Following the Seven Days Battles, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia outside Richmond, faced four major threats:
- Major General John Pope’s new Army of Virginia to the northwest;
- Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals near Fredericksburg to the northeast;
- Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to the east;
- Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Federals in North Carolina, within easy range of reinforcing McClellan.
Meanwhile, the Federals continued to fear the possibility that Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates could appear anywhere at any time. Brigadier General Rufus King, commanding a Federal division near Fredericksburg, stated on July 10, “Reports are current in Fredericksburg this morning that the Confederate troops under Stonewall Jackson, are advancing in this direction.”
In reality, Jackson remained with Lee’s army near Richmond, but he was arguing for a push northward. Congressman Alexander R. Boteler, Jackson’s political benefactor, presented Jackson’s point to President Jefferson Davis, but Davis agreed with Lee’s assessment that the army was too battered to try such a move. However, the army was about to be forced into moving, ready or not.
Two days later, Lee learned that one of Pope’s corps under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks had occupied Culpeper Court House on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. This posed a serious problem for the Confederates because it threatened Gordonsville, 27 miles southeast of Culpeper, where the railroad intersected with the Virginia Central. From there, Federals could cut the only supply link between Richmond and the fertile Shenandoah Valley.
On Sunday the 13th, Lee ordered Jackson to put his men on trains and “immediately proceed to Louisa Court-House, and if practicable to Gordonsville (15 miles away), there to oppose the reported advance of the enemy from the direction of Orange Court-House.” Confederate officials hurriedly organized 18 trains pulling 15 cars each for the operation. Jackson was to lead 14,000 men in the two divisions he had brought from the Valley. This greatly reduced the number of Confederate troops on the Peninsula to defend against a possible attack by McClellan’s army at Harrison’s Landing, but Lee guessed (correctly) that McClellan would show no aggression.
Lee’s main focus at this time was to keep both Richmond and the supply line to the Shenandoah Valley secure. He now began to consider that the best way to do this could be to move his entire army northward to defeat Pope before turning back and knocking McClellan off the Peninsula.
Meanwhile, Pope’s army was spread out over 10 miles, with 3,000 Federal cavalrymen under Brigadier General John P. Hatch holding Culpeper. Pope made clear that he did “not desire a simple cavalry reconnaissance toward Culpeper.” Pope wanted the place “to be occupied in force, and directs that General Hatch take up his headquarters there, throwing out strong cavalry pickets for at least 20 miles in the direction of Gordonsville and Richmond.”
Hatch’s troopers were to wreck the Virginia Central Railroad at Gordonsville before continuing on to Charlottesville and the James River. He would also notify Pope of any Confederate resistance along the way. Hatch pulled infantry from Banks’s corps, artillery, and a baggage train for this expedition, which greatly slowed the advance. When Pope found this out, he wrote to Banks:
“I was greatly surprised to learn from General Hatch’s dispatch that he had gone to execute the duty I assigned to him, with infantry, artillery, and a wagon train. I never dreamed of such a thing. It has been a great mistake, and may possibly lead to serious consequences, he would have found no enemy at Gordonsville, and from all accounts none at Charlottesville.”
Hatch learned through spies that Jackson’s advance division under Major General Richard Ewell had taken positions between Gordonsville and Madison Court House, with more Confederates on the way. Hatch proposed falling back to Sperryville, 40 miles north of Ewell. Dissatisfied, Pope replaced Hatch with Brigadier General John Buford. He also directed the cavalry stationed around Fredericksburg under Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick to destroy the Virginia Central.
Kilpatrick moved out on the night of the 19th with the 2nd New York Cavalry. They had orders to “break up the railroad communication, destroy the depots, and intercept the telegraph.” They brought a local man named Humphreys to guide them. Pope stated, “This man Humphreys knows the whole ground, and can go as a guide, with the assurance that he will be shot if he makes a mistake.”
The Federal troopers destroyed the railroad depot at Beaver Dam Station, and even though it was far from Gordonsville (35 miles), it still effectively cut the flow of Confederate supplies. They also captured famed partisan Captain John S. Mosby, who was briefly detained in Washington’s Old Capitol Prison before being paroled. Mosby later said, “I confess, I rather enjoyed my visit to Washington.”
At Gordonsville, Jackson asked Lee to send him reinforcements because he did not have enough men to hold the town if Pope decided to advance with his whole 56,000-man army. Lee, who recently received more men from South Carolina, felt confident enough that McClellan posed no threat to send Major General A.P. Hill’s 13,000-man division to join Jackson.
Hill may not have been Jackson’s first choice because the two had disliked each other ever since they were cadets at West Point. Worse, Hill blamed Jackson for the Confederate failures during the Seven Days’ Battles. But Hill’s men were known as the “Light Division” because of their marching speed, making them compatible (Lee hoped) with Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry.” Lee wrote Jackson, hoping to prevent him from alienating Hill like he did Ewell with his secrecy:
“A.P. Hill you will, I think find a good officer with whom you can consult and by advising with your division commanders as to their movements much trouble can be saved you in arranging details, as they can act more intelligently.”
Meanwhile, Lee kept McClellan busy with diversionary probes and artillery bombardments.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.