“For the Army of the Potomac and its commander George G. Meade, the canceled assault at Mine Run was probably the most important nonevent in the army’s history as well as something of a turning point.” – John Hennessy, 1997
This past Monday, Craig Swain listed some of the exciting events that will be taking place this fall in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Bristoe Campaign (see here).
While it is great to see such attention being paid to an often overlooked episode in the eastern theater, I was surprised to see that there are no events in the offing for the anniversary of the Mine Run Campaign, which lasted from November 26 – December 2, 1863.
I find this surprising, because Mine Run has much to offer in terms not only of counterfactuals and tactical interest, but also its hyper-political context (both for the US and the Confederacy).
In mid-November of 1863, Gen. Meade, under pressure from Washington, crossed the Rapidan in an attempt to outflank the Army of Northern Virginia. The opportunities were great – several crucial fords across the Rapidan were unguarded and Longstreet’s Corps was off in Tennessee. Speed was crucial to Meade’s plan, and when the army got off to a slow start, problems began to compound for the Army of the Potomac. French’s III Corps took far too long crossing the river, and Lee soon caught wind of the offensive and started shuffling troops from Orange Court House to stymie Meade.
Following the Battle of Payne’s Farm (680 acres of which has been preserved by the Civil War Trust), which included what one Confederate described as “as warm a musketry fire as I have experienced for a good while – certainly worse than I have been in since Sharpsburg,” Lee pulled his men back to a carefully selected position on the west side of Mine Run where they immediately began digging in.
Meade followed Lee to Mine Run but would advance no further. After issuing orders for an attack that some Confederates were eagerly hoping would develop into a “Second Chancellorsville,” Meade examined the strong Confederate position and called off the attack. As he told his wife, “I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing.” He pulled his men back across the Rapidan on December 2nd and reaped a whirlwind of political discontent in Washington. To his men, however, he won admiration and respect for not wantonly throwing away their lives.
Lt. Michael S. Austin of the 5th New Jersey wrote:
Much censure is cast upon Gen Mead [sic] for the apparent failure of the late campaign. Those who were more closely connected & interested in that affair, are satisfied that it terminated as it should have done, after they saw what they had first to overcome…Today there are 15,000 men living, & of service, if properly used. In the case contemplated, that number of men would have been lost to the enemy & country, with a great chance of defeat.
For Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, the Army of the Potomac had been allowed to slip away with no further damage yet again. Lee grumpily said after the campaign, “I am too old to command this army. We should never have permitted those people to get away.”
Thus, the 150th anniversary of the Mine Run Campaign offers a chance to take a fresh look at this forgotten affair…it just looks as if no one has taken an interest in conducting that look.
While it may not grab the attention of the masses since we know that a large scale battle did not develop, the men who lived through the campaign did not enjoy this hindsight.
If anyone is aware of any upcoming events that deal with this fascinating period, please post them in the comments section.