August 15, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee hoped to attack the Federals while they were between two rivers, but Major General John Pope learned of Lee’s plan.
Lee arrived at Gordonsville on the morning of the 15th, joining his two top commanders, Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and James Longstreet, on the Rapidan River. Pope’s Federal Army of Virginia was situated in a “V” formed by the Rappahannock River to the north and the Rapidan to the south, with the troops posted along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. The Federal and Confederate armies each numbered about 55,000 men.
When Lee learned that Pope had just one functioning bridge over the Rappahannock, he studied the maps and decided to attack in hopes of trapping the Federals between the rivers and destroying their army. Lee planned to begin the offensive by sending his cavalry north to destroy the Rappahannock bridge and any other crossings the Federals could use to escape.
Jackson wanted to attack immediately, but Lee was informed that the cavalry horses needed rest. Also, most of the army’s supplies had not yet arrived from Richmond. Thus, Lee informed Jackson and Longstreet that they would cross the Rapidan on the 17th and attack Pope the next day. Disappointed, Jackson began the movement by leading his three divisions northeast of Orange Court House.
That same day, a large portion of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac boarded steamers and left the Virginia Peninsula. McClellan warned General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “I don’t like Jackson’s movements. He will suddenly appear where least expected.”
Meanwhile, Pope continued waiting for the Confederates to make a move. He was unaware that doing nothing was damaging his troops’ morale, which was already down due to their low opinion of Pope as a leader. Many men took advantage of Pope’s orders to live off the land by looting nearby homes and farms, leaving the residents destitute.
General Marsena Patrick of Major General Irvin McDowell’s corps wrote that he was “so utterly disgusted that I feel like resigning and letting the whole thing go. There has never been such a state of things before, in any command.” Pope issued orders prohibiting attacks on civilians, singling out General Adolph von Steinwehr for his men’s poor conduct. But the damage had already been done.
By the 16th, Pope believed Jackson was at Gordonsville and Lee was about to join him with the rest of his army. However, Jackson was near the Rapidan River, and Lee was at Gordonsville already. Pope found no good ground north of the Rapidan to attack from, and he knew he needed to protect his left or else the Confederates could cut him off from McClellan’s reinforcements landing at Aquia Creek.
Pope asked Halleck to keep McClellan’s men in the Aquia Creek vicinity to protect his left flank. Halleck warned Pope against advancing any further: “I think it would be very unsafe for your army to cross the Rapidan. It would be far better if you were in the rear of the Rappahannock.”
At Gordonsville, Lee received word that 108 transports had arrived at Harrison’s Landing on the Peninsula, indicating that McClellan’s entire army was being shipped north. This allowed Lee to bolster his own army by pulling more troops from the Richmond defenses. However, Lee needed to strike quickly, before Pope received McClellan’s men. After giving the horses a day of rest, Lee directed the cavalry under General Jeb Stuart to head north and burn the Rappahannock bridge. Jackson and Longstreet would then advance and assault Pope’s left.
Lee assembled his army in Pope’s front on the 17th, but he was still not yet ready to cross the Rapidan, so he delayed the attack. That afternoon, Stuart’s horsemen rode into Orange Court House, where Stuart reported Pope’s positions to Lee. The next day, the troopers were ambushed by Federal cavalry near Verdiersville and sent fleeing. The Federals collected the items the Confederates left behind, including Stuart’s plumed hat and cloak, and dispatches from Lee stating the attack would be delayed. When Pope received this information, he ordered a withdrawal across the Rappahannock.
Lee received confirmation that night that Pope was indeed pulling back. This thwarted Lee’s plan to catch Pope between the rivers. Disappointed, Lee continued preparing for an attack nonetheless. During the Federal retreat, the corps of Major Generals Franz Sigel and Irvin McDowell became dangerously tangled at Culpeper Court House. Although this made them vulnerable to a Confederate attack, Lee did not take advantage of it.
Lee and Longstreet watched Pope’s army withdraw from atop a mountain crest on the 19th. Lee said, “General, we little thought that the enemy would turn his back upon us thus early in the campaign.” Knowing his men needed rest before potential combat, Lee gave them the rest of the day off and issued orders to begin crossing the Rapidan in pursuit at 4 a.m. on the 20th.
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