On the morning of August 9, Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates advanced toward Culpeper Court House, and Major General John Pope scrambled to concentrate his new Federal Army of Virginia to meet Jackson’s advance:
- Major General Irvin McDowell’s corps under Pope was east of Culpeper near Fredericksburg;
- Major General Franz Sigel’s corps was northwest of Culpeper near Sperryville;
- Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s corps, along with cavalry, was just south of Culpeper.
Banks would have to hold Jackson off long enough for McDowell and Sigel to come up. As Jackson approached, Pope issued verbal orders to Banks that produced three different interpretations:
- Pope claimed that he ordered Banks at 9:45 a.m. to set up defensive positions and await Jackson’s attack while Pope sent Banks reinforcements.
- Banks claimed that Pope ordered him to deploy skirmishers and attack as soon as Jackson’s men appeared, even though he was outnumbered two-to-one.
- Colonel Louis H. Marshall, Pope’s aide who delivered the verbal order, claimed that Banks was to attack only if Jackson appeared to be mounting an attack first.
Banks’s Federals marched south toward Cedar Mountain, about eight miles from Culpeper Court House, as Jackson’s Confederates (led by Major General Richard Ewell’s division) moved north. Jackson observed dust clouds to the north, indicating the Federals’ approach. He deployed Brigadier General Jubal Early’s brigade from Ewell’s division to the left and sent the rest of Ewell’s men to the right, almost on the other side of Cedar Mountain.
Although his entire force had not yet arrived, Jackson unveiled his battle plan: Ewell would turn the Federals’ left flank, while Early, supported by Brigadier General Charles S. Winder’s division, would take the Federal right as artillery continuously pounded the Federal center. Major General A.P. Hill’s division was still on its way up from the rear and would act as a reserve. Confederate artillerists opened fire around 3 p.m., touching off a massive two-hour cannon duel.
Observing the Federal positions with opera glasses, Winder directed the Confederate fire while his men got into attack positions. As the artillery battle began fading around 5 p.m., a shell fragment ripped into Winder’s left arm and side, killing him. Division command passed to Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro, who had not been briefed on Jackson’s plan.
While Taliaferro scrambled to strengthen his vulnerable left flank, Banks adhered to what he believed to be Pope’s orders and attacked before reinforcements arrived. Federals of Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams’s division tore into Taliaferro’s men, broke three brigades, and nearly drove Early from the field. With the Confederates on the verge of a rout, Jackson brandished his sword (which had rusted into its scabbard due to lack of use) and a battle flag and shouted, “Rally brave men, and press forward! Your general will lead you. Jackson will lead you. Follow me!”
The Stonewall Brigade counterattacked and pushed Williams’s Federals back. But the Confederates overextended their line and the Federals counterattacked in turn. By this time, A.P. Hill’s division finally began arriving on the scene, and Jackson hurried Hill’s men into the fight. They provided the difference in the contest by breaking the Federal right. As Williams retreated, Ewell collapsed the Federal left as well.
The Federals left nearly a third of their force on the field as they withdrew. Pope deployed Brigadier General James Ricketts’s division of Irvin McDowell’s corps to try to serve as a rear guard around 7 p.m., but the Confederates repelled it with heavy loss, and Banks ordered a general withdrawal. Jackson ordered a pursuit but then halted when he learned from Federal prisoners that Franz Sigel’s men were coming to reinforce Banks. Sigel did not arrive in time to save the Federals’ fortunes. Exhausted, Jackson lay on the ground and told his staff, “I want rest… nothing but rest.”
General fighting ended around 10 p.m., with Confederate artillerists keeping up their fire until Pope, believing those were his guns, sent a messenger to order the firing stopped. The Confederates, believing the messenger to be part of Jackson’s staff, obeyed. In the fight, Banks had thwarted Jackson’s plans by attacking first, but he did not hold any men in reserve, nor did he request reinforcements from Pope. This allowed Jackson to turn the tide and claim victory.
The Federals suffered a terrible 30 percent casualty rate, losing 2,381 (314 killed, 1,445 wounded, and 622 missing) out of about 8,000 engaged. The Confederates lost just 1,314 (223 killed, 1060 wounded, and 31 missing) out of roughly 16,800, or less than 8 percent. Both Jackson and General Robert E. Lee mourned the loss of Charles Winder, a valuable commander.
The Battle of Cedar Mountain temporarily stopped Pope’s efforts to move south and exposed to the Confederate high command that this was Pope’s intention. This news, coupled with news that Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac was abandoning the Peninsula, prompted Lee to move his entire Army of Northern Virginia north to meet Pope’s advance.
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