General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of the Potomac stationed mainly at Centreville and Manassas in northern Virginia, had recently conferred with President Jefferson Davis about strategy. According to Attorney General Thomas Bragg, “The Pres’t said the time had come for diminishing the extent of our lines–that we had not men in the field to hold them and must fall back.” Johnston had only 42,000 men, so if the 120,000-man Federal army (also named the Army of the Potomac) around Washington showed aggression, retreat would be necessary.
But the late winter weather in northern Virginia hampered any potential movements. As Johnston wrote to Davis on March 3, “Your orders for moving cannot be executed now, on account of the condition of roads and streams… It is evident that a large quantity of it (public property) must be sacrificed… In conversation with you, and before the cabinet, I did not exaggerate the difficulties of marching in that region. The sufferings and sickness that would be produced can hardly be exaggerated.”
The urgency for movement increased two days later, when Johnston received word of “unusual activity” across from his right (i.e., southern) flank on the lower Potomac. This was actually a movement toward destroying the Confederate batteries blockading the river. Johnston both expected and feared that this foreshadowed an attack, and if the Federals struck Johnston’s right, they could wedge themselves between his army and Richmond.
Davis and Johnston had implicitly agreed that retreat may become inevitable, but they had not agreed on a timetable. This left Davis to hope that Johnston would hold his ground until the last possible moment before falling back. However, without consulting his superiors, Johnston ordered a general withdrawal of his entire army, from Leesburg on the upper Potomac to the north, to Dumfries to the south. The main force holding the Centreville-Manassas line was to begin withdrawing on the 8th. The new defense line would be behind the Rappahannock River.
Unaware that Johnston was already preparing to retreat, Davis wrote him on the 6th acknowledging the possibility of such a move:
“Notwithstanding the threatening position of the enemy, I infer from your account of the roads and streams that his active operations must be for some time delayed, and thus I am permitted to hope that you will be able to mobilize your army by the removal of your heavy ordnance and such stores as are not required for active operations, so that, whenever you are required to move, it may be without public loss and without impediment to celerity…”
In their hasty withdrawal, the Confederates left behind large quantities of supplies and equipment. They distributed other goods to nearby farmers before destroying a meatpacking facility at Thoroughfare Gap that had stored a million pounds of meat. Johnston soon established new defensive positions 25 miles south on either side of the Rappahannock’s north fork.
Meanwhile, Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan was busy developing his plan to move the Federal army by water to Urbanna, at the mouth of the Rappahannock on the Virginia coast. Like Davis, McClellan did not know that Johnston’s Confederates were abandoning such key points as Manassas Junction, Dumfries, Evansport, and Occoquan. However, Federal Brigadier General Philip Kearny received word of Johnston’s withdrawal and sent a brigade into northern Virginia without orders. They marched along the railroad toward Manassas Junction, arriving at Centreville on the 10th. By then, the Confederates were long gone.
Kearny sent cavalry scouts forward, and they clashed with the Confederate rear guard before disengaging. As Johnston established new defenses, Davis, still unaware he had retreated, telegraphed: “Further assurance given to me this day that you shall be promptly and adequately reenforced, so as to enable you to maintain your position and resume first policy (an offensive) when the roads will permit.” But Johnston was not only already at the Rappahannock, he was considering falling back even further to the Rapidan River.
The Confederate army completed its withdrawal and camped south of the Rappahannock on the 11th. Davis did not receive official confirmation that Johnston had abandoned the Centreville-Manassas line until two days later. He responded to this news on the 15th:
“I have received your letter of the 13th instant, giving the first official account I have received of the retrograde movement of your army. Your letter would lead me to infer that others had been sent to apprise me of your plans and movements. If so, they have not reached me; and, before the receipt of yours of the 13th, I was as much in the dark as to your purposes, condition, and necessities as at the time of our conversation on the subject about a month since. It is true I have had many and alarming reports of great destruction of ammunition, camp-equipage, and provisions, indicating precipitate retreat; but, having heard of no cause for such a sudden movement, I was at a loss to believe it. I have not the requisite topographical knowledge for the selection of your new position. I had intended that you should determine that question; and for this purpose a corps of engineers was furnished to make a careful examination of the country to aid you in your decision. The question of throwing troops into Richmond is contingent upon reverses in the West and Southeast. The immediate necessity for such a movement is not anticipated.”
Johnston’s withdrawal enraged Davis, as it cost the Confederacy millions of dollars in much-needed supplies and equipment. But once done, it could not be undone.
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