In mid-November, 1863, Union General Meade pondered the best way for his 80,000-man army to attack Lee's 50,000 Southerners, who were well entrenched south of the Rapidan River. When Meade learned that Jacobs, Germanna, and Culpeper Mine Fords on Lee's right were practically unguarded, he formulated a plan to quickly cross the Rapidan at those points and advance to the Orange Plank Road, which led to Lee's rear. Success of the plan, wrote Chief of Staff, Major General Andrew A. Humphreys, depended on "prompt, vigorous action, and intelligent compliance" on the part of Meade's officers. This did not happen. Meade planned to launch his campaign on November 24th, but heavy rains caused a 48-hour delay. Even worse, an army scout reported the intended movement to Lee, putting the Confederate commander on the alert. Although Lee did not know Meade's exact intent, he knew the Federals were about to move. The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan on November 26th. Meade hoped to reach Robertson's Tavern on the Orange Turnpike that day, but muddy roads slowed the advance. At sunset the Union army halted far short of its destination. While Meade's men struggled through the Virginia mud, Lee shifted his army east in an effort to block Meade's flanking manoeuvre. Bad weather had thwarted Meade's plan for surprise. That evening, the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment had been marched from their encampment to the fortifications at Morton’s Ford, where they remained all day and a portion of the night under arms.
At midnight, General Rodes moved his men from Morton’s Ford to the ridge between Mine Run and Walnut Run. There, they moved into a line of battle stretching from Walnut Run to Zoar Church. General Johnson’s Division was positioned on their left and the Division of General Early on their right. At 4:00 A.M. all the Divisions were ordered still further to the right towards Locust Grove. The country roads on which Rodes’ and Johnson’s Divisions travelled, converged about one mile from Locust Grove. Unfortunately, the Union Army reached the place before the Confederates. The Federals took up an advantageous position on the ridge on which Locust Grove is situated with their troops concealed by the intervening woods except along the narrow vista made by the turnpike. Finding the enemy in force, General Rodes’ had his men take up a position on the left of Early’s Division, extending his line across the road from Zoar Church and Bartlett’s Mill to Locust Grove. Battle’s Brigade with Colonel O’Neal commanding, was filed into the woods and was positioned on the right of Daniel’s Brigade which was centred on the road. Ramseur’s Brigade followed Battle’s Brigade to the right. Each Brigade sent out their Sharpshooters to screen their front as they dug in about a thousand yards back.
At daybreak on November 27, 1863, both armies moved toward each other. Skirmishing began about 11 A.M. near Robertson's Tavern between the Confederate Divisions of Major Generals Robert E. Rodes and Jubal A. Early, and Union Major General Gouvernor K. Warren's Second Corps. Rodes’ Division was positioned on the south side of the Orange Turnpike facing elements of the Union’s First and Third Corps. General Rodes was ordered to send out a heavy line of skirmishers which was advanced and a brisk skirmish took place. They were then fired upon by the Union Artillery located high on the ridge. The fighting continued throughout the day, as both sides awaited the arrival of reinforcements.
Farther to the north, Major General William French's Union Third Corps advanced slowly from Jacob's Ford to the crossroads at the Widow Morris farm in an effort to unite with Warren's corps at Robertson's Tavern. The right fork led directly to the tavern after merging with Raccoon Ford Road, which was partially blocked by Confederate cavalry. It also led to the exposed left flank of Rodes Division. The left fork also led to the tavern, but by a much longer route. French lost valuable time pondering which road to follow. While French deliberated about which road to take, Confederate Major General Edward Johnson led his division down the Raccoon Ford Road to connect with Rodes' left. About 4 p.m. he collided with French's men on the Payne farm. Unaware that he faced an entire Union corps, closely supported by a second (32,000 men total), the aggressive Johnson attacked with his 5,300 veterans. The heaviest fighting of the campaign occurred as troops charged and countercharged one another across the Payne farm fields and through the adjacent woods. Significantly, Johnson's Southerners halted the Federals and thereby protected Rodes' left flank at Robertson's Tavern. After dark the Confederates pulled back to a new position on the high ground west of Mine Run and constructed strong earthworks in a cold heavy rain. Rodes’ Division had crossed over the run at Rowe’s Mill and were position on the hills along Mine Run, extending from the turnpike to Zoar Church Road. Meade now realized that his plan to steal a march and place his army on Lee's flank had failed. During the night he concentrated his army on a line perpendicular to the Turnpike, west of Robertson's Tavern.
At two o’clock in the morning, on November 28, 1863, General Lee moved his army to the right and by day break they had gained the heights almost in the rear of the enemy, where they commenced building fortifications. Heavy rains and muddy roads hampered the advance by the Union troops. While Lee's men strengthened their defences, Meade plotted his next move.
At sunrise on November 29, 1863, Blackford’s Sharpshooters were advanced and they soon came in contact with the enemy. As soon as the enemy came in range of their guns, the men opened fire. On another part of the field, some of the men of Blackford’s Sharpshooters were not as fortunate and could not dig shelters. “We were in an open field and the enemy in the woods at a distance of about two hundred yards” wrote Private Jerry Tate, a Sharpshooter from Company H. The only protection these men had were some small rocks and some scattered fence rails that were strewn over the ground. “In this way we spent the day. It rained about half of the day and was very cold. Every time we would raise our heads, the balls would come like a shower of hail, but we would return the compliment by firing on them…..I am sure that I never past over such a day in my life. I never ate or drank anything for about thirty hours. Twelve hours of that time was lying prostrate on the ground and it was raining about six hours of the time and very cold. About dusk I rose to my feet, but could not stand for some minutes.” The winds had blown fiercely all day and the men were chilled to the bone. They remained in the trenches throughout the night awaiting a charge, a detail from each company remaining awake. The fierce, cold winds made sleep light and uncomfortable.
That same day, Meade sent Warren's corps on a wide flanking manoeuvre to the south. It took Warren all day to get his men into position, but by 5:00 P.M. they stood poised to roll up the lightly defended Confederate right flank. Unfortunately for the Federals, darkness postponed his assault until morning. During the night, General Lee learned of Warren's movement and shifted Lieutenant General A.P. Hill's Corps to the south, where it hastily constructed trenches opposite Warren's line.
Meade planned an all-out assault at 6:00 A.M. on the November 30, 1863, but when Warren informed him that A. P. Hill’s men had entrenched across his front and that the movement could not succeed, Meade suspended the attack. Again the Union commander pondered his options. Frustrated by Lee's countermove, low on provisions, and faced with continuing bad weather which had turned intensely cold, he withdrew his army back across the Rapidan River on December 1, 1863. General Lee decided to initiate a limited advance when the Federal forces didn’t attack. However, when General Rodes sent his Sharpshooters sprinting forward, they discovered the Union withdrawal.
On December 2, 1863, after learning that Meade had withdrawn most of his forces over Jacob’s and Germanna Fords and that there was little chance of a general engagement. Bitterly disappointed, Lee dispatched Rodes and his Division in pursuit. Rodes pushed hard in terrible conditions back to the river fords on the Rapidan. The Division was marched rapidly along the turnpike to Wilderness Tavern overtaking and capturing over 150 prisoners. Not finding the main body of Federal troops, the men rested a few hours and then returned to their camp at Morton’s Ford, reaching there the next day. Icicles formed on the beards of Confederate soldiers and one recalled that “such cold winds eighteen months ago, would have caused colds, coughs, and pneumonia, but now we are accustomed to rough conditions and thin clothing.” All of the Officers commented in their reports, on the excellent attitude of the men during this arduous campaign, specifically mentioning their lack of complaints in spite of the lengthy marches, lack of rations and sleep.