I consider myself a fairly well-informed person regarding the Civil War. However, I don’t know much about the interactions between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg and the Confederate’s escape across the Potomac River in 1863. Jeffrey William Hunt’s Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863 sheds some light on this time period.
Hunt provides a great overview of the situation in the Eastern Theater between the two armies. As part of the overview, Hunt discusses the pressure on Meade from Lincoln and General Henry Halleck (General-in-Chief of Union Armies) to follow-up the victory at Gettysburg with another defeat of Lee. However, Meade and Lincoln/Halleck cannot agree on a strategy to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to battle. Conversely, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia are anxious to avenge their loss at Gettysburg.
Following the overview, Hunt describes the various strategic options both commanders had at their disposal. He expertly gives the pros and cons for each option. For example, if Lee wanted to defend against a Union attack, he had the option to defend a line behind the Rappahannock River or the Rapidan River. However, the Rappahannock defensive line had several disadvantages, including possibly trapping the Confederate army between the Rappahannock River and the Rapidan.
Meade’s options were just as difficult for different reasons. Meade was hemmed in by the constraints of Lincoln and Halleck. Lincoln and Halleck wanted Meade to use the Orange and Alexandria Railroad as the axis of advance for the Army of the Potomac. Meade argued against this because the railroad angled away from Richmond, away from his major supply depots in the East, and ran entirely through enemy territory. The latter was no small matter because Meade would have to use thousands of troops to guard the railroad from Confederate raids. Meade preferred shifting to the East and operating from a base on the Potomac River near Fredericksburg. Meade lost the argument.
Hunt masterfully dictates the Union attacks and the Confederate’s counter-measures. Meade took a risk by splitting his forces to attack Confederate-held Kelly’s Ford and Rappahannock Station. Hunt indicates that Lee accurately guessed that Meade would choose this option. The Union’s assault on Kelly’s Ford went as expected – the Union cleared the Confederates from the Ford, but the Confederates then held them in check due to a lack of aggressiveness from the Union commander (General French).
The book’s most intriguing portion centers on Hunt’s discussion and analysis of the Union assault at Rappahannock Station. Meade allocated two corps to take the Confederate outpost on the northern side of the Rappahannock River and continue the assault after the crossing. Although the Union succeeded, Hunt points out that the assault took too long and accomplished too little due to a lack of aggressiveness at the corps level. Hunt praises the leadership of lower ranking officers and the men from a few regiments in taking the Confederate position (the Confederate leadership on that side of the river misread the tactical situation).
Hunt concludes the book with Lee’s escape to the Rapidan River. As Hunt notes, this escape was partially due to masterful Confederate tactics and the Union’s lack of aggressiveness. In his analysis, Hunt impartially blames Lee and his commanders for the loss of Rappahannock Station. However, he finds fault with Meade and his commanders for not pursuing the Confederates more aggressively for a more decisive victory.
The book is an excellent review of Union and Confederate actions at Kelly’s Ford and Rappahannock Station.