The Mine Run Campaign serves as a significant connecting event linking the fighting at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in the spring and summer of 1863, to a new phase of the war beginning with the Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864.
In this history email we will share how the Mine Run Campaign developed, reveal that fighting actually did occur, and share some primary source accounts from soldiers who were there.
Politics and Action
During the fall of 1863, as things moved toward conclusion in the fighting at Chattanooga in the Western Theater, maneuvers were afoot in Central Virginia by Gen. George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac. With the resounding victory by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, political pressure from Washington City increased for Meade to try to do some damage to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before winter.
Opening Chess Moves
"Gen. Warren fighting at Bristoe Station" (Oct. 14, 1863) Courtesy of the Library of Congress
From his army’s camps in Orange County, Lee made a bold move north toward Meade in October 1863. In response, Meade fell back to the Centreville defenses attempting to encourage Lee to attack him. While maintaining close contact with the Union forces, A. P. Hill’s divisions assaulted what turned out to be two Union Corps and received a thrashing at Bristoe Station on October 14, prompting Lee to fall back to his position along the Rappahannock River. The two armies were at each other again less than a month later at Rappahannock Station (November 7), where the Federals used a bayonet attack at dark to break the Confederate defenses and push the southerners back into Orange County, while Meade’s army remained in Culpeper County.
As President Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1863, Meade was on the move to try to get behind the Army of Northern Virginia and defeat each of Lee’s two corps before they could unite. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps was still west of the Appalachian Mountains. Crossing the Rapidan River at several different fords, all Federal corps traversed unopposed but not without drama due to issues partly caused by poor weather. The III Corps, commanded by Gen. William French, finally crossed at Jacob’s Ford that evening, with Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps right on his heels, but both still well short of their target location of Robinson’s Tavern.
Battle of Payne’s Farm
Fighting occurred at several different points during the Mine Run Campaign, including Robinson's Tavern and New Hope Church. However, the largest clash occurred when poor leadership by Third Corps commander Gen. William French and his division under Gen. Henry Prince ran into Confederates from Lee’s Second Corps, then commanded by Gen. Jubal Early, whom French was supposed to avoid before concentrating with other Federal corps.
Confederate pickets guarding an ambulance and baggage wagon train in Gen. George H. Steuart’s brigade from Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division, fired back at skirmishers leading French’s advance near Zoar Church. Receiving word that the rear of his column was under fire, Johnson countermarched his forward brigades to the scene of fighting. Prince formed his two available brigades into a battle line. Then Gen. Joseph Carr's Division joined in to the left of Prince.
All of this maneuvering brought on a general engagement that ebbed and flowed throughout the afternoon of November 27. Fighting spilled through the thick woods and across the small fields owned by the Payne family without any definite advantage to either side. When ammunition ran low, support from Gen. George Doles’ Brigade of Robert E. Rodes’ Division arrived to assist the Confederates, while Federal support came from Gen. David B. Birney’s Third Corps division. Darkness finally ended the fighting which had produced almost 1000 casualties for the Federals and just over half that for the Confederates.
Mine Run scenes from Harper's Weekly, January 2, 1864 issue. Image in the public domain.
During the night of November 27/28, Lee decided to fall back a couple of miles to the west side of Mine Run, a tributary of the Rapidan River, and dig in, hoping that Meade would attack his defenses.
Finding the Confederates gone on the morning of November 28, Meade ordered an advance in a cold rain that made travel difficult. Locating the Confederate entrenched line, Meade ordered Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s Second Corps to move south in an attempt to flank the Confederate right. Lee sent Gen. J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry out to gather information on the Federal move and Stuart tangled with Gen. David Gregg’s horsemen near Parker’s Store.
Warren finally got into position on the afternoon of November 29. Cautious of reports about Confederate cavalry in his rear, and with the advancing darkness, Warren did not order an assault, but went to confer with Meade. Meade decided to attack both ends of the Confederate line the following day, with Warren attacking the Confederate right and Sedgwick the left. Both Meade and Warren felt confident in their chances of success at this point.
Understanding that the following day would probably bring significant casualties, Federal soldiers spent an uncomfortable night in the cold. The Confederates used the additional time to strengthen their earthen fortifications. Federal soldiers heard their counterparts hard at work all night improving their position.
November 30 opened with Sedgwick’s artillery firing as planned, but with no advance from Warren. Concerned, Meade rode to Warren’s position and consulted with his subordinate at length. After personally viewing the improved Confederate defensive line, Meade agreed with Warren that the cost of the assault in casualties did not make its potential for success worth the risk. Certainly disappointed, but with few other options, Meade ordered a withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac back to Culpeper County. The next five months would bring numerous changes to the Army of the Potomac, including the arrival of Gen. Grant and a new phase of the war in the spring of 1864.
Soldiers' Accounts of Mine Run
"The Army of the Potomac at Mine Run-General Warren's Troops Attacking" in Harper's Weekly, January 2, 1864 issue. Image in the public domain.
The Mine Run Campaign’s importance resonated with the soldiers who participated in it. Their comments ranged widely, but most of the Union soldiers’ accounts express a relief over not having to assault the enemy’s works. Confederate soldiers conveyed their hope that the Federals would attack and thus receive a sound thrashing. All understood a lot was at stake.
Sgt. Charles Bowen, 12th U.S. Inf., penned in his diary on November 29, 1863, that “The rebels have driven stakes into the bank sloping them towards us and damming up the stream so as to cover them with water. The crest of their hill is covered with earthworks and bristling with guns. Unless a way is found to flank the position it will be hard to take if not impossible.” Maj. Abner Small, 16th Maine, noted of that day: “The [Mine] run had been dammed by the rebels (and damned by us) and widened in our front to two hundred yards, presenting a most disagreeable prospect for a scrimmage. The enemy from their secure position hoped it would prove a Red Sea to us, and not without good reason. To say that we rejoiced to have the order for a charge countermanded, was putting it mild. Later an order was issued for a general attack at eight a.m. to-morrow [Nov. 30], on the discharge of a signal gun from the right.”
On the west side of Mine Run, Confederates felt secure in their defensive position. On November 29, Sgt. Leroy Edwards, 12th Virginia wrote that, “I never saw men so anxious for a fight as were ours—they really rejoiced when the Yankee line of battle emerged from the woods, threw out skirmishers, and started to advance, and it was with infinite regret that they saw them retire without assaying our position.” The following day, when it appeared the attack might not come, Lt. Fleming Saunders, 42nd Virginia, felt a bit more relieved than Sgt. Edwards, and perhaps somewhat prophetic of the coming Battle of the Wilderness: “It is very evident that both Gen. Lee & the Yankee Gen. are very cautious about bringing on a general fight & when one does come off, it will most probably be a desperate struggle & a drawn battle with heavy loss of life on both sides.”
Sgt. Bowen wrote home explaining how Union soldiers prepared for battle the night of November 29 and early morning of November 30: “You may see in the newspapers the accounts of soldiers writing their names & addresses of their friends on a slip of paper & pinning it to their clothes in order to be known if killed. This is true., for I saw it myself & done the same thing. We, who were to make the charge on the right, all knew that certain death was the doom of more than two thirds of the column who charged, but not a man faltered from his duty. We lay all that cold day without fires ready to make the advance when ordered. But thank providence we were not ordered to make that rash attempt.” Confederate Lt. Irby Scott, 12th Georgia Inf., believed Meade chose wisely. “Mead backed clear out of it this time and it is a good thing for him he did. If he had of fought us he would of got one of the best whippings ever a Gen. did get.”
Speaking for many of the common Federal soldiers, Pvt. Alonzo Bump, 77th New York, wrote phonetically to his wife that: “In the morning [Dec. 30] our core Geniral [John Sedgwick] come down and went out on the skirmish Line and Looked the Gound over and then hee sent word Back to Geniral Mead that hee would not Put hiss core in such a Plaice as that. hee said that hee had some Good men and hee did not want them Kild for nothing and that was all that saved us from Goin in to a Blody fight.” Pvt. Bump believed, “as Good Luck would have it the Ordar was countermanded and the army Began to fall Back. . . .”
Capt. Henry F. Young, 7th Wisconsin, placed blame for the campaign’s lack of success on the Third Corps: “I am well sattisfide that the fault of failure rest with the 3d Corps in taking the wrong road the day [Nov. 26] we crossed the River. Had this corps been on hand to suppoart the 2d corps by 12 oclock as it should have been we would have fought the battle at Robertsons cross Roads [Robinson’s Tavern] where we would have had a fair fight. But this delay gave the enemy time to fall back and concentrate behind their entrenchments on mine Runn.”
Regardless of the fault finding, both Gen. Meade and Gen. Lee seemed disappointed in the outcome of the campaign as their armies went into winter quarters. While the political leaders and military commanders strategized for the spring campaign, the common soldiers wondered what the future held for them, their comrades, and their causes.
"Battle of Mine Run, VA - Position of the Armies of Lee and Meade, December 1, 1863." Image in the public domain
Sources & Suggested Reading
Graham, Martin F. and George F. Skoch. Mine Run: A Campaign of Lost Opportunities, October 21, 1863-May 1, 1864. H. E. Howard Inc., 1987. Mackowski, Chris. The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign, November 26-December 2, 1863. Savas Beatie, 2018.
“We gained a slight rise in the land behind an old worm fence. The enemy had fallen back under cover of a piece of woods well in our front. Soon they came out in splendid battle array, with waving banners, and charged our position. It was a desperate effort to dislodge us.” — Sgt. John R. King, 6th Maryland Infantry (US) on the Battle of Payne's Farm
(Photo by Tim Talbott, 2022)
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.