General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, arrived at Gordonsville, northwest of the Confederate capital of Richmond, on August 15. There he joined his two top commanders, Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and James Longstreet, on the Rapidan River. Lee hoped to attack Major General John Pope’s Federal Army of Virginia while it was vulnerably positioned between the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers.
Lee left just 25,000 Confederate troops to guard Richmond, which clearly indicated that he expected no threat from Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, which was in the process of evacuating the Virginia Peninsula southeast of the capital. Lee had some 55,000 men in the Gordonsville vicinity, and Pope had roughly the same number. But Pope would soon be reinforced by McClellan’s army, so Lee would have to act fast to avoid being hopelessly outnumbered.
Pope’s army was situated in a “V” formed by the Rappahannock to the north and the Rapidan to the south, with the troops posted along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Pope had been ordered to stay put until McClellan’s men arrived. Once the two armies joined, Pope expected General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to come down from Washington and take overall field command, just as he had done in the Corinth campaign.
When Lee learned that Pope had just one functioning bridge over the Rappahannock, he studied the maps and decided to attack in hopes of trapping Pope’s army between the rivers where it could be destroyed. Lee planned to begin the offensive by sending his cavalry north to destroy the Rappahannock bridge and any other crossings the Federals could use to escape.
Jackson wanted to attack immediately, but Lee was informed that the cavalry horses needed rest. Also, most of the army’s supplies had not yet arrived from Richmond. Thus, Lee informed Jackson and Longstreet that they would cross the Rapidan on the 17th and attack Pope the next day. Disappointed, Jackson began the movement by leading his three divisions northeast of Orange Court House. That same day, a large portion of McClellan’s army boarded steamers and left the Peninsula. McClellan warned Halleck, “I don’t like Jackson’s movements. He will suddenly appear where least expected.”
Meanwhile, Pope continued to wait for the Confederates to make a move. He was unaware that doing nothing was damaging his troops’ morale, which was already down due to their low opinion of Pope as a leader. Many men took advantage of Pope’s orders to live off the land by looting nearby homes and farms, leaving the residents destitute.
Brigadier General Marsena Patrick, commanding a division in Pope’s army, wrote that he was “so utterly disgusted that I feel like resigning and letting the whole thing go. There has never been such a state of things before, in any command.” Pope issued orders prohibiting attacks on civilians, singling out Brigadier General Adolph von Steinwehr for his men’s poor conduct. But the damage had already been done.
By the 16th, Pope believed that Jackson was at Gordonsville and Lee was about to join him with the rest of his army. However, Jackson was up near the Rapidan, and Lee was at Gordonsville already. Pope found no good ground north of the Rapidan to attack from, and he knew he needed to protect his left (east) flank or else the Confederates could cut him off from McClellan’s reinforcements landing at Aquia Creek.
Pope asked Halleck to keep McClellan’s men in the Aquia Creek vicinity to protect his left flank. Halleck warned Pope against advancing any further: “I think it would be very unsafe for your army to cross the Rapidan. It would be far better if you were in the rear of the Rappahannock.”
At Gordonsville, Lee received word that 108 transports had arrived at Harrison’s Landing on the Peninsula, indicating that McClellan’s entire army was being shipped north. This allowed Lee to bolster his own army by pulling more troops from the Richmond defenses. But time was not on Lee’s side. After giving the horses a day of rest, Lee directed Brigadier General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry division to head north and burn the Rappahannock bridge. Jackson and Longstreet would then advance and assault Pope’s left.
Lee assembled his army in Pope’s front on the 17th, but he was still not yet ready to cross the Rapidan, so he had to delay the attack. Stuart’s horsemen rode into Orange Court House that afternoon, where Stuart learned of Pope’s positions to and reported them to Lee.
The next day, a Federal cavalry detachment crossed the Rapidan and ambushed Stuart’s troopers near Verdiersville. The Federals captured many items the Confederates had left behind, including Stuart’s plumed hat and cloak. And, as Pope reported:
“The cavalry expedition sent out on the 16th in the direction of Louisa Court-House captured the adjutant-general of General Stuart, and was very near capturing that officer himself. Among the papers taken was an autograph letter of General Robert E. Lee to General Stuart, dated Gordonsville, August 15, which made manifest to me the position and force of the army, and their determination to overwhelm the army under my command before it could be reinforced by any portion of the Army of the Potomac.”
Now that he knew Lee’s plans, Pope ordered a withdrawal to stronger defenses across the Rappahannock. Thus, Lee’s plan to catch Pope between the rivers had been thwarted. Disappointed, Lee continued preparing for an attack nonetheless. During the Federal retreat, the corps of Major Generals Franz Sigel and Irvin McDowell became dangerously tangled at Culpeper Court House. Although this made them vulnerable to a Confederate attack, Lee did not take advantage of it.
Lee and Longstreet sat atop Clark’s Mountain and watched Pope’s army withdraw on the 19th. Longstreet later wrote:
“Watching without comment till the clouds grew thinner and thinner as they approached the river and melted into the bright haze of the afternoon sun, General Lee finally put away his glasses, and with a deeply-drawn breath, expressive at once of disappointment and resignation, said, ‘General, we little thought that the enemy would turn his back upon us thus early in the campaign.’”
Pope’s entire army was on the other side of the Rappahannock by the end of the day. Lee gave his men some rest and continued looking for openings for an attack. He issued orders to begin crossing the Rapidan in pursuit at 4 a.m. on the 20th.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- 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.
- Longstreet, James, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. (Kindle Edition), 1895.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.