August 23, 1862 – Major General John Pope missed an opportunity to claim an easy victory, and General Robert E. Lee hurried to form a plan of attack before the Federal numbers became too overwhelming.
Pope had pulled his Federal Army of Virginia north of the Rappahannock River. After learning that Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was nearby, he decided to attack Lee’s right (east) flank, which threatened Pope’s access to reinforcements at Aquia Creek. However, Pope changed his mind when he received word that Confederates were also threatening him on his own right (west) flank.
Major General Franz Sigel, commanding a corps in Pope’s army, reported that Confederates had crossed the Rappahannock in his sector, which was Pope’s right. The Confederates represented a lone brigade from Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s force, which got trapped when heavy rains swelled the river and made it impossible to cross back to the Confederate side.
Pope, thinking this was the vanguard of Lee’s entire army, decided to wait for the rest of the enemy troops to cross and then attack when their backs were to the river. He ordered Sigel to “stand firm and let the enemy develop towards Warrenton.” But when Pope learned that the river was too high to cross, he wrote, “The enemy, therefore, on this side is cut off from those on the other, and there is no fear of this position.” Pope sent reinforcements to Sigel and ordered him to attack, leaving “nothing behind you.”
Had Sigel attacked, he could have annihilated the small, isolated force. Instead, he spent much of the day getting his men into position. Meanwhile, Jackson’s Confederates hurried to build a bridge that enabled the troops to cross back unharmed.
On the eastern flank, both sides engaged in a fierce five-hour artillery battle as Major General James Longstreet’s Confederates tried driving Major General Irvin McDowell’s corps away from Beverly Ford and the railroad bridge across the Rappahannock. McDowell ultimately fell back, not because of Confederate pressure but because he was ordered to withdraw to Warrenton.
Meanwhile, portions of Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac began taking positions in Pope’s line, with General Fitz John Porter’s men taking Kelly’s Ford and General Philip Kearny’s men holding Catlett’s Station. More of McClellan’s Federals, as well as those from western Virginia under General Jacob D. Cox, were at Alexandria awaiting transport to Pope’s army, which was getting stronger every day.
As Pope grew stronger, McClellan became proportionately weaker. Dejected about leaving the Peninsula and turning his men over to Pope, McClellan wrote his wife:
“I take it for granted that my orders will be as disagreeable as it is possible to make them–unless Pope is beaten, in which case they will want me to save Washington again. Nothing but their fears will induce them to give me any command of importance or to treat me otherwise than with discourtesy.”
The next day, McClellan received orders from General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck: “You can either remain at Aquia or come to Alexandria, as you may deem best, so as to direct the landing of your troops.” McClellan, who was now merely expected to funnel troops to Pope, went to Alexandria, where his army’s III and VI corps were landing.
Lee was informed about these reinforcements; he also learned from Pope’s captured quartermaster that Cox’s Federals were coming in from western Virginia. It would not be long before Pope’s army became too strong for the Confederates to confront.
Based on the gathered intelligence and Pope’s own dispatch book stolen by Major General Jeb Stuart, Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that he would cut the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and put his troops between Pope and Washington. He called on the remaining Confederates guarding Richmond to come north and join his army.
Lee then met with Jackson and directed him to lead his 23,000 Confederates up the Rappahannock to destroy all communication and supply lines at Manassas Junction, in Pope’s rear. Jackson could cross the river at an unguarded ford and use the mountains to hide his movement. Lee ordered Stuart’s cavalry to join Jackson’s force.
Lee’s other 32,000 men would demonstrate against Pope’s front, diverting his attention. This violated the military axiom not to divide one’s force in the face of a superior enemy, but Lee hoped that cutting Pope’s lines would compel him to fall back without a fight.
By the 24th, the Federals had massed on their right (western) flank, with Pope reinforcing Sigel. They now controlled the Rappahannock crossings as far upriver as Waterloo. Stuart studied the maps and chose a spot even farther up the river to cross. Jackson told Lee, “I shall move within an hour,” and his Confederates were in motion by 3 a.m. on the 25th.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17169; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 610, 614; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 195-96; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4365-88; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-26; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 120-21