March 5, 1862 – General Joseph E. Johnston issued orders to withdraw his Confederate Army of the Potomac from its Manassas Junction-Centreville line southward to the Rappahannock River, almost halfway to the Confederate capital at Richmond.
Confederate General Jeb Stuart notified Johnston of “unusual activity” across the Potomac River from Dumfries, Virginia, which was Johnston’s right flank. Johnston both expected and feared that this foreshadowed an attack by Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s 120,000-man Army of the Potomac. If McClellan struck Johnston’s right, he could wedge his Federals between Johnston’s army and Richmond.
Johnston and President Jefferson Davis had recently conferred and agreed that if McClellan made such a move, retreat may be necessary. But they had not agreed on a timetable, leaving Davis to hope that Johnston would stand his ground until the last possible moment before falling back. However, without consulting his superiors, Johnston ordered all his 42,000 men east of the Blue Ridge to withdraw immediately.
Unaware that Johnston was already preparing to retreat, Davis wrote him on the 6th acknowledging the possibility of such a move:
“Notwithstanding the threatening position of the enemy, I infer from your account of the roads and streams that his active operations must be for some time delayed, and thus I am permitted to hope that you will be able to mobilize your army by the removal of your heavy ordnance and such stores as are not required for active operations, so that, whenever you are required to move, it may be without public loss and without impediment to celerity…”
In their hasty withdrawal, the Confederates left behind large quantities of supplies and equipment. They distributed other goods to nearby farmers before destroying a meatpacking facility at Thoroughfare Gap that had stored a million pounds of meat. Johnston soon established new defensive positions 25 miles south on either side of the Rappahannock’s north fork.
Meanwhile, McClellan was busy developing his plan to move the Federal army by water to Urbanna, at the mouth of the Rappahannock on the Virginia coast. Like Davis, McClellan did not know that Johnston’s Confederates were abandoning such key points as Manassas Junction, Dumfries, Evansport, and Occoquan. However, Federal General Philip Kearny received word of Johnston’s withdrawal and sent a brigade into northern Virginia without orders. They marched along the railroad toward Manassas Junction, arriving at Burke’s Station, six miles east of Centreville, on the 10th. By then, the Confederates were long gone.
Kearny sent cavalry scouts forward, and they clashed with the Confederate rear guard before disengaging. As Johnston established new defenses, Davis, still unaware he had retreated, telegraphed: “Further assurance given to me this day that you shall be promptly and adequately reenforced, so as to enable you to maintain your position and resume first policy (an offensive) when the roads will permit.” But Johnston was not only already at the Rappahannock, he was considering falling back even further to the Rapidan River.
Davis did not receive official confirmation that Johnston had abandoned the Manassas Junction-Centreville line until three days later, on the 13th. Davis responded to this news on March 15:
“I have received your letter of the 13th instant, giving the first official account I have received of the retrograde movement of your army. Your letter would lead me to infer that others had been sent to apprise me of your plans and movements. If so, they have not reached me; and, before the receipt of yours of the 13th, I was as much in the dark as to your purposes, condition, and necessities as at the time of our conversation on the subject about a month since. It is true I have had many and alarming reports of great destruction of ammunition, camp-equipage, and provisions, indicating precipitate retreat; but, having heard of no cause for such a sudden movement, I was at a loss to believe it. I have not the requisite topographical knowledge for the selection of your new position. I had intended that you should determine that question; and for this purpose a corps of engineers was furnished to make a careful examination of the country to aid you in your decision. The question of throwing troops into Richmond is contingent upon reverses in the West and Southeast. The immediate necessity for such a movement is not anticipated.”
Johnston’s withdrawal enraged Davis, as it cost the Confederacy millions of dollars in much-needed supplies and equipment. But once done, it could not be undone.
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83, 86-87; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (7 Mar 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 8123, 8136-47; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13385-93; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 138; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 238-39; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 118; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3149; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 179-80, 181-83; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 423-24; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162