Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates fell back after the Battle of Cedar Mountain as General Robert E. Lee prepared to move the rest of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia up to meet them. Jackson and Major General John Pope’s Federal Army of Virginia remained within striking distance of each other on August 10, but neither tried resuming the offensive. Pope had about 34,000 men, with Major General Irvin McDowell’s corps on its way to join him from the east.
Pope wanted Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, to make a move to prevent Lee from sending his entire force against Pope’s army. Pope notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “From everything I can learn, I am satisfied that one-third of the enemy’s whole force is here, and more will be arriving unless McClellan will at least keep them busy and uneasy at Richmond.” Pope estimated that 80,000 Confederates were coming to give him battle, but in reality only Jackson’s 21,000 troops currently faced him.
It had been nearly a week since McClellan had been ordered to leave Harrison’s Landing on the Peninsula and join forces with Pope. Now Halleck wrote him, “There must be no further delay in your movements. That which has already occurred was entirely unexpected, and must be satisfactorily explained.” Halleck then complained to his wife, “I have felt so uneasy for some days about Genl Pope’s army that I could hardly sleep. I can’t get Genl McClellan to do what I wish.”
McClellan also complained to his wife, writing that Halleck’s message was “very harsh & unjust.” He did not want to send his troops to help their comrades in the Army of Virginia because “I have a strong idea that Pope will be thrashed during the coming week–& very badly whipped he will be & ought to be–such a villain as he is ought to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him.”
On the Cedar Mountain battlefield, a ceasefire was called to collect the dead and wounded. During this time, Federals and Confederates mingled and shared both goods and information. Jackson learned that Pope’s entire army of about 56,000 men was concentrating near Culpeper Court House. So that night, his Confederates fell back across the Rapidan River and returned to Gordonsville. Jackson told Lee that he had done this “in order to avoid being attacked by the vastly superior force in front of me, and with the hope that by thus falling back General Pope would be induced to follow me until I should be reinforced.”
This alarmed Lee because Jackson had not only failed to destroy Pope’s army, but he exposed the Virginia Central Railroad to potential Federal capture as well. Nevertheless, Lee wrote Jackson, “I congratulate you most heartily on the victory which God has granted you over our enemies at Cedar Run. I hope your victory is but the precursor of others over our foe in that quarter, which will entirely break up and scatter his army.”
Unaware that Jackson’s men had left, Pope wrote Halleck at 11 p.m. on the 11th: “The enemy has been receiving re-enforcements all day. (Major General James) Longstreet’s division (of Lee’s army) now on the march from Orange Court-House. I think it almost certain that we shall be attacked in the morning, and we shall make the best fight we can.” Pope asked Halleck to send him the Federal troops guarding Harpers Ferry and Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox’s small force patrolling western Virginia.
Halleck agreed to allow Cox to send half his command (about 5,000 men) to Pope, but Cox had to stay behind with the rest. Cox wrote, “It is the natural wish of every soldier to serve with the largest army in the most important campaign. The order to remain with a diminished command in West Virginia was a great disappointment to me, against which I made haste to protest.” Cox wrote Pope, “I trust it will be possible for the General commanding to reconsider the determination to leave me here, as by long service in these mountains, I feel I have some claim to serve with a larger column.”
On the morning of the 12th, Pope discovered that Jackson was gone. He informed Washington that he would pursue the Confederates, prompting Halleck to respond, “Beware of a snare. Feigned retreats are secesh attacks.” Halleck directed Major General Ambrose E. Burnside to send Pope as many men as he could and secure the bridge at Aquia Creek to facilitate the arrival and transfer of McClellan’s Federals to Pope’s army. Burnside responded by sending Pope 6,000 men under Brigadier General Jesse Reno.
Jackson’s Confederates fell back to Gordonsville, 20 miles south of Cedar Mountain, on the 12th. Once there they resumed guarding the Virginia Central Railroad linking Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson dispatched his valuable topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, to survey the ground between Gordonsville and the Potomac River for a potential counter-thrust north.
The next day, Lee directed Longstreet to lead 30,000 men north to Hanover Junction to guard against a possible Federal advance from the Rappahannock River. An Englishman claiming to be a Federal deserter informed Lee that McClellan was moving his men down the Peninsula to Fort Monroe for a potential transfer to northern Virginia. The Lincoln administration ignored pleas from McClellan to attack Richmond; he had his chance and now he was done.
Pope wanted to attack as well, but Halleck warned him, “Do not advance your force across the Rapidan. Guard well against a flank movement by the enemy.” Reno’s Federals arrived to reinforce Pope, and Cox’s Federals were on their way from western Virginia. Pope approved Cox’s request to come along as well: “You can come yourself with the troops. Select the best troops to come with you, and come speedily.”
Cox’s Federals moved from the Kanawha River to the Ohio River. They then boarded trains at Parkersburg, bound for Washington and then for Pope’s army. This marked the first time that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was used to conduct a major troop transfer. The logistics were complex, but this was faster than marching overland.
On the 14th, Confederate Major General D.H. Hill confirmed the word of the Englishman after reconnoitering Harrison’s Landing. This prompted Lee to turn his full attention to Pope. Lee notified President Jefferson Davis:
“Unless I hear from you to the contrary I shall leave for G(ordonsville) at 4 a.m. tomorrow. The troops are accumulating there and I must see that arrangements are made for the field. When you do not hear from me, you may feel sure that I do not think it necessary to trouble you. I shall feel obliged to you for any directions you may think proper to give.”
Lee left two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade to guard Richmond under Major General Gustavus W. Smith, who finally overcame the illness that had forced him to leave the army in June. Lee told Smith, “I deem no instructions necessary beyond the necessity of holding Richmond to the very last extremity.”
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