August 25, 1862 – Confederates under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson approached the Federal supply base at Manassas Junction, as Federal Major General John Pope remained unaware of the enemy’s objective.
General Robert E. Lee had boldly divided his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia by sending nearly half his men with Jackson in a clockwise motion around the right (western) flank of Pope’s Army of Virginia to destroy the Federal supply base in Pope’s rear. Lee hoped this would force Pope to either retreat or move into the open where he could be destroyed before being reinforced by Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
By dawn on the 25th, Jackson’s men were on the move, with only Jackson knowing their destination. The force consisted of about 23,000 men in three divisions under Generals Richard Ewell, A.P. Hill, and William Taliaferro. The troops crossed the Rappahannock River four miles upstream from Waterloo, the last guarded ford, and then headed north toward Salem (now Marshall) on the Manassas Gap Railroad. Meanwhile, Lee’s diversionary force under Major General James Longstreet crossed the Rappahannock on Pope’s left (eastern) flank after another ferocious artillery duel.
Federal signalmen on hilltops along the Rappahannock spotted Jackson’s movement and estimated his force to number about 20,000 men after counting the regimental flags. Pope, who already knew that Longstreet had crossed the river, now knew where Jackson was as well.
Pope told General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that Jackson probably intended to return to the Shenandoah Valley, adding, “I am induced to believe that this (Jackson’s) column is only covering the flank of the main body.” But this did not explain why Longstreet remained on his left flank, bombarding him with artillery in an apparent attempt to provoke a fight in that sector.
Pope planned to send a reconnaissance in force the next morning to confirm that Jackson was leading Lee’s army northwest toward the Valley. Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry” camped at Salem that night after covering a remarkable 26 miles.
When Lee learned that the Federals may be falling back, he directed Longstreet to join forces with Jackson as soon as possible. The next day, Longstreet’s men began moving along the route that Jackson had taken, with Lee leaving behind a small force to continue diverting Pope’s attention with artillery.
Meanwhile, Pope dispatched General John Buford’s cavalry as planned, but Buford informed him, “If the enemy advances, I can do very little. My command is almost disorganized.” Disregarding this warning, Pope directed Buford to go to Waterloo Bridge, where Longstreet’s left flank was now anchored, and send troopers west to determine where exactly Jackson’s force was headed.
Jackson’s Confederates resumed their march on the morning of the 26th, moving east from Salem along the Manassas Gap Railroad. They passed through Thoroughfare Gap between the Bull Run Mountains, which Pope failed to guard since he believed Jackson was retreating. The Confederates entered the plains and approached the site of the Battle of Bull Run last year. By mid-morning, Jackson had moved 20 miles behind Pope’s army unopposed.
Pope received word that afternoon that Jackson had not gone back to the Valley but instead turned east and advanced through Thoroughfare Gap. Pope sent a division to take up positions between the gap and White Plains, which was useless because Jackson had already passed that point.
Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry caught up to Jackson’s troops at Gainesville, where Jackson directed Ewell’s division and some cavalry to turn south and attack Bristoe Station. Arriving there in late afternoon, the Confederates derailed two trains, tore up track, cut the telegraph lines, and captured several hundred Federals. The lone train that made it through the station steamed east to warn Pope of the Confederate presence.
Pope did not immediately react to these enemy movements, which made him seem helpless. Brigadier General George G. Meade, a Federal brigade commander and old friend of Pope’s, visited Pope at his Warrenton Junction headquarters and asked, “What are you doing out here? This is no place for this army. It should at once fall back so as to meet the rest of the Army of the Potomac coming up and by superior force overwhelm Lee.”
Pope claimed he had plans to handle the threat, but he did not share them with anybody. When he learned of the Confederate attack on Bristoe Station around 8:30 p.m., he believed it was just a small-scale raid and sent just one regiment to confront it. Those troops saw the mass of Confederates at Bristoe and hurried back to warn Pope. Pope responded by sending the two corps under Major Generals Franz Sigel and Irvin McDowell toward Gainesville, but Jackson had already passed that point.
With Jackson’s Confederates interposing themselves between Pope’s army and Washington, Pope had just two options: fall back east toward Fredericksburg or attack Jackson. Pope chose the latter. Meanwhile, the bulk of Jackson’s force advanced on the supply depot at Manassas Junction.
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