General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on the Peninsula outside Richmond, had requested that Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson bring his army east from the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce him. Lee sent reinforcements to Jackson to make the Federals believe that Jackson would advance northward. Jackson used his cavalry to screen the real movement, which was the transfer of Confederate troops to Lee.
Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac opposing Lee, took the bait and reported that “deserters” were coming into his lines saying that Lee was sending troops west. President Abraham Lincoln was not so sure; he asked McClellan if he had considered whether “your deserters have not all been sent to deceive.” McClellan insisted that this was true, stating, “If ten or fifteen thousand men have left Richmond to reinforce Jackson, it illustrates their strength and confidence.”
Nevertheless, McClellan assured Lincoln that his army was ready for battle. Most of his men were on the south side of the Chickahominy River, and pickets were within six miles of Richmond. When the army advanced, it would provoke “a battle more or less decisive.” McClellan wrote, “After tomorrow we shall fight the Rebel army as soon as Providence will permit. We shall await only a favorable condition of the earth and sky and the completion of some necessary preliminaries.”
To the west, Jackson used Colonel Thomas T. Munford’s cavalry to screen his men as they moved across the Blue Ridge and left the Shenandoah Valley on June 19. That same day, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, whose Federal Army of the Shenandoah was stationed near Front Royal, expressed fears to his superiors that Jackson might attack him, especially now that the only major forces still in the Valley were his own and those of Major General John C. Fremont.
In a message to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Banks questioned why Brigadier General James Shields was leaving the Valley to reinforce the Federals on the Peninsula: “He (Shields) ought not to move until the purpose of the enemy are more fully developed. There can be no doubt whatever that another immediate movement down the valley, is intended with a force of 30,000 or more.”
The next day, Banks repeated his fears of being shorthanded in the face of a possible Confederate attack, at the same time acknowledging “nothing new to report of the enemy.” Lincoln explained once more that Jackson’s aim was to “by constant alarms keep three or four times as many of our troops away from Richmond as his own force amounts to,” and instead of stopping Jackson from doing this, the Federal commanders in the Valley were falling for his ploy.
Banks again argued against Shields leaving the Valley, stating that since Confederates posed no threat to Shields at Front Royal, then there was no reason for him to leave. But Shields’s superior, Major General Irvin McDowell, reversed this logic by arguing to Stanton that if Shields had no threat facing him, then there was no reason to stay.
The exchange was rendered pointless when Shields’s Federals left the Valley on the 21st via railroad and began arriving at Bristoe Station. The “sick and foot weary” were left behind. As they prepared to join the rest of McDowell’s force, McDowell reported that Shields’s command was “in a bad state morally and materially,” with “officers resigning and even men deserting.” To McDowell, this was all the more reason to keep Shields under his watch rather than leaving him in the Valley.
On the Peninsula, McClellan’s army now numbered 105,825 officers and men present for duty, with a grand total of 156,838. The addition of McDowell’s force would give McClellan nearly 130,000 effectives, but McClellan still wanted more. Lincoln explained that due to the fluid situation in the Shenandoah, “we could send you some more force, but as the case stands, we do not think we safely can.” McClellan wrote his wife Ellen about the Confederates, “The rascals are very strong & outnumber me very considerably, but I will yet succeed notwithstanding all they do & leave undone in Washington to prevent it.”
McClellan added that despite previous animosity, his superiors had been very kind to him lately. He then wrote, “I am afraid that I am a little cross to them, and that I do not quite appreciate their sincerity and good feeling. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (i.e., Beware of Greeks bearing gifts). How glad I will be to get rid of the whole lot!” But this did not stop McClellan from offering his views on how the politics of war should be handled. Lincoln granted permission for McClellan to put these views in writing but advised against sending them telegraphically. McClellan would write a letter and wait until his next visit with the president to deliver it to him.
McClellan had little respect for the Lincoln administration; on the contrary, he believed that there were many who secretly wanted to destroy the country. This made him all the more desperate to ensure that his army, the best hope for preserving the country, stayed intact. Passing on the latest gossip to his wife, the general wrote, “McDowell has deserted his friend C (Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase) & taken to S (Stanton)!!” While Secretary of State William H. Seward and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair continued to “stand firmly by me–Honest A (Lincoln) has again fallen into the hands of my enemies & is no longer a cordial friend of mine!”
McClellan continued: “Alas! Poor country that should have such rulers. I am anxious as any human being can be to finish this war, yet when I see such insane folly behind me I feel that the final salvation of the country demands the utmost prudence on my part & that I must not run the slightest risk of disaster, for if anything happened to this army our cause would be lost. I feel too that I must not unnecessarily risk my life, for the fate of my army depends upon me & they all know it.”
This sentiment was repeated in a letter to Samuel Barlow, an influential Democrat: “We are making slow progress here–but I dare not rush this Army on which I feel the fate of the nation depends. I will succeed, but for the sake of the cause must make a sure thing of it.”
By the 21st, most of Jackson’s Confederates had left the Shenandoah Valley and headed east to reinforce Lee on the Peninsula. They marched to Gordonsville and awaited train service to Richmond. A day later, Major General John E. Wool, commanding the Federal Middle Department, forwarded to Stanton rumors from Major General Franz Sigel in the Valley “that Jackson had 40,000 to 60,000 men and 70 pieces of artillery.”
Wool conceded that this was “probably exaggerated,” but he learned from a “person considered reliable that Jackson will in a short time attack Banks and his forces. If Jackson has the number of troops reported, I think we ought to be looking after Washington.”
General Fremont, whose Federals were at Strasburg in the Valley, heard rumors that 4,000 Confederates under Major General Richard Ewell were advancing on his right flank toward Moorefield. Fremont stated, “These reports were most probably exaggerations, but it would be well to guard against the chance of their being true.”
While the Federal high command got bogged down with speculation, Jackson and Ewell were actually heading toward Richmond, with their men between Gordonsville and Fredericks Hall. Jackson attended Sunday church services at Fredericks Hall, and then waited until 1 a.m. on the 23rd (after the Sabbath ended) to ride ahead of his men to meet with Lee. Jackson used a relay of several horses to get there because it was more secretive than taking a train, and he removed all indications of his rank from his uniform to avoid recognition.
Outside Richmond, Lee wrote privately, “Our enemy is quietly working within his lines, and collecting additional forces to drive us from our capital. I hope we shall be able yet to disappoint him, and drive him back to his own country.”
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