A Missed Opportunity
After the Gettysburg Campaign, Union Gen. George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac faced Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia across the Rapidan River. In October 1863, Lee attempted to outflank Meade's army and cut the Union supply line—the Orange and Alexandria (O&A) Railroad. In response, Meade withdrew the Army of the Potomac east to protect Washington, D.C., with Lee in pursuit.
As Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill, at the front of Lee's army, neared Bristoe Station on the O&A, he thought he saw the Federal rear. In reality, Hill saw the rear of V Corps. A gap had opened between it and H Corps, which the elevated railroad bed screened from Hill's vision. As Hill attacked, II Corps crossed Kettle Run and fired into Hill's right flank, inflicting heavy casualties. When the battle shifted onto the railroad corridor, some II Corps units moved west to Kettle Run to protect the Union left flank.
Confederate Gen. Richard S. Ewell ordered Gen. Jubal A. Early's division, following Hill, to attack across Kettle Run and outflank II Corps.
"As we descended the hill toward Kettle Run the air above us rang with the whistle of minie bullets, and athwart the creek appeared the advancing enemy [Gen. John B. Gordon's brigade] pressing to cut us off."
—Chaplain Henry R. Pine, The
History of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry (1871)
Early directed Gen. John B. Gordon to form a battle line and wait, but Gordon impulsively charged across Kettle Run to attack Federal cavalrymen. Early was surprised when he "found Gordon unexpectedly gone." By then, II Corps had marched on, leaving Early—missing a third of his manpower with Gordon chasing Union cavalry—"no enemy to attack in the direction I had been ordered to move." Because of Hill's and Gordon's ill-considered attacks, Meade's army escaped by nightfall. Lee's opportunity for inflicting a heavy blow was lost near Kettle Run.