It was Thursday, November 26th, 1863; a day that President Lincoln had proclaimed a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise." The soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, encamped around Brandy Station, stirred early. "Nothing could be more magnificent than this autumnal morning," recorded Thomas E. Cook, a New York Herald correspondent traveling with the Third Corps. "The last stars were fading from sight," he continued, "the rising light of day chasing them away--as the bugles sounded the advance."
The Army of the Potomac had remained in camps around Brandy Station for more than two weeks, since November 8th. They had crossed the Rappahannock in early November searching for a battle with the Army of Northern Virginia, but Robert E. Lee had pulled his army back behind the Rapidan River into Orange County instead. Pressed into action by Abraham Lincoln and Henry Halleck, George G. Meade had determined to make one final campaign before winter set in, and a headquarters circular issued marching orders for the morning of November 24th. Continuing rains turned the Virginia roads to quagmires though, and the movement was suspended to await an improvement in the weather. Now, on the morning of the 26th, the troops moved out.
Meade's plan called for the Army of the Potomac to push swiftly across the Rapidan at three undefended crossing sites downstream from Lee's right flank, assemble on the Orange Turnpike, and advance into Lee's right rear. One column, headed by the Fifth Corps, would cross at Culpeper Mine Ford, furthest to the east. The Second Corps and Army Headquarters would cross at Germanna Ford and advance to Robertson's Tavern on the Orange Turnpike. Meanwhile, the Third Corps, followed by the Sixth, would cross the river on pontoon bridges at Jacob's Mill, closest to Lee's known position, and endeavor to connect with the Second Corps's right flank in the vicinity of Robertson's tavern. The success of the movement depended on the army's ability to move with celerity. Yet, as so often happened with this army, the plans began to unravel almost immediately.
Muddy roads delayed the Third Corps march to Jacob's Mill. Soldiers marched ankle deep in the muck, and horses struggled to pull the artillery and wagons on the rutted roads. Yet spirits remained high, and they were boosted when General Meade had word of Ulysses S. Grant's triumph at Chattanooga announced to the troops. At around noon the head of the column reached the river. Already tensions were running high between army headquarters and Third Corps commander William French. Annoyed that French's slow progress had delayed timetables for the entire army, at 1 p.m. Meade attempted to put the spurs to the Third Corps. "He directs that you throw your bridge immediately," wrote Chief of Staff Andrew Humphreys to French, "and cross without delay. I am also directed to say that your delay in reaching the river has retarded the operations of General Warren more than two hours, and that this delay calls for explanation."
French bristled at the sniping note from headquarters, and blamed the tardiness on poor roads and his lead division commander, the second division's Henry Prince, but more problems ensued. As French and Humphreys continued to spar over various delays, Captain Charles N. Turnbull of the engineers reported more bad news to headquarters:
The crossing here is bad, except for infantry. There is a very steep hill on opposite side. Artillery can only get up by doubling teams, and it is difficult then. Road will be impassable on this side if it should rain. I have all seven boats and one trestle in the bridge. I have spoken to General French and advised that all artillery should go by Germanna. It is the worst place I have seen for a pontoon bridge. The Third Corps is now crossing.The steep banks of the river, and the hill on the south side, would not allow artillery to pass. In addition, French found that the pontoon train brought along to bridge the Rapidan was one boat short of the river's width, requiring time to build a derrick to support the final trestle. Finally, at around 3 p.m., the crossing began.
Things did not get easier on the south side of the river. French and Prince had a poor understanding of the terrain and roads south of the Rapidan, a continuation of the dense and tangled underbrush made famous by the battles of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. A map prepared by the Bureau of Engineers showed a direct road from Jacob's Mill to Robertson's tavern, but Prince could not locate such a road. As correspondent Cook would recount for his readers: "Through these interminable woods there are numberless tracks, called roads, but in no instance approaching the dignity of that appellation." Marching away from the river, Prince chose the wrong path and had to countermarch back to his starting point. By the time darkness settled over the landscape, the Third Corps had barely gotten three miles beyond the Rapidan, and the Sixth Corps just finished crossing the river that evening. Meade's attempt to catch Lee by surprise with a swift maneuver had not come off as planned, but he believed an opportunity still existed to strike a blow the next day if he could assemble his corps quickly for a strike at Lee's right flank.
That night, Carr's third division camped south of the Rapidan River, second in the corps line behind Prince's men. Like many of their comrades, they were not thrilled at the prospect of work ahead. A member of the 138th Pennsylvania recalled:
The weather, as may be readily judged, was at this time quite wintry, and it was with no great degree of comfort that we trudged toward the Rapidan that November day, with a winter campaign before us, and with the disagreeable recollection of the cold nights we had passed, during the few previous weeks, at Brandy Station.Yet these soldiers also hoped to prove their dependability to their comrades in the Third Corps. As they bedded down for the night on November 26th, many may have wondered if the next day would bring them their first true taste of significant combat with the Army of the Potomac.