by John Paul Strain
General JEB Stuart and Major Andrew R. Venable
Bristoe Station Campaign
Near Auburn, Virginia - October 13, 1863
“We must survive this day!” These were the thoughts of General JEB Stuart on the evening of October 13, as his two cavalry brigades were unexpectedly surrounded by the arriving Federal 2nd and 3rd Corps near Auburn. Fortunately for Stuart, he and his men had not yet been discovered by this huge Federal force which quickly filled the countryside.
The days and nights of October were already cold, and the trees were flying the colors of autumn when General Robert E. Lee launched his campaign across the Rapidan River to drive the Federals back to the Potomac. If successful, northern Virginia would be free from occupation during the winter, the Federals would be less likely to send more troops to Tennessee, and Lee would have ample ground for maneuvering his army and still be able to protect Richmond.
Union General George Meade’s army was stationed around the Culpeper Courthouse when Lee’s operations began on October 9. Stuart and his 1st Cavalry Division led the advance and easily disposed of Union outposts on the 10th, clearing the way for the infantry to move toward Culpeper on the 11th. Upon hearing of Lee’s advance, Meade evacuated his position and headed towards the Rappahannock river.
On the morning of October 12 General Lee’s battle plan was to outflank Meade and to intercept his retreat near the Orange and Alexandria Railroad near Warrenton. On the 13th, Lee concentrated his force at Warrenton where he resupplied his troops with rations. That afternoon he ordered Stuart to reconnoiter 8 miles to Catlett’s Station. Stuart and his cavalry reached the little town of Auburn about 4:00p.m. He left part of his force in Auburn and took two brigades towards Cattlett’s Station to investigate reports of Yankees to the south. Soon Stuart’s scouts discovered a vast camp of wagons and realized the enemy was moving from the south in force. It was the whole Federal 2nd and 3rd Corps. General Stuart arrived at the scene to view the sight for himself. At that moment another excited scout arrived to announce “The enemy are now in our rear.” The group hurried back to find a large body of Federal troops marching on the road to Auburn cutting off their escape. Stuart then sent one of his most trusted aids, Major Andrew Venable, on a daunting mission to ride back to General Lee and inform him of the cavalry’s predicament, and send help.
W.W. Blackford of General Stuart’s staff would write of the situation, “With the inspiration of his genius Stuart grasped the subject in an instant and adopted a plan. He found almost in sight of Auburn the mouth of a little valley opening on the road and covered with woods, and finding this valley large enough to hide his command in, he marched it in there, just about dark.” Everyone quickly settled down to a long very quite vigil, keeping their horses as quiet as possible. Federal soldiers could be heard talking in the distance. Stuart sent more couriers during the night to seek help from Lee in case Major Venable didn’t make it through. Stuart’s plan was to have a number of Lee’s artillery batteries near enough to Auburn to open fire at daybreak. Stuart would do the same with a few of the cannons he had. This would cause enough confusion and fear in the Federals that Stuart and his command could then fight their way out.
At about 1 o’clock in the morning Major Venable arrived in Lee’s camp to inform him of Stuart’s situation and plan. Lee ordered the plan to move forward. At the daybreak in the foggy valley Federal soldiers were just awaking and boiling their coffee when artillery from Lee and Stuart’s cannons opened fire. As was planned, during the surprise and confusion General Stuart and his command successfully broke out.
Stuart in his official report wrote, ‘Major Andrew R. Venable, Jr., A.A. and Inspector-General, deserves special mention for his conduct in evading the enemy near Auburn and reaching the Commanding General with important dispatches on the night of October 13th.’
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