1863 Rappahannock Station Battlefield in Fauquier County, Virginia

Not much remains to mark the scene of one of Robert E. Lee’s biggest military blunders.

The Second Battle of Rappahannock Station was fought on November 7, 1863 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick and Confederate forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Jubal Early near Rappahannock Station, Virginia during the American Civil War. This devastating Confederate defeat cost Robert E. Lee two veteran brigades and resulted in over 2,000 total casualties, mostly Confederate.

After defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 and months of inconclusive maneuvers in northern Virginia, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee withdrew his 45,000-man Army of Northern Virginia south of the Rappahannock River to wait out the winter. He left a small force on the north bank of the river to guard a pontoon bridge near Rappahannock Station, where he hoped to compel Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to divide his 76,000-man Army of the Potomac and expose it to attack.

Meade divided his army as anticipated, but things didn’t go well for the Confederates. Meade sent Maj. Gen. William H. French’s III Corps to cross the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford and Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps to attack Lee’s bridgehead at Rappahannock Station. On November 7, Union troops brushed aside the Confederate defenders at Kelly’s Ford, while Sedgwick bombarded Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s division at the bridgehead. The delayed attack tricked Lee into thinking Sedgwick’s advance was only a diversion, so he sent no help to Jubal Early.

Under cover of darkness, Brig. Gen. David Allen Russell’s division fixed bayonets and surged over the Confederate earthworks, taking the defenders by surprise. Hundreds fled into the icy river to escape. It was one of Lee’s greatest blunders, costing 70 killed or wounded and between 1,600 and 1,900 captured, while Union forces suffered 419 casualties. The disaster compelled Lee to cancel his plans and withdraw farther south to Orange County.

Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery, the legality of secession, and the primacy of the Federal government. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most of the war’s battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.

Efforts to preserve this battlefield are relatively recent. A Civil War Trails interpretive sign was erected in Remington, Virginia in 1998, and the American Battlefield Trust purchased property along the Rappahannock River near the railroad bridge, but it is not yet open to the public. Plans are progressing for a Rappahannock Station Park north of the bridge where the 6th NC, 57th NC, and 8th LA regiments were dug in, but it has not yet been completed.

Entrance to the future park is located along a gravel driveway off James Madison Street (Business Route 29), just north of the Rappahannock River bridge (south of the subdivision) at GPS coordinates 38.530960, -77.811144. The hill where you park your car is where Captain Charles A. Green stationed two guns from his Louisiana Guard Artillery and where parts of the 8th Louisiana and 5th Wisconsin Infantry Regiments fought. Sadly, much of the battlefield has been lost to modern development.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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