In September 1863, two corps from the Union Army of the Potomac moved to Tennessee to reinforce the army of General William Rosecrans after his loss at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19 and 20. When Lee heard of this, he suspected that the diminished Yankee army in Virginia was vulnerable. Lee was still outnumbered nearly two to one, but if he could place his army between the main Union force and Washington, D.C., the Confederates could relieve pressure on Virginia by forcing the Yankees closer to Washington.
On October 10, Lee moved his troops from their defenses along the Rapidan River and attempted to turn the Army of the Potomac’s right flank. Union commander General George Meade was alerted to Lee’s movement, and he quickly drew his army closer to Washington. The aggressive Lee realized that he had a chance to cut the Union army up piecemeal during the withdrawal. Confederate General Ambrose P. Hill spotted Yankees from General George Sykes’s Fifth Corps near Bristoe Station on the afternoon of October 14. Thinking this was the rear of the Union army, Hill attacked and began driving the Federals away in disarray. The Confederates were surprised by the sudden appearance of Union General Gouverneur K. Warren’s Second Corps. Warren’s men were returning from a small battle at Auburn, Virginia, earlier that morning. Hill decided to attack this new force as well, but the Yankees were well protected by a railroad cut.
In a very short engagement, the Confederates suffered 1,400 men killed, wounded, orcaptured, while the Union lost only 546. “Bury these poor men,” Lee somberly told Hill, “and let us say no more about it.” The Union army was driven back 40 miles from its original positions, and the Confederates destroyed a large section of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, a key Union supply line. Nonetheless, the gains were temporary. The next month, Meade drove Lee back behind the Rapidan River.