Following the Federal defeat at Big Bethel, President Abraham Lincoln had ordered General-in-Chief Winfield Scott to plan an offensive in northern Virginia. Scott stood by his “Anaconda” plan intended to slowly strangle the Confederacy into submission, but the administration was under increasing pressure from the public and the press for immediate action. Scott therefore directed Major General Robert Patterson, commanding Federals in the Shenandoah Valley, and Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding Federals at Alexandria and Arlington, to come up with a joint strategy.
Patterson had submitted his plan on the 21st, which involved moving his Army of the Shenandoah toward Leesburg, Virginia. This would threaten the flank of General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate Army of the Potomac at Manassas, some 30 miles west of Washington. McDowell submitted his plan three days later.
Under McDowell’s plan, his Army of Northeastern Virginia would move west and confront Beauregard’s Confederates. He assumed that Patterson was too far west to support him, and therefore Patterson’s main task should be to threaten General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley. This would prevent Johnston from shuttling his troops east by railroad to reinforce Beauregard.
Estimating Beauregard’s strength at 25,000 men (just slightly higher than the actual figure), McDowell proposed to first advance on Vienna and then on Manassas with at least 30,000 troops, plus 10,000 in reserve. The Federals would march in three columns:
- The first would move from Vienna to disperse Confederates around Fairfax Court House and Centreville;
- The second would move from Alexandria on the Little River Turnpike to cut the Confederates’ retreat;
- The third would move down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to Manassas.
This plan was contingent upon McDowell’s army being heavily reinforced and the railroad being rebuilt. It made little note of the earlier plans suggested by either Patterson or Scott, and it greatly relied on Patterson keeping Johnston’s Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley.
Around the same time that McDowell submitted this plan to Scott, the clamor for action was reaching a fevered pitch in the North. One of the nation’s most influential newspapers, Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune, contained a 30-word article leading its editorial column on Page 4 titled, “THE NATION’S WAR-CRY.” The brief piece sparked immense northern war enthusiasm: “Forward to Richmond! Forward to Richmond! The Rebel Congress must not be allowed to meet there on the 20th of July! BY THAT DATE THE PLACE MUST BE HELD BY THE NATIONAL ARMY!”
President Lincoln held a special cabinet meeting on the 29th that included Scott, McDowell, and other officers and advisors to develop a plan of attack. Scott still argued that his plan would be the most effective because it involved blockading the coastline, seizing control of the Mississippi River, and drawing attention away from operations in Virginia. Scott argued that this war would be “a war of large bodies,” not “a little war by piecemeal” that could be won with a single, glorious campaign. But his plan could not be fully implemented until fall, and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs argued that northerners would lose patience with the war effort by that time.
McDowell then tacked a map to the wall and explained his plan in detail. His three-pronged advance would force Beauregard to either fight or retreat, and if Patterson could keep Johnston busy in the Shenandoah, the Federals would have numerical superiority. McDowell explained that this plan did not include the greater goal of capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond, but rather, “the objective point in our plan is Manassas Junction.”
McDowell proposed several invasion options, with one receiving Lincoln’s approval. The Federals would move in three columns west to seize Fairfax Court House, 16 miles away, and then Centreville, five miles further. Two columns would then create a diversion before the supposed enemy center at a creek called Bull Run, while the third column would move around the Confederate right (or southern) flank, cut off the railroad to Richmond, and threaten the enemy rear. If successful, the Confederates would be forced to retreat to the Rappahannock River or face destruction. But success was heavily dependent upon Patterson occupying Leesburg to keep Johnston out of the fight.
The plan was good for a veteran army, but it would be difficult for McDowell’s inexperienced officers and men to pull off. He asked for more time for training, but Lincoln refused; of the 20 army regiments, 17 had only signed on for 90 days, and he would be ruined politically if those enlistments expired before they ever saw action. The president told McDowell, “You are green, it is true, but they are green, also; you are all green alike.”
McDowell was given 30,000 men and 10 days to get his Army of Northeastern Virginia into motion.
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