Our Whole Line is a False One

As July began, General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah, numbering some 11,000 men, held various positions in the Valley near the Potomac River. Major General Robert Patterson, commanding about 13,000 Federal troops in his Army of Pennsylvania, remained on the Maryland side of the Potomac around Hagerstown and Williamsport. Another Federal force in Maryland under Colonel Charles P. Stone prepared to leave Poolesville after its Rockville expedition and join forces with Patterson.

Patterson received a dispatch from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott on July 1 explaining the results of the military conference at the White House two days prior. Scott stated “in confidence” that Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Army of Northeastern Virginia, sought to “move a column of about 35,000 men early next week” toward Manassas, “for aggressive purposes.” It was understood that Patterson needed to prevent Johnston from moving east to reinforce General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate Army of the Potomac at Manassas. But Patterson still needed to cross the Potomac first.

After numerous delays and objections, Patterson finally crossed the river at dawn the next morning and began moving south toward Martinsburg. Johnston’s advance unit, a 2,000-man brigade led by Colonel Thomas J. Jackson, was at Martinsburg, and Jackson was informed of the Federal advance. He responded by leading some 350 men of the 5th Virginia north toward the enemy, taking positions in the woods at Falling Waters and Hoke’s Run.

The Confederates fired on the Federals at Falling Waters, and after a 30-minute skirmish, Jackson’s men slowly fell back two and a half miles from their Martinsburg camps. Colonel J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s Confederate cavalry took 50 prisoners along the way. Federals suffered 10 killed and 18 wounded in addition to the 50 captured; Confederates lost 11 wounded and eight or nine “missing.” Patterson erroneously reported that he had captured 500 prisoners in the fight while sustaining only three casualties; he also stated that he had faced 3,500 men when he truly faced only 10 percent of that number.

Back in Maryland, Colonel Stone’s Federals moved some 15 miles north of Rockville to Point of Rocks on the Potomac River. Some of his regiments farthest north were at Sandy Hook, opposite Harpers Ferry, which they reported had been abandoned by Confederates.

Meanwhile, Patterson reported that his men had passed through Martinsburg and were in “hot pursuit of the enemy.” Jackson’s Confederates withdrew farther to Darkesville, about six miles from Martinsburg. Johnston withdrew to Winchester, where he called for two brigades as reinforcements and up to 7,000 men from Beauregard’s Confederates in northern Virginia. Unbeknownst to Johnston, Patterson had no intention of going any farther than Martinsburg. He erroneously believed that Johnston had up to 18,000 men, and he feared that Johnston may be drawing him into a trap.

By the 6th, Jackson’s forces had joined with Johnston’s main army as it withdrew from Darkesville to Winchester. Jackson received a promotion to brigadier general after Johnston had praised Jackson’s “courage and conduct” at the Falling Waters engagement. Jackson wrote to his wife that it was “beyond what I anticipated, as I only expected it to be in the volunteer forces of the State.” He added, “I want my brigade to feel that it can itself whip Patterson’s whole army, and I believe we can do it.”

Johnston reported from Winchester on the 9th: “Similar information from other sources gives me the impression that the reenforcements arriving at Martinsburg amount to 7 or 8,000. I have estimated the enemy’s force hitherto, you may remember, at 18,000…” Johnston feared that Patterson would attack him, unaware that Patterson was only tasked with keeping Johnston occupied while the main Federal attack was to come against Beauregard at Manassas.

Federal Gen Robert Patterson and Confederate Gen J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

That same day, Patterson called a council of war to decide what he should do next. He had originally planned to advance on Winchester, but his reinforcements from the Rockville expedition were exhausted, and many of Patterson’s subordinates feared moving any deeper into enemy territory. Captain John Newton stated, “Our present position is a very exposed one… Our whole line is a false one.” General-in-Chief Scott added to the fears by informing Patterson that Johnston was planning to destroy his army, move south to destroy Major General George B. McClellan’s army in the Kanawha Valley, and then move east to join forces with Beauregard. Unsubstantiated rumors such as these made the overly cautious Patterson even more hesitant.

Patterson’s officers urged him to fall back to Charlestown, closer to Harpers Ferry. Patterson notified Scott: “Johnston is in position… to be re-enforced, and his strength doubled just as I would reach him.” He now estimated Johnston’s force to number 26,000 men (it truly numbered just 10,600). Scott consented to Patterson’s suggestion to fall back to Charlestown, but directed him to stay on the Virginia side of the Potomac to continue threatening Johnston, “except in extreme case.” Scott asked Patterson to contact him on Tuesday the 16th; this was a code informing Patterson that Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals would advance on Manassas on that date.

After five days of probing and scouting, Patterson reported that Johnston was “pretending to be engaged in fortifying Winchester,” but he was actually preparing to withdraw “beyond striking distance” if Patterson advanced. However, Patterson remained at Martinsburg, 25 miles from Johnston, despite receiving Scott’s permission to move to Charlestown, where he could better prevent Johnston from linking with Beauregard. Federal troops began calling Patterson “Granny” for his perceived timidity.

On the 15th, Patterson’s Federals finally began advancing southward on the Valley Pike. They came up to within 12 miles of Winchester, when Patterson ordered a reconnaissance of Confederate positions. Federal pickets, supported by cavalry, skirmished with Confederate horsemen making a stand near Bunker Hill, eight miles north of Winchester. After driving the Confederates back to Winchester, Patterson recalled the force. To Patterson, this was the demonstration that Scott needed him to make to keep Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard. But it was far too weak to do the job.

Patterson reported that he did not know when he would continue, “and if I did, I would not tell my own father.” His army consisted mainly of three-month volunteers whose enlistments were about to expire, and Patterson believed “it would be ruinous to advance, or even to stay here, without immediate increase of force.”

On the 16th, Patterson was informed that McDowell would attack Beauregard that day, so he planned to attack Johnston the next day. However, Patterson was also told that Johnston’s army numbered 42,000 men with 60 cannon, so his subordinates convinced him not to attack and instead withdraw to Charlestown, 17 miles from Winchester. This opened the path for Johnston to link with Beauregard.


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