• The war’s first successful night attack
    November 11,2013
    Library of Congress image

    A period drawing depicts the hand to hand combat at Rappahannock Station.

    By Don Wickman

    While much activity centered on Chattanooga in October and November of 1863, in Virginia the opposing armies still sought opportunities to strike at each other.

    As fall progressed, Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to withdraw his Army of Northern Virginia south of the Rappahannock River. He chose to maintain one link to the north bank at Rappahannock Station. By having a pontoon bridge at this location, Lee could send men across 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 of the other part.”

    The bridgehead Lee established stretched about a mile and featured two fortified redoubts connected by trenches and strengthened with the four-gun battery of the Louisiana Guard Artillery. The Louisiana Brigade under Gen. Harry Hays manned the works. Additional artillery on the hills along the southern bank provided further support.

    Lee believed Rappahannock Station to be secure.

    In early November, Gen. George Meade formulated a plan to attack Lee. He directed John Sedgwick with his 6th Corps to attack Rappahannock Station, while a large portion of the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford. The two forces would then unite and continue southwards.

    Lee shifted his army towards Kelly’s Ford, trusting the defenders of Rappahannock Station to hold the post. To assist in the defense, he reinforced Hays with the veteran 6th, 54th and 57th North Carolina Regiments under Col. Archibald Godwin. Nearly 2,000 Southerners held the Rappahannock Station works.

    On Nov. 7, Gen. Albion Howe’s 6th Corps division successfully drove back the Confederate skirmishers at Rappahannock Station at 3 p.m. He immediately set up batteries on high ground and commenced pounding the Southern lines three quarters of a mile distant. The shelling continued the remainder of the day and Lee felt assured Sedgwick’s actions were a feint. However, Sedgwick had other plans.

    The Federal shelling ceased at dusk and quiet settled over the area. Then, to the great shock of the Confederates, Union soldiers surged forward out of the darkness about 7 p.m. They belonged to Gen. David Russell’s division. The general had formulated the idea of a night attack, fully convinced of his soldiers’ “well-known character” that they would succeed.

    The topography favored the defenders. Russell’s “storming column encountered a formidable ditch, 12 or 14 feet wide, some 6 feet deep, and filled with mud and water to an average depth of 3 feet. Crossing this they came to a plain broken with stumps and underbrush.”

    First, Peter Ellmaker’s brigade charged along the railroad led by the men of the 6th Maine. The Mainers stormed over the breastworks and fought in a “desperate hand-to-hand struggle” with Hays’ Louisianans. Sgt. Otis O. Roberts of Company H captured the flag of the 8th Louisiana and soon the redoubt fell. Maj. George Fuller of the 6th Maine remembered that the Southern “musketry grew heavier as the line neared the works, and the men were struck with fearful rapidity, . . . but unwavering, with wild cheers,” but the defenders appeared “astonished and bewildered.”

    To the west, the 5th Wisconsin captured the other redoubt, again in close quarters.

    On the Confederate left, conditions were equally serious. Col. Emory Upton’s brigade overran the position of Godwin’s North Carolinians. After his initial success Upton reformed his men. He ordered a portion of the 121st New York to capture the pontoon bridge and advanced his remaining regiments towards the mass of disorientated Southerners trying to reach the bridge and escape.

    The Louisiana and North Carolina troops had three choices: sprint through heavy Union fire to cross the bridge, plunge into the chilly river water and swim to safety, or lay down their arms in surrender. Most took the latter route with the 6th Maine taking 350 prisoners.

    Hays barely escaped capture. He found himself surrounded, but his horse bolted and galloped through the lines to safety. Afterwards the general complimented his adversaries, claiming a force of 20,000 to 25,000 had overwhelmed his position while in actuality, the attackers were of equal strength to the defenders. Another Union division commander later boasted the VI Corps victory at Rappahannock Station was the first instance where Federals captured an “intrenched position of importance during the war on the first assault.”

    The outcome proved humiliating for the Confederates. A member of Lee’s staff recorded the sad result came from “miserable, miserable, management” leading to what the officer called “the saddest chapter in the history of this army.” How bad was the outcome? The Southerners lost 1,670 men killed, wounded or captured, over 80 percent of those involved. Men belonging to two of the army’s best brigades were decimated, as compared to only 419 of the attackers. Eight colors also fell into Federal hands.

    Unfortunately, the 6th Maine suffered for their audacity — 139 casualties with 14 officers either killed or wounded.

    Nov. 7 was a sad day for the Army of Northern Virginia. One Southern soldier summed it up: “It seems to be that our army was surprised.”

    The analysis was totally opposite from the Federal perspective. Sedgwick called the attack “brilliantly executed,” and Gen. Horatio Wright, who authorized the assault, thought “its success was perfect” and the men “bore themselves most gallantly and are entitled to the high honor of soldiers.”

    Donald Wickman is an author and historian who lives in Rutland.

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