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Order of Battle
The 27th NC at Bristoe Station.
Botched Battle at Bristoe
By Todd S. Berkoff
The autumn of 1863 brought many changes to both armies as they licked their wounds and recovered from the grievous casualties from the three days of fighting at Gettysburg in July. The incessant marches and maneuvers in war-torn Virginia during the late summer and fall of 1863 culminated in a horrifying and bloody Confederate debacle at the tiny cross roads of Bristoe Station. Here, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill foolishly ordered an impetuous attack against what he presumed were retreating Union soldiers, only to be viciously struck in one of the most deleterious ambushes of the entire war. As the fortunes of war would have it, units that opposed eachother at “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg, would again square off against eachother at Bristoe Station three months later. It would be a bloody deja vu for many of the men that day.
Almost four months since the pernicious fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg, there had been relatively few engagements between the two great armies, armies that now occupied quiet camps and countless pickets posts along the Rappahanock and Rapidan Rivers in central Virginia. The fighting that did take place was mostly desultory cavalry action as the two sides jockeyed for position and sought intelligence on each other’s exact locations.
By mid-September, the Union Army of the Potomac, under the command of the seasoned yet irascible Major General George Gordon Meade, occupied a line north of the Rapidan River, near the town of Culpeper. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, meanwhile, was stretched along the south bank of the Rapidan. As the two forces eyed eachother from their static camps, Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided on a bold plan to outflank and defeat the Army of the Potomac in detail.
While the military situation in Virginia looked promising for Lee’s troops, the situation in Tennessee deteriorated for the Confederacy by late summer 1863. Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of the Tennessee were holed up in Chattanooga, Tennessee leaving the majority of that state in Union control. Confederate President Jefferson Davis decided to reinforce Bragg’s beleaguered men with Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps of Lee’s army, thus sapping Lee of these much-needed men and his most trusted lieutenant. On September 8, Longstreet’s men boarded rail cars for the long trek to Tennessee. When word of the Union rout at Chickamauga reached President Abraham Lincoln, he decided to reinforce the Union war effort in Tennessee by sending the 11th and 12th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The departure of these 18,000 men on September 24 distressed Meade somewhat but if he were to lose any units from his army, he would have picked these two, for they were his two smallest corps. In addition, Meade didn’t trust the fighting quality of the mostly German immigrants that made up the 11th Corps and relegated them to guarding trains for most of the summer. When Lee was notified of this development, he saw it as an opportunity to strike a weakened opponent.
By early October, Lee had 45,000 men in the ranks, compared to 76,000 men in blue. If Lee was concerned with the odds, his fighting spirit certainly didn’t show it. Lee’s belief in a Rebel victory was buoyed by recent reports of low morale amongst the new conscripts in the Federal ranks. Coupled with the insidious draft riots in New York City over the summer, rumors of mass desertions and news of the major Rebel victory at Chickamauga in late September, the prospect of a southern victory looked bright. Lee decided to take advantage of Meade’s precarious situation. His plan of attack was to leave a cavalry division and two infantry brigades to hold the Rapidan line while his two corps under Lieutenant Generals A.P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell swing their men in a wide arc around Meade’s right flank, force him to retreat and then attack him in motion or on ground that was more suitable for defense. Hill would swing his nearly 20,000-man corps in wider, more circuitous route than Ewell, while Ewell pushed more vigorously across the Rappahanock.
Ambrose Powell Hill was born to an illustrious Virginian family in 1825 and grew up in nearby Culpeper. He graduated from West Point in 1847 and was posted to the artillery. It was rumored that while on furlough to New York City as a cadet at West Point, young Hill caught a venereal disease that would plague him for the rest of his life. Hill fought in the waning days of the Mexican War and in the Seminole Wars in Florida. He worked in the Coast Survey Office in Washington City for a time before the war. First Lieutenant Hill resigned from the U.S. Army in March 1861 and became Colonel of the 13th Virginia Infantry. By the time of the Seven Days Campaign in June 1862, now Major General, Hill led his famed “Light Division,” known for its speed in marching. Always wearing his trademark red shirt in battle, Hill’s division took heavy casualties at Mechanicsville, Gaines’s Mill and Glendale. He secured Stonewall Jackson’s line along the unfinished railroad at Second Manassas and saved the day at Antietam, when his division made its timely arrival on the battlefield. At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Hill succeeded Jackson when the latter was wounded, only to be wounded himself. Promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of the newly created Third Corps, Hill led his corps north during Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. As a fledgling corps commander at Gettysburg, Hill’s battlefield leadership lacked and Lee wondered if the young general would ever grow into the position. Following the unimpressive performance at Gettysburg, Hill needed to redeem himself in Lee’s eyes if he were to continue in his current capacity.
On October 9, the two Confederate columns began to move. Low on supplies, regimental commanders in Brigadier General William W. Kirkland’s North Carolina brigade allowed barefoot soldiers the option of staying in camp. Seventeen men in the 44th North Carolina Infantry had no shoes but none stayed in camp. By the morning of October 10, Kirkland’s brigade had reached Madison Court House. Their tortuous march took them “through woods, fields, and country roads, moving rapidly but taking long rests,” wrote one Tar Heel. Marching through the tiny villages of Sperryville and Gaines’ Cross Roads, the men rested at Waterloo Bridge while a unit of Pioneers repaired the bridge over the Rappahannock. Kirkland’s brigade reached Warrenton on October 13. In reality, the march was an arduous one. The troops were delayed by the need to cut new roads through the dense woods and open farm fields and the scarcity of food and shoes made the relatively short march challenging even for these veteran campaigners.
Upon reaching Warrenton, some men were issued rations of white cabbage. “I confess to sitting up three-fourths of the night, waiting for a pot of them to boil,” noted one soldier. Ewell’s corps had a relatively shorter march through Jeffersonton, White Sulphur Springs and then onto Warrenton. After filling their empty stomachs and taking what supplies they could carry, the Rebels destroyed the Federal supply depot at Warrenton and moved on. The lively mood of the advancing Rebels brought back memories of their march around Pope’s army in August 1862, a march that took them through many of the same towns. “We all entered now fully into the spirit of the movement. We were convinced that Meade was unwilling to face us, and we, therefore, anticipated a pleasant affair, if we should succeed in catching him,” one Confederate happily recorded.
Thanks to Union scouts operating throughout the countryside, Lee’s stealthy flanking movement was no longer a surprise. U.S. Signal Corps stations located on Pony Mountain and Thoroughfare Mountain also notified Meade of Lee’s movements. By the fall of 1863, the Signal Corps had cracked the Confederate Signal Corps’s secret code. As a result, Federal troops intercepted signal flag messages sent from the Rebel station atop Clark’s Mountain on October 6-7, messages announcing the impending Confederate offensive.
While headquartered at the Wallach House, east of Culpeper, Meade was made aware of the new situation. On October 8, Meade directed his men be issued five-day rations and ordered his forces to fall back to the defenses of Centreville. Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff summarized the uncertainty of the new campaign. “Uncle Lee has concluded that we have stared long enough at each other, and so is performing some fancy antics, though whether he means to fight, or retreat after a feint, or merely take a walk, I know not,” Lyman recalled. Responsibility for guarding the rear of the Union army fell to the battle-scarred Second Corps, under the command of the untested Major General Gouverneur Kemble Warren.
Born across the Hudson River from West Point in 1830, Warren was destined for martial greatness. He graduated second in the West Point Class of 1850 and was assigned to the Engineers. He participated in the Mississippi Delta survey, surveyed for the Pacific Railroad and taught Mathematics at his alma mater prior to the war. Warren commanded the 5th New York Infantry early in the war and then commanded a brigade during the Seven Days’, Second Manassas and Antietam Campaigns. Named Chief Topographical Engineer of the Army in June 1863, he distinguished himself on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg when he recognized the tactical importance of Little Round Top. After the wounding of Second Corps commander Major General Winfield S. Hancock at Gettysburg, Warren eventually took command of the Second Corps in September. From the sanguinary fields of Seven Pines to the Bloody Lane at Antietam to the stonewall at Fredericksburg to the Wheatfield at Gettysburg, the Second Corps was known as the best corps in the army and Meade’s hard-hitting shock troops. But recent casualties depleted the dependable cadre of officers and poorly trained conscripts now filled the illustrious ranks.
While all of his intelligence pointed to a Confederate flanking movement, Meade’s befuddled cavalry chief Major General Alfred Pleasonton convinced Meade that the Rebels were retreating farther into Virginia. After a series of marches and countermarches, Meade finally realized Lee’s true intentions and withdrew across the Rappahanock River and began his retrograde movement along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad back to Centreville on October 12. When Lee realized he lost the element of surprise, he directed Hill and Ewell to march with all haste to cut off the Federal’s retreat. Their sinuous route out of Warrenton, however, would allow the Federals the advantage on the race to Centreville. In addition, at places along the march, Ewell and Hill were forced to share the clogged roadways, further impeding their march. Meade’s forces had the luxury of using the direct route along the railroad to guide their march and were making good progress.
By the time Hill’s Third Corps reached the village of Greenwich on the morning of Wednesday, October 14, his men realized they were closing in on the retreating Federals. The nearby roads were strewn with soldierly accoutrements thrown to the wayside by the Federals, such as blankets, knapsacks and even muskets. One North Carolinian remembered the excitement as the Rebels neared their objective, “It was almost like boys chasing a hare.”
After a drenching rainstorm on the evening of October 13, Warren’s Second Corps were roused from their bivouacs near the sleepy village of Auburn to find the weather had improved and the crisp fall air invigorated them. One officer in the Second Corps described the scene on the morning of October 14 in almost poetic prose, “The crimson tinted foliage of an early October morn framed in the open ground, completely enclosing a glorious picture of an army en bivouac…made a picture not to be forgotten.” The soaking rains the night before had turned the busy roads to a muddy quagmire and forced the Second Corps to use alternative roads, delaying their march and isolating them even further from the rest of the army.
With their arms stacked, the men from Brigadier General John C. Caldwell’s 1st Division used the respite to boil coffee and rest their tired feet on the crest of a prominent hill north of Auburn. Confederate cavalry commander Major General James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart and his cavalry brigades were far out in front of the Rebel infantry, collecting intelligence and generally harassing the Federal rear guard. Cut off from the main body of the Rebel army, Stuart hid his isolated troopers in a ravine east of Auburn and waited for an opportunity to break out. At approximately 6:30 a.m. on October 14, Stuart spotted the lounging Union soldiers and ordered seven guns from his horse artillery to shell their position. Union artillery on an opposing ridge fired back and the ground shook as the soldiers of the Second Corps hugged the ground.
After some scrambling, forty-four year old Pennsylvanian Brigadier General Alexander Hays ordered the 125th New York Infantry and eventually the 126th New York Infantry of Brigadier General Joshua T. Owen’s brigade to advance in skirmish line to silence the Rebel guns. Supporting them were the brigades of Colonel Thomas A. Smyth and Colonel Paul Frank and the remainder of Owen’s brigade. Seeing the phalanx of Union infantry advance before him, Stuart quickly realized his guns were vulnerable to capture and ordered them to limber up and withdraw. Stuart ordered Colonel James B. Gordon to cover the retreat. Gordon, in turn, enjoined Colonel Thomas Ruffin and his 1st North Carolina Cavalry to charge the audacious Yankees to buy time for the withdrawal of the artillery. Several hundred mounted troopers fought hand-to-hand with elements of the 125th New York in a quick and spirited melee. Ruffin, a former U.S. congressman from North Carolina, was mortally wounded during the scrap and would later die in a Federal hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. The Union veterans would remember the short fight near Auburn as the Battle of Coffee Hill.
Warren’s fagged-out soldiers reached Catlett’s Station by noon and marched along the right-of-way, just south of the tracks of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. They used the steep railroad embankment on their left to screen their movements. While the Second Corps marched, Meade optimistically telegraphed the War Department from his temporary headquarters at Bristoe Station, “My movement thus far is successful. Skirmishing between the cavalry and also our rear guard [at Auburn]. The enemy are advancing from Warrenton, but will hardly be able to arrest my movement.” Following this communiqué, Meade sent his last telegraph to Warren before he left for Centreville, “General Sykes [commander of the Fifth Corps] is directed to keep up communications with you and keep in supporting distance. The road [between Bristoe and Centreville] is all clear for Sykes also…Sykes will remain here [Bristoe Station] until you are up.”
A.P. Hill, meanwhile, moved his corps out of Greenwich and onto the plains north of Bristoe Station. At 1:30 pm, from the hills a mile and a quarter north of Bristoe, Hill saw Union troops resting in the fields near Broad Run, while other Yankees were fording the creek. Hill assumed these troops belonged to the Federal Third Corps, since he had been trailing the Third Corps ever since that morning. Hill thought if he could quickly attack these unsuspecting units, he could defeat at least part of Meade’s divided force. In the words of noted late historian Douglas Southall Freeman, these Union soldiers, “offered such a mark as no Confederates had been given in Virginia since that May afternoon when Hill and Rodes and Colston had been deployed by Jackson in the woods west of Chancellorsville.” At that moment, Hill’s memory must have harkened back to that historic day, now so long ago.
Hill’s blood was up and he was itching for a fight. “With the strong scent of the enemy dilating his battle-hungry nostrils, Hill prepared to move in for the kill,” wrote another historian. He promptly ordered Major General Henry Heth to form his division to attack across Broad Run. Hill stated that he “determined that no time must be lost.” He assured Heth that Major General Richard H. Anderson’s division would protect his right flank during the attack. Unfortunately for Heth’s men, however, Hill’s eyes were myopically focused on these troops retreating across Broad Run and not on other possible threats.
But those troops did not represent the rear of the Third Corps. They were most probably Union stragglers resting along the creek. The main body of the Third Corps crossed Broad Run an hour and a half before and the Fifth Corps crossed about thirty minutes before Hill’s arrival. Major General George Sykes, commander of the Fifth Corps, was instructed to keep in contact with Warren’s Second Corps and wait for that unit to arrive before crossing Broad Run. By 1:00 pm, Sykes was at Bristoe and Warren was nowhere in sight. Anxious to move on to Centreville, Sykes fallaciously believed a report from his staff that the Second Corps was sighted near Bristoe. Content with this possible sighting, Sykes moved his Fifth Corps across the creek and onto Centreville, leaving the Second Corps to deal with the entire Rebel army.
The area around Bristoe Station was desolate and barren, typical of the Virginia countryside that had seen nearly three years of war. Much of the trees in the area were chopped down for firewood for the itinerant armies and for winter huts, leaving an unnatural barren landscape. Some of these huts remained in the fields north of the station, ghostly reminders of a more peaceful time. The station itself was located at the junction of the railroad and the Bristoe-Brentsville Road, which ran north to south. Due to constant fighting and foraging armies, very few families remained in the area. One Virginia soldier remarked that the landscape near Bristoe was covered “with a growth of small pines and barren to the last degree.”
Heth formed his men for the assault. He instructed his closest brigades, those of Brigadier General William W. Kirkland’s North Carolinians, Brigadier General Henry H. Walker’s Virginians, and the unattached North Carolina brigade belonging to Brigadier General John R. Cooke, to face east and advance toward Broad Run. Walker’s brigade was last in the line of march and lagged behind Kirkland and Cooke as they negotiated through the dense pine thickets on the west side of Broad Run. Heth’s other brigades were held in reserve.
Thirty-year-old William Whedbee Kirkland of North Carolina attended West Point but did not graduate. He did, however, serve as a junior officer in the Marine Corps for five years until he resigned shortly before the war. Kirkland was elected colonel of the 21st North Carolina and led this unit at First Manassas and through Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. While recovering from a wound received at Winchester, he served a stint in Tennessee and was back commanding his regiment during the Gettysburg Campaign. At Bristoe, Kirkland commanded the remains of James J. Pettigrew’s esteemed North Carolina brigade, which took dreadful losses at Gettysburg. The 26th North Carolina Infantry, for example, lost over 700 of its 840 men at that battle. This battered brigade was still reeling from the shock of these irreplaceable casualties. This was the first time Kirkland commanded a brigade in battle.
John Rogers Cooke was also thirty years old in 1863. He was born at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, while his father, the redoubtable Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke, was stationed there. The younger Cooke attended Harvard College and was commissioned directly into the U.S. Army as a Second Lieutenant in the 8th Infantry, where he served on the frontier. During this time Cooke’s sister married J.E.B. Stuart and when Virginia seceded, he and his brother-in-law resigned from the Army. His father stayed loyal to his flag and thus began a much talked about family split that would not be resolved until long after the war. Holding various jobs early in the war and distinguishing himself in all he did, Cooke fought at First Manassas, defended the North Carolina coast, was elected colonel of the 27th North Carolina Infantry, was wounded at Seven Pines and later was given command of a North Carolina brigade. At the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Cooke’s brigade defended the infamous stonewall against repeated Union assaults. Now he was on the receiving end. Cooke was one of the most experienced field commanders at Bristoe that day.
Kirkland’s 1,500 men formed on the left, while Cooke’s large brigade of 2,500 Tar Heels formed on the right. Henry W. Walker’s brigade of 750 Virginians trailed a few hundred yards behind. Cooke’s over-sized brigade recently returned from light duty guarding river crossings north of Richmond and spent much of the war in garrison duty in North and South Carolina. Cooke’s relatively green soldiers were eager to prove their worth to Lee’s veterans. However, not wanting to soil their new English-made gray uniform jackets and blue trousers, many of the men donned their old rags and packed away the new uniforms.
Heth later reported the two brigades (Cooke and Kirkland) “moved off in handsome style.” The underbrush was thick and some units stopped intermittently to adjust their alignment. Upon clearing the brush, Colonel Edward D. Hall of the 46th North Carolina Infantry, Cooke’s right flank regiment, discovered a mass of Yankees on his right near the railroad. The Federals were, as Hall noted, “busily engaged in getting in position.”
While Heth’s division was chasing Union stragglers across Broad Run, Warren’s Second Corps marched along the railroad with Brigadier General Alexander S. Webb’s division in the lead, just short of Broad Run. One of Warren’s staff officers informed Webb of the enemy presence north of the railroad. Webb ordered his lead regiment, Major Mark W. Downie’s 1st Minnesota Infantry, to advance through the thicket and scout the area. At 2:15 pm., Downie’s Minnesotans located Hall’s 46th North Carolina and began peppering the Tar Heels’ right flank. Warren and his staff, in the meantime, galloped along his tired troops, many carrying 5 days worth of rations in their haversacks and worn out from the morning fight at Coffee Hill and the toilsome march. He spotted the Rebel brigades to his left and ordered Webb “to halt and face to the left, and to hold the railroad embankment.” Warren then directed Brigadier General Alexander Hays, next in line behind Webb’s men. One of Hays’s men remembered we were ordered “to face…left, and run for the railroad cut, invisible from where we were.” After a few minutes, Webb threw out the 7th Michigan and 59th New York to reinforce the 1st Minnesota, now hotly engaged with the enemy.
To meet this new threat, Hall wheeled his regiment to the right and in doing so, caused Cooke’s entire brigade to change its direction and face south. Kirkland’s brigade followed suit to correspond with Cooke’s new southerly march. Too far away to realize the change in direction, Walker’s brigade continued marching toward the creek and would play no role in the upcoming battle. As the two brigades adjusted their lines, Cooke’s new position landed him on the west side of the Bristoe Road, with his leftmost regiment straddling the road. Kirkland’s boys were on the east side of the road, advancing south. In front of the main line, a skirmish line preceded the advance and halted on a slight rise, fifty yards from the railroad. To support the infantry advance, Major David G. McIntosh moved his artillery battalion toward a conspicuous knoll roughly 300 yards north of the railroad.
The railroad cut was five to ten feet high and offered the Federals ideal protection and the ability to maneuver behind it without being seen by the enemy. The ground behind the infantry sloped upward for 40 feet toward a ridgeline perfect for supporting artillery. Captain William A. Arnold’s Battery A, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery unlimbered its six 3-inch Ordnance Rifles on this ridgeline as well as the six 3-inch Ordnance Rifles of Captain R. Bruce Ricketts’s Batteries F and G, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery. Still nursing his Gettysburg wound, Lieutenant T. Fred Brown’s Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery unlimbered four 12-pounder Napoleons on a knoll on the east side of Broad Run, a perfect location to enfilade Kirkland’s line. These experienced artillerymen were expert gunners and ready for a fight.
Opposing Kirkland on the east side of the road was Colonel Francis E. Heath’s veteran brigade. The 82nd New York Infantry held the extreme right of Heath’s line about 150 yards from Broad Run, with the 15th Massachusetts Infantry on their left, and finally the 19th Maine Infantry anchoring the left flank. Only twenty-five years old, Heath hailed from Belfast, Maine where he worked as a lumberman and mill operator before the war and was a veteran of many battles. His hardy men from the 19th Maine helped defend Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg and he now commanded the brigade.
Opposite Cooke was the brigade of twenty-seven-year old Colonel James E. Mallon of Brooklyn, New York. A junior officer in the 40th New York, Mallon was wounded at Seven Pines. By Gettysburg, he commanded the mostly Irish 42nd New York Infantry, a regiment financed by the politically influential Tammany Hall in New York City. Since Gettysburg, attrition had depleted the ranks of the 42nd , which was now made up mostly of conscripts. Because two of Mallon’s regiments were deployed as skirmishers, he had only three regiments to hold his sector of the railroad embankment. The 19th Massachusetts Infantry took position on the east side of the road and the 20th Massachusetts Infantry occupied the west side, while the 42nd New York held the intersection of the road and the railroad. Wishing to fight with his former unit, Mallon placed his headquarters at this point. Almost half of Mallon’s men were recent conscripts whose fighting quality was doubtful. Including Brigadier General Joshua T. Owen’s brigade of New Yorkers on Mallon’s left, Webb and Hays had 3,000 men to hold off 4,000 Confederates. The time was 2:45 pm and everything was set for one of the most devastating ambushes of the war. Hill had no idea he was walking into “one of the neatest traps of the Civil War.”
As Cooke’s and Kirkland’s brigades neared within 200 yards of Warren’s ensconced position, all eyes were on the splendor of their advance, reminiscent of Pickett’s Charge three months before. Warren remembered, “A more inspiring scene could not be imagined. The enemy’s line of battle boldly moving forward, [while] one part of our own awaiting it.” At that moment, the concealed Yankees rose up and fired into the unsuspecting Rebel ranks. Captain Robert C. Wright of the 42nd New York witnessed the initial volley that staggered the Rebel lines, “we opened with terrible effect,” Wright remembered. The Union batteries on the ridgeline let loose and 16 Union guns pummeled their line from every direction. General Hays watched as a “perfect hurricane of shot,” riddled the butternut lines.
Henry Heth stood helpless as his division marched into a hornet’s nest and noted, “The enemy batteries completely swept the field over which the advance was made.” The fire from the four Federal cannon on the east side of Broad Run was especially injurious. Cooke tried his best to extricate his brigade from the ambush but it was too late. At some point early in the battle, Cooke was wounded by a minie ball to the leg. Colonel Hall took over the brigade. Also about this time, Kirkland was hit in the left arm and command fell to Colonel T.C. Singeltary of the 44th North Carolina. Seeing his men fall by the dozens around him, Hall later recorded, “I soon saw the rapid advance must be made or a withdrawal. I chose the former.”
As the North Carolinians fought for their survival in front of the railroad, McIntosh tried desperately to deploy his artillery but was only able to field 5 guns due their exposed position. Once these guns made their presence known, Federal artillery unleashed a ferocious barrage of shot and shell, wounding men and horse alike, stranding the now unserviceable cannon atop the hill. McIntosh’s position was untenable and his remaining gunners fled the scene of their demise.
The Tar Heels continued their feckless assault and many of the North Carolinians recognized the trefoil flags of the Second Corps from their encounter with them at Gettysburg. The 44th North Carolina advanced to nearly 50 yards of the railroad when the colorbearer was shot down. After Sergeant Long secured the colors, Lieutenant Dupree of Kirkland’s staff put his hand on Long’s shoulder and was about to order him to retreat when a solid shot tore off half the lieutenant’s face. Sergeant Long retreated with the flag to a safe position and attempted to re-organize his broken regiment, “Rally on the flag, 44th, rally on the flag!” While reforming the regiment, Long observed a soldier hit in the abdomen with a minie ball. The mortally wounded soldier “grabbed his stomach, jumped up and down several times, then fell on his side and continued to jerk his legs until unconscious ness brought peace.” Long would later find seventeen bullet holes in his own coat and pants.
The two left regiments of Kirkland’s brigade, 11th and 52nd North Carolina Infantry were the only Rebel units to breach the Union line. These two units overlapped Heath’s right flank regiment, the 82nd New York. The 11th and 52nd sensed a weakness in the enemy’s line and charged the railroad cut. For a few minutes the two sides grappled in hand-to-hand combat and the Tar Heels fought their way to the top of the embankment and fired into the New Yorkers’ flank and rear. Their success was short-lived. Brown’s four Napoleons and Ricketts’s rifled guns fired deadly salvos of canister and case shot into the exposed flank of Kirkland’s brigade. Colonel Charles H. Morgan of Warren’s staff noted, “It is conceded that the finest artillery practice in the experience of the corps was witnessed here from these two batteries.”
Heth watched his men crumble under this destructive fire and noted they were “compelled to fall back.” The chaos and clamor of battle began to take its effect on the southerners. One North Carolina soldier remembered, “nearly every man of strong voice was bawling out something of which I could distinguish the following: ‘Cease fire!’ ‘Lie down!’ ‘Don’t shoot, you are shooting our men,’ ‘Fall back!’…” Those not killed or maimed by Union lead, threw up their arms in surrender. One southern survivor described the storm of Yankee flame. Our lines were, “mowed down like grain before a reaper,” he remembered. In the confusion, Corporal Thomas Cullen of the 82nd New York captured a flag from Kirkland’s brigade, snatching it from the hands of a Confederate colorbearer. It is not clear to which southern unit the flag belonged, but recent scholarship points to either the 47th or 52nd North Carolina. On the left of Heath’s line, Corporal Moses C. Hanscom of the 19th Maine captured the flag of the 26th North Carolina, the second time this regiment lost its flag since Gettysburg. Hanscom and Cullen would later win the Medal of Honor for their actions.
On the other side of the field, Cooke’s brigade was fairing no better. Colonel Hall, now in command of Cooke’s brigade, charged the point where the Bristoe Road intersected the railroad. The fighting had reached its zenith. Elements of the 48th and 27th North Carolina approached to within yards of the 42nd New York. Three colorbearers of the 27th were cut down as each of them successively grabbed for the flag. Fearful that some of his new recruits might crack under this intense fire, the intrepid Mallon personally rallied his former regiment until mortally wounded by a bullet to the side. His staff hurriedly carried Mallon to a field hospital 75 yards in the rear of the main line. He would die within the hour. “I lost in him an able commander and a brave, intelligent gentleman,” Webb later noted about Mallon’s death. Colonel Ansel D. Wass of the 19th Massachusetts took over the brigade.
In an attempt to locate the flank of the Union line, Mississippians under Brigadier General Carnot Posey and Floridians under Brigadier General Edward A. Perry advanced toward the unprotected federal left. Elements of these brigades temporarily gained the railroad embankment. At this moment of crisis, the timely arrival of Smyth’s brigade and the deadly work by Captain Nelson Ames’s Battery G, First New York Light Artillery quickly expelled the intruders from the railroad.
At 3:30 pm, approximately 45 minutes since the initial attack, the shattered remains of Cooke and Kirkland’s brigades retreated to the safety of Heth’s main line well north of the railroad. The retreating Rebel infantry scurried past the abandoned guns of McIntosh’s battalion, leaving the cannon venerable to capture. Seeing an opportunity, Webb ordered Colonel Wass and the 19th Massachusetts and the Andrews Sharpshooters to advance up the hill and capture the pieces. Smyth’s brigade was ordered forward to support Wass’s mission. The Bay Staters succeeded in dragging five of McIntosh’s guns back to their lines. After fighting a long-distance duel with three Confederate brigades recently arrived on the battlefield, Smyth’s brigade withdrew to the comparative safety of the embankment. Warren managed to field three additional artillery batteries to add to his four already blasting away at Hill’s Confederates. The Union line now bristled with over 30 guns which belched forth their fury. Sometime during this barrage, a shell fragment mortally wounded Confederate Brigadier General Carnot Posey. He would die of his wound one month later.
The Battle of Bristoe Station was an extremely one-sided affair. Cooke’s brigade lost 700 men killed, wounded and captured, nearly a third of its men. Kirkland’s brigade lost a whopping 40 percent or 602 men killed, wounded or captured out of 1,500 soldiers. Almost 300 of Kirkland’s North Carolinians surrendered, attesting to the apparent desperate character of the clash. The 27th North Carolina was hit the hardest in the two brigades, losing 290 of 416 men. Warren’s troops lost much fewer due to the protective nature of the railroad embankment. Heath’s brigade suffered 72 casualties and Mallon’s brigade lost just 59 men. Owen’s combined casualties for the engagement at Coffee Hill and Bristoe totaled 124. Although recent scholarship reveals slightly lower Confederate casualty figures, the strikingly lopsided numbers tell the story of this forgotten, yet ferocious battle. Writing in support of the heroic efforts of the brigades of Cooke and Kirkland, Henry Heth wrote, “My confidence is not shaken by the result and I feel satisfied on fields to come they will vindicate the high reputation they have gained on many a hard-fought battle-field.”
Hill’s weary men camped on the battlefield that night, while Warren’s victorious Federals fell back to the defenses of Centreville. Lee and Hill rode across the bloody field strewn with the dead and dying. Hill, realizing he was at fault for the loss, was apologetic to the visibly angry Lee. “Well, well, General,” Lee concluded, “bury these poor men, and let us say no more about it.” After the battle, a remorseful Hill wrote very candidly about his part in the fight, “I am convinced that I made the attack too hastily…” Hill recklessly ordered a full scale attack against an unknown enemy and paid dearly for his shortsightedness. In addition, a lack of proper artillery support allowed the Federals to bring up reinforcements and utilize their artillery to crush Hill’s attack. Never again the inspiring field commander, the disaster at Bristoe would affect him until his death in the closing days of the war.
“We are today the heroes of the army,” Warren joyfully wrote his brother on the morning of October 15. Isolated and alone, Warren masterfully handled the role corps commander with ease. He keenly realized the threat of Hill’s attack, organized the defense of the railroad and deftly utilized reinforcements to thwart the Confederate advance. Warren’s successful rear guard action allowed the remainder of the Army of the Potomac to withdraw and fight another day.
Lee’s campaign to defeat the Army of the Potomac in October 1863 was a partial strategic success. The outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia’s aggressive flanking movement forced Meade to retreat from their trenches along the Rapidan River, captured and destroyed tons of Union war supplies and wrecked miles of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Only the tactical loss at Bristoe Station and the failure to defeat any portion of Meade’s divided army prevented total victory. Although forgotten to history, unmarked Confederate mass graves at Bristoe Station remind us today of the brutality of the fighting there.
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August 23, 2008