After the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the Union and Confederate armies drifted south and for three months sparred with one another on the rolling plains of northern Virginia. Little was accomplished, however, and in late October General Robert E. Lee withdrew his Confederate army behind the Rappahannock River, a line he hoped to maintain throughout the winter.
A single pontoon bridge at the town of Rappahannock Station was the only connection Lee retained with the northern bank of the river. The bridge was protected by a bridgehead on the north bank consisting on two redoubts and connecting trenches. Confederate batteries posted on hills south of the river gave additional strength to the position.
The bridgehead was an integral part of Lee's strategy to defend the Rappahannock River line. As he later explained, by holding the bridgehead he could "threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part." The Union Army of the Potomac's commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, divided his forces just as Lee expected. He ordered Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick to attack the Confederate position at Rappahannock Station while Maj. Gen. William H. French forced a crossing five miles downstream at Kelly's Ford. Once both Sedgwick and French were safely across the river, the reunited army would proceed to Brandy Station.
The operation went according to plan. Shortly after noon on November 7, French drove back Confederate defenders at Kelly's Ford and crossed the river. As he did so, Sedgwick advanced toward Rappahannock Station. Lee learned of these developments sometime after noon and immediately put his troops in motion to meet the enemy. His plan was to resist Sedgwick with a small force at Rappahannock Station while attacking French at Kelly's Ford with the larger part of his army. The success of the plan depended on his ability to maintain the Rappahannock Station bridgehead until French was defeated.
Sedgwick first engaged the Confederates at 3 p.m. when Maj. Gen. Albion P. Howe's division of the VI Corps drove in Confederate skirmishers and seized a range of high ground three-quarters of a mile from the river. Howe placed Union batteries on these hills that pounded the enemy earthworks with a "rapid and vigorous" fire. Confederate guns across the river returned the fire, but with little effect.
Maj. Gen. Jubal Early's division occupied the bridgehead defenses that day. Early posted Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays's Louisiana brigade and Captain Charles A. Green's four gun Louisiana Guard Artillery in the works and at 4:30 p.m. reinforced them with three North Carolina regiments led by Colonel Archibald Godwin. The addition of Godwin's troops increased the number of Confederate defenders at the bridgehead to nearly 2,000.
Sedgwick continued shelling the Confederates throughout the late afternoon, but otherwise he showed no disposition to attack. As the day drew to a close, Lee became convinced that the movement against the bridgehead was merely a feint to cover French's crossing farther downstream. He was mistaken. At dusk the shelling stopped, and Sedgwick's infantry rushed suddenly upon the works. Col. Peter Ellmaker's brigade advanced adjacent to the railroad, preceded by skirmishers of the 6th Maine Infantry. No Union regiment gained more laurels that day nor suffered higher casualties. At the command "Forward, double-quick!" they surged over the Confederate works and engaged Hays's men in hand-to-hand combat. Without assistance, the 6th Maine breached the Confederate line and planted its flags on the parapet of the easternmost redoubt. Moments later the 5th Wisconsin swarmed over the walls of the western redoubt, likewise wresting it from Confederate control.