Thursday, October 17, 2013

Commemorating the 150th of Bristoe Station

This past Monday marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bristoe Station. I'll be the first to admit that my knowledge of the Bristoe Campaign isn't on par with some of the other periods during the Civil War, so I was really looking forward to learning more while attending some Sesquicentennial events related to the battle and campaign. The activities that I selected satisfied my initial curiosity and left me yearning for future trips to study the ground where the armies fought.

For the unfamiliar, the Bristoe Campaign was Robert E. Lee's last full-blown strategic offensive during the war. Starting on October 9, 1863, Lee moved to outflank Gen. George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac, which was positioned along the Rapidan River. Meade, however, was no John Pope, and a replay of Second Manassas was not in the making. Instead, the Union commander got wind of Lee's plans and ordered his forces back to the defenses at Centreville. On October 14, Gen. A.P. Hill, commander of the Confederate Third Corps, spotted the Union Fifth Corps across Broad Run near Bristoe Station and sent Gen. Henry Heth's division in pursuit. Heth was instead surprised by elements of Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren's Second Corps, who assumed a strong position along the embankment of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to the south. The Confederates wheeled about and marched to face this unexpected threat. Following a relatively short but bloody engagement in which four Second Corps brigades beat back Hill's men, Warren continued to Centreville. Total casualties amounted to nearly 2,000 (540 Union; 1,380 Confederate).

After the battle, Lee blamed Hill for making an ill-advised attack on the Union forces. When Hill went to apologize, Lee rebuked him, saying "Well, well, general, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it." Bristoe Station effectively stalled Lee's offensive momentum and by the start of November, both armies were back where they began.

Exhibit sign on lawn of Manassas Museum
Given the government shutdown, I had some free time on my hands, so last week I visited "There Was a Want of Vigilance," the Bristoe 150th exhibit at the Manassas Museum. Staff at the museum and the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division teamed up to assemble a small collection of artifacts related to the 1863 Bristoe Campaign. Objects are on loan from Gettysburg National Military Park, the Maine Historical Society, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the North Carolina Museum of History. I particularly enjoyed seeing A.P. Hill's cape and silver spurs. Other artifacts include a Second Corps Hospital guidon, swords belonging to battle participants, and the epaulets of Confederate Gen. Carnot Posey, who was mortally wounded at Bristoe Station. The exhibit runs through November 3. Make a day of it like I did, and visit Civil War-related sites in and around Old Town Manassas. For more information, see here.

This past Monday -- the 150th anniversary of the battle -- I traveled to Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park to take part in a special bus tour of local sites related to the engagement. I also planned to join a "real-time" tour on the battlefield later that afternoon, but a last minute sickness in the family required me to leave earlier than I would have liked.  Nevertheless, I still managed to find a little time to hike the battlefield trail, read the interpretive markers, and study the ground both before and after the bus tour. Lucky for me, I ran into Todd Berkoff, a local expert on the battle, who led an impromptu tour for me and Craig Swain, a friend and fellow blogger.

Back in the early 2000s, the Civil War Trust worked with a real estate developer and Prince William County to save the battlefield land that comprises today's park. The property not only saw action during the 1863 Battle of Bristoe Station, but was also the site of a Confederate encampment in 1861-62 and the Battle of Kettle Run in August 1862. Talking with Todd and Craig, I learned that the county has made tremendous strides in developing the site over the last several years. Additional plans include the construction of a visitor center in an existing 20th century structure on the battlefield and the removal of a non-period silo. Sadly, the surrounding area is still marked by residential housing that detracts from viewsheds and undermines the 19th-century sense of place.

Looking down at Broad Run from Milford, the first stop on the bus tour. This out-of-the-way site sits next to a Chick-fil-A parking lot in a shopping mall along Rt. 28 (Nokesville Road). The bridge across the stream is visible behind the trees to the left. At the time of the battle, the Union Army's Fifth Corps crossed Broad Run here, where the 18th-century Milford Mill once sat. The soldiers drew some Confederate artillery fire but continued towards Centreville. Prince William County plans a Civil War Trails marker and walking trail for this site at some point in the future.

Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park Historic Site Manager and fellow blogger Jimmy Price explains part of the battle at the location of Capt. Thomas Brown's Battery B, 1st R.I. Light Artillery (stop no. 2 on the bus tour). The battery sat on land to the east of Broad Run where the trees now stand. From this point, Brown's guns fired on the Confederate lines near the railroad at Bristoe. Prince William County owns this property and has plans to install a marker and cannon here.
Looking towards the position of Capt. William Arnold's Battery A, 1st R.I. Light Artillery from the parking lot of the Bristow Post Office (stop no. 3 on the bus tour). The battery occupied the distant cleared ridge line towards the middle of the picture. From this commanding position, Arnold's men were able to rake the Confederate lines near the Orange & Alexandria Railroad on the other side of the ridge.
The bus tour concluded at the spot where Gen. William Kirkland's brigade of North Carolinians, including the ill-fated 26th N.C., engaged in a desperate fight against Col. Francis Heath's brigade of Gen. Alexander Webb's division. The 26th N.C., which had fought on the first and third days at Gettysburg, lost its colors at Bristoe. The Union soldiers were positioned on the other side of the railroad, which at the time was six feet lower and single-tracked. Here Jimmy Price (r) is assisted by Prince William County Historic Interpreter Bill Backus (l). Congrats to Jimmy, Bill, and all the staff who made the 150th commemoration, including the bus tour, a success!
Another view of the area where Kirkland's brigade fought along the railroad.
Prince William County recently installed handsome new markers along the battlefield trail, just in time for the 150th anniversary. This marker discusses the opening phase of the battle. Note the unfortunate intrusion of a residential development at the park's boundary.
Site of Maj. David McIntosh's Battalion, which was ordered to provide artillery support for the Confederate attack along the railroad at the bottom of the hill. As the Confederate infantry retreated and counter-battery fire took its toll, the artillerymen abandoned their pieces. Men from the 19th Massachusetts eventually seized five of McIntosh's guns and dragged them back the Federal lines.
North Carolinians from Gen. John Cooke's brigade advanced down this slope to attack the Federal line along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. There they met men from Col. James Mallon's brigade of Webb's division, as well as Gen. Joshua Owen's brigade of Alexander Hays's division. Cooke was wounded in the fight, and Mallon was mortally wounded. The Bristoe Battlefield preserves the portion of the ground pertaining to Cooke's advance and attack.
I left Bristoe Station with a desire to learn even more about the 1863 battle and campaign. In looking through the commemorative program, I noticed that one of the speeches at Saturday's events was entitled, "After Gettysburg, Before Grant." Perhaps that explains why Bristoe Station is often overlooked. The battle lives in the shadows of one of the most popular and controversial engagements in the entire Civil War and is seen as a mere prequel to the famous struggle between Grant and Lee during the last year of the conflict. Not much at all has been written about Bristoe. I hope the 150th commemoration served as a teachable moment and raised the interest level in the battle among Civil War enthusiasts. In my case, I am sure that it did.

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