MACKOWSKI: The Great Battle Never Fought (2018)

The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign, November 26-December 2, 1863 by Chris Mackowski. Savas Beatie, 2018. Paper, ISBN: 978-1-61121-407-9. $14.95.

A relative quiet in active military operations in the East began in mid-July 1863 and lasted until the beginning of May 1864. The three-day bloodbath at Gettysburg had crippled both of the major armies, and campaigns in the West drew units from these eastern commands. Only two offensives—one Confederate and one Union—transpired during a nearly ten-month period.

Skirmishes between pickets and clashes between cavalry units characterized the exchanges in the region around the Rappahannock and Rapidan. In mid-October, however, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia advanced against George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac in a broad turning movement. The Confederate offensive forced the Federals to withdraw nearly to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. On October 14, the Yankees repulsed disjointed rebel attacks at Bristoe Station; the so-called Bristoe Campaign ended with Lee returning to his position south of the Rappahannock.

In the Bristoe Campaign’s aftermath, President Abraham Lincoln met with Meade and impressed upon the army commander the need to undertake operations against the Confederates. The Federals struck on November 6 against an enemy bridgehead on the river’s north bank at Rappahannock Station. Union Sixth Corps units overran the Rebel works, capturing nearly 1,700 Confederates and routing the survivors. Lee withdrew his ranks to the south bank of the Rapidan River.

Nearly another three weeks passed before the Federals came on again, crossing the Rapidan on November 26 and initiating what became known as the Mine Run Campaign. With this offensive movement, Meade intended to turn Lee’s right flank and to give battle on open ground—not against fieldworks. The Federals advanced on Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road, pushing west. Lee countered by confronting the enemy along both roads. The campaign’s main engagement occurred at Payne’s Farm on the afternoon of November 27. The bungled affair on both sides, however, disrupted Meade’s plans for a combined advance along the parallel roads. By nightfall, Lee’s veterans began entrenching on ridges behind Mine Run.

A cold rain began falling the next day as the two armies faced either, each along the streams. The opposing lines stretched for five miles. The inclement weather and frigid temperatures caused much suffering in both ranks. Finally, Meade ordered an assault for November 30. When his Second Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren refused to attack the formidable rebel works, arguing that it would be a costly failure, Meade agreed and cancelled the operation. The Federals recrossed the Rapidan during the night of December 1-2.

Meade believed the campaign’s outcome would lead to his dismissal from command. His decision to cancel the attack on November 30 required moral courage. It almost certainly would have resulted in a fearfully bloody repulse. Most of the army’s rank and file praised Meade for it. The campaign’s failure Meade attributed primarily to his Third Corps commander, William H. French, whose disobedience of orders resulted in the fight at Payne’s Farm. On that day, the incompetent French was evidently fortified with liquor.

This new book is a volume in the publisher’s Emerging Civil War Series. Like other works in the series, it has fine maps, ample photographs, and a narrative characterized by many quotes from participants. The text contains an order of battle, but no endnotes or bibliography. A driving tour of the sites and appendices are included.

A veteran historian and author, Chris Mackowski, has undoubtedly done the research and writes well. He offers judgments on Lee, Meade, and their ranking subordinates. He argues that Lee missed a fine opportunity to strike the retreating Federals, but this seems to be rather harsh. This is assuredly a solid work and a most valuable companion to a visit along Mine Run.



Jeffry D. Wert is the author of many titles, including Civil War Barons.

Leave a Reply

“The Good Lord Bird”: Episode 5

On October 4, 2020, The Good Lord Bird, a 7-part miniseries about the life of abolitionist John Brown—based on the award-winning novel of the same name by James McBride—premiered on…