When two columns of Federal troops began to move on November 6th Lee assumed the target to be Kelly's Ford. Writing to Seddon on the 7th he identified the attack there as the primary effort and the move at Rappahannock Station as a "demonstration". Discussing the rapid fall of Kelly's Ford he added that it was "to be followed, I presume, by his main body." The appearance of Companies B and C of the Engineer Battalion to throw a bridge at the ford seemed to validate this opinion. The span was in place by late afternoon. The action at Rappahannock Station seemingly amounted to little more than a severe artillery barrage that lasted for several hours. The gathered Union forces kept a respectful distance until about 1400. Then led by five companies of skirmishers from the 6th Maine (A, F, D, I, and C) the Federal line moved forward "about a half mile". At 1430 they were ordered forward to drive back the enemy skirmishers. This was quickly accomplished with the loss of 1 killed and 5 wounded. Despite the increase of action in their front no further reinforcements were sent to the tete-de-pont, nor were they called back to the south side of the river.
As the coming darkness threatened to end activity for the day the Union commanders decided to try an double up on their success at Kelly's Ford. The skirmishers were strengthened by the remainder of the regiment (6th Maine) and the addition of the 5th Wisconsin to the skirmish line. When the order "forward ,double quick " was issued the Mainers raised "wild cheers" and closed on the Confederate rifle pits with fixed bayonets and uncapped weapons. Subjected to "heavy fire of musketry and artillery" as they crossed the open area in front of the enemy works they suffered casualties with "fearful rapidity." But they did not stop or even pause to fire a volley until they mounted the parapets and "engaged the enemy in a hand to hand combat." The shock value of the sudden rush and ferocity of the fight caused the Confederate forces there (BG Harry Hays Louisiana Brigade and three regiments of COL Archibald Godwin's North Carolina Brigade of MG Jubal Early's Division) to give way. The 6th was joined in the trenches by the 5th Wisconsin and the Confederates, finally realizing the growing strength of the Union forces opposing them would soon crush them, rushed for the single strand of escape - the pontoon bridge. But it was too late. The units comprising the main line had closed around the enemy cutting off the escape. The trapped Confederates began to throw down their weapons and surrender in droves. Some made a swim for safety but of the approximatley 2000 defenders on the north side of the river over 1600 were either killed or became prisoners. The unbelievably bold assault of the 6th Maine was dearly paid for. The regiments suffered 139 casualties (38K and 101 w) out of 321 present. Only the 5th Wisconsin equaled any more than half that total with 59 casualties (10k and 49w).
Lee was fooled by the Federal ploy. He considered the works at Rappahannock Station "adequate to accomplish the object for which they were intended"; the defense of the crossing. He was wrong. The captured commanders of both Confederate brigades, COL D.B. Penn and COL A. C. Godwin, breakfasted with their captors the following morning and were very complimentary. They also felt that their position was unassailable and could hold the works against whatever was thrown against them. They had declined reinforcements only a few moments before the 6th Maine charge. Their final defense lasted less than an hour. It seemed an appropriate ending to an ugly campaign that saw several serious failures for the Confederates.