Bristoe Station Becomes Second Kettle Run

on October 12, 2013 in American Civil War, Battles

Following the dictum of opening with a bang, I started Stonewall Goes West with the fictitious Second Battle of Kettle Run. My opinion is that any good alternate history (or at least any good one that isn’t about time travel) follows the rule of starting with a small, plausible change at first, and then widening the deviation plausibly thereafter. In approaching the idea of Stonewall Jackson returning to duty for the October 1863 Bristoe Campaign, the idea of small, plausible change and sticking close to the real history is interwoven most tightly into that part of the story. Indeed, anyone who is familiar with the Battle of Bristoe Station should recognize several real historical decisions and events in my story.

Making Second Kettle Run
Second Kettle Run proceeded from two simple questions: what would Jackson want to do, and how would that alter Lee’s plans? Historically, Lee had to manage Dick Ewell and A.P. Hill, both of whom had disappointed him in the Gettysburg Campaign. With Jackson there instead of Hill, Lee would only need to mind Ewell, and could therefore give Old Baldy his undivided attention. That matters in the story, because with Lee minding him, Ewell came to grips with II Corps at Auburn more forcefully.

Jackson’s night march to and through Thoroughfare Gap reflects his preferences for expending boot laces over bullets and for avoiding predictable behavior. More than a few historians have suggested that Bristoe Station might have turned out differently if A.P. Hill had gotten started earlier in the morning, and therefore arrived on the field earlier, but the problem there is that Hill would have still approached Bristoe Station by the direct route. I have a hard time seeing Jackson making that choice if his intention were to cut off rather than pursue the enemy, hence his choice to march hard in an attempt to approach the enemy from an unexpected direction.

Everything else in the story flows from those two factors and from the real historical record, with the historical movements of the Army of the Potomac that day corresponding either closely or exactly to what I describe in the novel. III Corps marched out when I described it did; II Corps was delayed for a time by Wilcox’s attack at Auburn, but otherwise moved exactly as in history. In particular, Sykes behaved just as I described in the novel, seizing upon an unconfirmed report that mistook the arrival of the II Corps wagons for Warren’s entire command to start V Corps’s departure from the area.

But Is He Lucky?
Another pair of aspects of the Second Kettle Run story are the two classic battlefield factors of  friction and luck. Astute readers should have noted that Jackson’s own timetable was far too optimistic, and that he arrived at Bristoe hours behind his schedule. This turned out to be a lucky stroke, and the record shows Jackson was a lucky commander for the most part (although Jackson himself would have described it as Providential).

If Jackson had arrived more in tune with his own timetable, he would have found V Corps waiting for him, and the result would have been a slugging match between Jackson and Ewell against II, V, and eventually III Corps. Such a thing could only have resulted in a stalemate. If Jackson had arrived a little later, he would have found II Corps posted behind the Orange and Alexandria embankment, just as A.P. Hill historically did.

By arriving at just the right time, Jackson came into the gap opened between V Corps and II Corps by Sykes, a gap I widened only slightly by delaying II Corps at Auburn. Historically, A.P. Hill missed the same moment by a matter of 20 or 30 minutes, so the idea that Jackson could as I described is not outside the realm of serious possibility.

The rest of the battle follows from there. Cut off from the Army of the Potomac, II Corps is put in desperate straits, but even so it manages to escape complete destruction. The losses among II Corps leadership (Warren, Hays, and Webb are all casualties) reflect the extent of the disaster suffered, while I think Sykes’s court martial and suicide is an appropriate response to the unmitigated disgrace he suffered. Historically, Sykes dereliction at Bristoe contributed to his banishment into obscurity, and that was without his flawed decisions leading to a battlefield defeat.

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