Apologizing, and pleading want of time, study and preparations, my infliction upon you to-night relative to a projected battle not fought, you will find has one merit, that of brevity.
In the latter part of November, 1863, the 3d Corps of the Army of the Potomac was quietly resting in its camps in Virginia, about twenty miles from the Rapidan, with no thought of immediate further offensive military operations. Our beds of poles, crotched sticks and barrel staves, covered with boughs of pine and balsam, supplemented with blankets, were marvels of luxury, and our Quartermaster and Commissary Departments were all that could be desired.
Weary of the marchings, and counter-marchings of previous campaigns, as well as the spring baths of Virginia mud, our constitutions seemed to be able, without impairment, to stand a long season of rest and quiet camp life, to dream of home, and perchance a flying leave to visit our Mecca, Washington, and listen to the comments of the “stay-at-homes” upon that superb and superbly abused body of the Army of the Potomac, and smile at the query so frequently put, “why didn’t it do something?”
But the end was not yet. About the 25th of November orders came to break camp and prepare to move. The following morning with ten days’ marching rations, we moved out, and with high hopes, buoyant spirits and clear skies, took up our march towards the Rapidan.
The clamors of the North, and the seemingly favorable opportunity for a strategic movement of successful issue, moved Gen. Meade, then in command, of the Army of the Potomac, to develop a plan, by which, advancing upon Lee’s army, now lying along the Rapidan, he hope to be able to cross the river, turn the defenses of the rebel army on the little stream known as Mine Run, and thus interposing between Ewell’s and Hill’s Corps, by celerity of movement, whip them in detail before Gen. Lee might divine our purpose, or intervene to prevent. And thus was initiated what is known as the “Mine Run Movement.”
The 1st, 2d, 5th, and 6th Corps were likewise in motion, making for the lower fords of the river, crossing and marching as nearly as might be by parallel lines, converging near Robertson’s Tavern and Parker’s Store. Reaching the Rapidan at Jacob’s Mill Ford, if my memory serves me correctly, we bivouacked along its banks, and on the following morning, on pontoons already in position, crossed the river, and with toil and trouble climbed the precipitous banks on the farther side, and were soon again upon the march for our objective point. And here allow me to digress a little. It is well known to all of us that in marches, battles and campaigns, we, of regiments, brigades, divisions, and even corps, know very little at the time, of the plans, objects or movements we are called to execute or participate in, or what is being done by other than our immediate commands. I trust, therefore, I may not be accused of plagiarism if , in attempting to give a partial account of the movement, I draw upon approved history for the facts relating to commands other than that to which I was attached.
In again taking up our line of march, by misdirection our Corps took a wrong road, and soon unwittingly came upon a force of the enemy; but not being loaded for bears, after severe skirmishing we withdrew, and changing direction somewhat, resumed the march, and shortly thereafter ascertaining as to our position with reference to the other Corps, and that we were on the right track, went into bivouac, and thus ended the second day.
The next morning we were again upon the move, and in a few hours the rebel defenses on Mine Run, to which the enemy had retired on our approach, opened up before us.
Gen. Lee, divining our intentions, had not been idle, and the sound of the axe and the falling of trees constantly heard from rebel lines gave evidence of rapid work, and the defenses of the enemy, already formidable, were growing in strength hour by hour, while our army quietly rested, or marched into positions in accordance with the dispositions being made for a combined general assault upon the entire line of the rebel works.
Gen. Warren had taken position upon our left, and opposite the enemy’s right, and making a reconnaissance in force, felt of the enemy and ascertained, so far as practicable, its strength and position. Sedgwick held our right, Sykes, Newton, and our 3d Corps holding the center.
Our position along the crest of a hill, with a line of timber on our right, looked down upon a beautiful valley, of from a quarter to half a mile in width, through which meandered the little stream known as Mine Run, with its grassy and marshy banks, while beyond the valley, and upon the ridge of the opposite slope, loomed up the formidable earth-works of the enemy; and thus passed the third day.
On the next morning all was ready, and we only awaited the preconcerted signal gun from Warren’s position to attempt the assault, by a heavy fire of artillery, covering a double quick of the infantry down the hill, across valley and stream, up the slope, and a dash upon the enemy’s works.
But no signal was heard. With anxious hearts, and with a full realization of the dangers of the movements, our command rested upon its arms, calmly awaiting whatever might come to it.
After a time, report came through an aid from Gen. Warren, that, upon a reconnaissance early in the morning, he had found the enemy’s right greatly strengthened since the preceding day, and now too strong to attack. All honor to Gen. Warren. With the great responsibility resting upon him, the command ready and willing to do or die, the vituperation of the rash, uninitiated people of the North sure to fall upon him, he took no thought for himself, and with the courage born of greatness, by his action, approved by his commander, saved the army from what, it could hardly otherwise be concluded, would have been to us a most disastrous movement.
Brilliant in conception, practical and possible of execution, the plan was worthy of the General commanding, but the unexpected and vexatious delays in execution, when everything depended upon suddenness and celerity of action, thwarted the movement, and rendered impossible what might otherwise have been most successful.
Nothing now remained for us but rapid retreat, if possible, before the enemy could be aware of the movement, and obstruct or prevent our re-crossing of the Rapidan. Pickets were thrown out to cover our movements, with orders to withdraw at midnight, and follow by direct and shortest roads, and our army awaited the friendly shades of night.
Near the position on Mine Run, occupied by the Brigade and Division to which I was attached stood an old frame Virginia farm house, the home of a then lonely female, of doubtful age, with Southern proclivities and scornful mien; she hated the Yankees, and was “right smart” with her tongue in so declaring.
Toothsome looking turkeys were strutting about the apology for a yard, and negotiations were opened with the old lady for one or two for our mess. Would she sell them? Yes! reckoned they was worth about $10 a piece, preferred confederate scrip, “but if we hadn’t nuthin’ else, would take Yankee money.” There was too much gall in this for us. Turkey graced our board, and I am of the opinion that the mess is still indebted for it.
This was retribution sufficient. Judge then of the shock and dismay, as, while in line, waiting for the cover of complete darkness, we looked back, to see flames suddenly burst from the doors, windows and roof of the cabin, lighting up the heavens and exposing to rebel view our shining barrels and preparations for retreat. A few short minutes served to consume the old structure, and render homeless, the poor, lone woman, whose man had gone to fight the Yanks. Such is War.
As the shadow of evening deepened, we were on the move. Marching rapidly and silently to the rear, with scarcely what might be called a halt, morning found us nearing the banks of the Rapidan, reaching which, we crossed on the pontoons, which had remained during our forward movement, as rapidly as possible, and climbing the banks were once more across the river.
Posting guns on the crest of the banks, opening fire across the river and shelling the woods in our rear, through which we had just passed, to check the enemy should he pursue, our command, weary and exhausted, sank upon the ground, and, under the very guns, slept away the toils and fatigues of this vividly remembered night’s march.
After a few hours of rest, we continued our march to the rear, and at sundown again halted until about 9 o’clock at night--- then resuming our way, sunrise found us on our old welcome camp sites, and the Mine Run Movement was over.
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Wisconsin Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Haight T. W. 1891. AMONG THE PONTOONS AT FITZHUGH'S CROSSING, War Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Wisconsin, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Burdick and Allen, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Volume 1, pp. 416-423.
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