Backed by a force numerically superior to his enemy, General George Meade, Commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, felt confident that he would overwhelm Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the closing days of November 1863. But the weather in the area of the Rapidan River in Virginia, where Meade was preparing to crush Lee and his army, intervened with heavy rains. Impassable muddy roads and hazardous river crossings resulted. On November 28, the Army of the Potomac organized along the east of Mine Run in anticipation of an attack on the Confederate line established the day before on the west side.
That evening the rain stopped and was replaced by numbingly cold temperatures. Union soldiers reported that the water in their canteens froze during the night. Meanwhile, the Confederates had taken positions along Mine Run directly across from the Army of the Potomac. The Confederates had used their time to build formidable entrenchments on the high ground adjacent to the western bank of Mine Run.
Union troops were forbidden to build fires to warm themselves from the bitter cold during the night. Union officers reasoned that the illumination from the fires would help the Confederates direct their artillery and musket fire when an attack occurred. Pessimism – or grim practicality – ran through the ranks as the Federals awaited the attack at dawn. Many of the men pinned pieces of paper on their uniforms that gave their names and ranks; some more fatalistic soldiers also wrote on their tags: “Killed in action, November 30, 1863.”
Union Fifth Corps Commander, General Gouverneur Warren, rode along the Union lines in the early morning to assess the state of the Confederate defenses. He was appalled by what he saw. The Confederates had made substantial improvements to their fortifications during the night. As a military man who saw a field of battle through an engineering prism, Warren calculated that it would take his troops about eight minutes to run up to the Rebel fortifications during the attack – eight minutes during which his men would be under unrelenting musket and artillery fire from the well-protected enemy. An assault would be suicidal. Warren communicated his view immediately to General Meade, his superior officer.
Initially outraged by Warren’s eleventh-hour refusal to attack, Meade and several of his staff officers rode to Warren’s position to assess the situation for themselves. After seeing the enemy’s position firsthand, Meade called off the attack. Several days later, Meade, in a letter to his wife, reflected on his decision at Mine Run: “I would rather be ignominiously dismissed and suffer anything, than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing. It was my deliberate judgment that I ought not to attack; I acted on that judgment, and am willing to stand or fall by it at all hazards.”
Text based on Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey, University of Missouri Press, 2011.
Contemporary drawing of Mine Run courtesy The Library of Congress