August 1, 1862 – Federal Major General John Pope began probing southward from northern Virginia while the Lincoln administration prepared to end the Peninsula campaign.
As August began, new Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck was planning to remove Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac from the Virginia Peninsula. Halleck intended to transfer the army to Aquia Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River in northern Virginia, about 12 miles from Fredericksburg. From there, the troops would protect Washington and reinforce Pope’s Army of Virginia.
In July, the administration had granted McClellan’s request for reinforcements by sending troops from Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Department of North Carolina and Major General David Hunter’s Department of the South. But on August 1, Halleck redirected Burnside’s force from the Peninsula to Aquia Creek, beginning the general removal. McClellan remained unaware that Halleck intended for him to abandon the Peninsula.
Outside Richmond, Confederate General Robert E. Lee faced two major threats: McClellan to the east, and Pope (and now Burnside) to the north. Keeping most of his Army of Northern Virginia facing McClellan, Lee had dispatched 24,000 Confederates under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to Gordonsville to defend against any southward advances by Pope.
Pope’s army was spread across 60 miles, from the Blue Ridge west to Fredericksburg east. Burnside’s arrival at Aquia Creek enabled Pope to compact his line by bringing his men west from Fredericksburg. Pope had recently secured Culpeper Court House and intended to make it his base of operations. From there, he would protect Washington from any threat by Jackson. He would also try disrupting the lines between Jackson and Lee, which would facilitate McClellan’s removal from the Peninsula.
Pope sent Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry and Brigadier General Samuel Crawford’s infantry to probe Orange Court House, where they skirmished with pickets on Jackson’s left flank. This marked Pope’s farthest southward penetration thus far, and it put his troops within 10 miles of Jackson’s main force at Gordonsville. Within a few days, the Federals pulled back to Culpeper Court House as Pope continued trying to concentrate his army so he could make an even stronger southward thrust.
When Pope learned of the skirmish at Orange Court House, he telegraphed Halleck, “The enemy is in considerable force at and south of Gordonsville, though not so strong, I think, as was supposed.” Pope estimated Jackson’s strength at 28,000 with the addition of A.P. Hill’s men, which was close to the actual number of 24,000. Pope wrote, “Unless the enemy is heavily re-enforced from Richmond, I shall be in possession of Gordonsville and Charlottesville within ten days.”
Meanwhile, McClellan’s Federals remained at Harrison’s Landing, where they had been since their retreating victories in the Seven Days Battles. In late July, Halleck had directed McClellan to reconnoiter the Confederate positions on the Peninsula to determine if Lee was staying around Richmond or moving north to take on Pope. McClellan thought this was preparatory to another drive on Richmond, not a withdrawal from the Peninsula.
McClellan directed a Federal division under Brigadier General Joseph Hooker to conduct “an expedition of importance in the direction of the enemy’s lines near Malvern.” On the night of August 2, Hooker, accompanied by General Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry, began advancing the six miles from Harrison’s Landing to Malvern Hill, site of the decisive Federal victory on July 1. A small Confederate unit led by General Wade Hampton guarded the hill.
This reconnaissance failed, as Hooker reported the next day, “In consequence of the incompetency of guides furnished me, I regret to be obliged to inform you that I have deemed it expedient to return to camp. The German guide furnished me was lost before I left camp,” and only building a new road would “be likely to secure important results to the movement on Malvern Hill.”
As the Federals worked on organizing a new reconnaissance, McClellan received the official message from Halleck on the morning of the 4th: “It is determined to withdraw your army from the Peninsula to Aquia Creek. You will take immediate measures to effect this, covering the movement as best you can.” The movement “should be concealed even from your own officers. The entire execution of the movement is left to your discretion and judgment.”
To obey the order, McClellan would have to move his army down the Peninsula to Fort Monroe, load the troops on transports, and move them up Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac River to get to Aquia Creek. This would be a massive undertaking, especially considering that McClellan had not yet even moved his sick and wounded troops as Halleck had ordered him to do in late July.
The Lincoln administration wanted McClellan to withdraw so he could reinforce Pope’s army, which was the new hope to defeat the Confederates and capture Richmond after McClellan had failed. Politics also played a role in the administration’s shifting emphasis from McClellan to Pope: the latter was a fellow Republican unlike the former, who was a Democrat and considered by many to be hostile toward his Republican superiors.
Once McClellan’s troops reached Aquia Landing, they were to continue to Alexandria. They would then defend Washington and reinforce Pope’s army. McClellan deeply resented Halleck’s order, perceiving it as an effort to place Pope above him in rank. He resisted the directive as best he could, protesting vehemently while staying put at Harrison’s Landing. Meanwhile, Lee gradually began realizing that the next major Federal offensive would come from the north.
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