On the morning of August 20, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crossed the undefended fords of the Rapidan River. The army consisted of about 54,000 men in seven divisions, two unattached infantry brigades, a cavalry division, and artillery. At the same time, Major General John Pope’s Federal Army of Virginia crossed the Rappahannock River to the north, as Pope sought to link with Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac transferring from the Virginia Peninsula.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, hoped to destroy bridges over the Rappahannock to prevent the Federal withdrawal, but skirmishing at Raccoon Ford, Stevensburg, Brandy Station, and Kelly’s Ford prevented that. Confederate cavalry pursuing Pope drove off Brigadier General George Bayard’s Federal troopers, but Bayard stalled long enough for Pope to finish crossing the Rappahannock and guard the fords. This compelled the Confederates to move up the Rappahannock by Pope’s left (east) flank.
Although he had thwarted Lee’s plan to trap him between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, Pope was not satisfied with his positions north of the Rappahannock. He reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “The line of the Rappahannock offers no advantage of defense, but you may rely upon our making a very hard fight in case the enemy advances on us.”
Halleck informed Pope that Major General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps from McClellan’s army had just arrived at Aquia Creek, and “will be pushed up the Rappahannock as rapidly as possible” to give Pope around 60,000 men. Pope turned most of his attention to his left, where he feared that Confederates might try to cut him off from McClellan’s arriving Federals.
Lee continued to probe the Federal defenses but could find no weaknesses. Confederate cavalry led by Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart clashed with Federals at Kelly’s, Beverly, and Freeman’s fords on the Rappahannock and sustained heavy casualties; the Confederates lost 700 killed or wounded and had nearly 2,000 taken prisoner. Pope believed that this was just an enemy reconnaissance; he was unaware that Lee was moving his entire army north to confront him.
Meanwhile, Lee approved Stuart’s request to lead a cavalry raid on Pope’s supply line. Stuart’s force–consisting of 1,500 troopers and two guns–moved farther up the Rappahannock than either army, crossing at the unguarded Waterloo Bridge. He planned to cut the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, the main Federal supply line, by destroying the Cub Run bridge near Catlett’s Station, 10 miles behind Federal lines.
The Confederates arrived outside the station around 7:30 p.m. on the 22nd, where they captured the Federal pickets. They learned from the prisoners that this was Pope’s headquarters, and a contraband guided them to his tent. Pope was on an inspection, but Stuart raided the tent and made off with Pope’s dress coat, dispatch book, and $350,000 in greenbacks from the army’s payroll chest.
Stuart saw this raid partly as revenge for the Federal attack on the Rappahannock a few days before, but he was pleasantly surprised by such a large bounty. He left a note for Pope: “You have my hat and plume. I have your best coat. I have the honor to propose a cartel for the fair exchange of the prisoners…”
Covered by a thunderstorm, the Confederates rode into the heavily stocked supply depot, hollering the “Rebel yell,” capturing many Federals in their camps, and sending others fleeing. Stuart’s men cut the telegraph line, but they could not burn the bridge due to the rain.
The Confederates captured over 200 Federals (many of them Pope’s staff officers) and thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies before riding back to their lines. But the most important capture was Pope’s dispatch book, which contained copies of all the messages he had sent or received from the past week. These messages indicated that Pope’s efforts to protect his left made his right vulnerable. It also indicated that once McClellan’s Federals arrived to reinforce him, Pope’s army would double the size of Lee’s.
Pope learned of Stuart’s raid late that night, along with news that part of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s force had crossed the Rappahannock at Sulphur Springs. He consulted with Halleck and resolved to turn Lee’s right flank, just as Lee planned to turn Pope’s right. Meanwhile, Porter’s corps arrived at Falmouth, 20 miles from Pope’s left at Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock. The Third Corps of McClellan’s army arrived at Alexandria, the Ninth Corps was en route, and more Federal reinforcements were coming to join Pope from western Virginia.
Stuart’s troopers returned to their lines the next day, where Stuart shared the information he had learned with Lee. Pope’s captured coat was sent to Richmond, where it was put on public display. Lee quickly began devising a plan to destroy Pope’s army before it could be bolstered by McClellan’s.
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