The aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg saw a period of inconclusive manoeuvring around northern Virginia. After reaching as far south as the Rapidan River in mid September 1863, General Meade withdrew north in the face of a flanking move by General Lee. However, after suffering a rebuff at Bristoe Station (14 October), Lee decided not to attack Meade’s position at Centreville, and pulled back to the Rappahannock River.
On 7 November General Sedgewick’s two corps were ordered to push the Confederates across the Rappahannock (Union army corps were getting increasingly numerous by this point in the war, and were often organised into pairs. At this time Sedgewick had command of his own corps, and also of General Wright’s sixth corps). The Confederates had a strong defensive position on the left bank of the river – two defensive works linked by a line of rifle pits and defended by two brigades of Infantry from General Early’s corps. The commander of one of these brigades had just refused reinforcements with the words that ‘he could hold the position against the whole Yankee army’. This position was guarding a pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock River.
Sedgewick consulted with General Wright, and then with General Russell, whose division would have to carry out the attack. When Russell expressed confidence in his men’s ability to carry out the attack, Sedgewick ordered him in.
Early’s men were simply overrun. The Confederate rifle pits were overrun by Union skirmishers, cutting off any hope of retreat. The main attack reached the Confederate redoubts and captured virtually the entire garrison. Union losses were 83 dead, 330 wounded and 6 missing. Lee reported his losses as 6 dead, 39 wounded and 1,629 missing, but the defeat had been so total that he had no news of the real figures for dead and wounded.
The next day the Union army was able to cross the Rappahannock, but winter was now setting in. By the end of November the campaigning season was over, and the two armies settled down into their camps for the winter. The arrival of spring also saw the arrival of General U.S. Grant, and a change in the nature of the war in the east.