Major General John Pope had pulled his Federal Army of Virginia north of the Rappahannock River. After learning that General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was nearby, he decided to attack Lee’s right (east) flank, which threatened Pope’s access to reinforcements at Aquia Creek. However, Pope changed his mind when he received word that Confederates were also threatening him on his own right (west) flank.
Major General Franz Sigel, whose corps made up Pope’s right flank, reported that Confederates had crossed the Rappahannock in his sector. This was just a lone brigade from Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s command, which got trapped when heavy rains swelled the river and made it impossible to cross back to the Confederate side.
Pope, thinking this was the vanguard of Lee’s entire army, decided to wait for the rest of the enemy troops to cross and then attack when their backs were to the river. He ordered Sigel to “stand firm and let the enemy develop towards Warrenton.” But when Pope learned that the river was too high to cross, he wrote, “The enemy, therefore, on this side is cut off from those on the other, and there is no fear of this position.” Pope sent reinforcements to Sigel and ordered him to attack, leaving “nothing behind you.”
Had Sigel attacked, he could have annihilated the small, isolated force. Instead, he spent much of the day getting his men into position. Meanwhile, Jackson’s Confederates hurried to build a bridge that enabled the troops to cross back unharmed.
On the eastern flank, both sides engaged in a fierce five-hour artillery battle as Major General James Longstreet’s Confederates tried to drive Major General Irvin McDowell’s corps away from Beverly Ford and the railroad bridge over the Rappahannock. McDowell ultimately fell back, not because of Confederate pressure but because he was ordered to withdraw to Warrenton.
Meanwhile, portions of Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac began taking positions in Pope’s line, with Major General Fitz John Porter’s men taking Kelly’s Ford and Major General Philip Kearny’s men holding Catlett’s Station. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Ninth Corps was also coming up, and Federals from western Virginia under Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox were at Alexandria awaiting transport to Pope’s army.
As Pope grew stronger, McClellan became proportionately weaker. McClellan, who thought little of Pope, expected him to be defeated and for General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to beg McClellan to come to the rescue. When he learned of the skirmishing along the Rappahannock, McClellan wrote his wife Ellen, “I believe I have triumphed!! Just received a telegram from Halleck stating that Pope & Burnside are hard pressed–urging me to push forward reinforcements, & to come myself as soon as I possibly can!… Now they are in trouble they seem to want the ‘Quaker,’ the ‘procrastinator,’ the ‘coward’ & the ‘traitor’! Bien…”
When the expected Confederate attack on Pope did not materialize, McClellan became dejected. He wrote his wife on August 23, “I take it for granted that my orders will be as disagreeable as it is possible to make them–unless Pope is beaten, in which case they will want me to save Washington again. Nothing but their fears will induce them to give me any command of importance or to treat me otherwise than with discourtesy.”
The next day, McClellan received orders from Halleck: “You can either remain at Aquia or come to Alexandria, as you may deem best, so as to direct the landing of your troops.” McClellan, who realized that he was now merely expected to funnel troops to Pope, went to Alexandria, where his army’s Third Corps was stationed. The Sixth Corps left Fort Monroe and would soon land at Alexandria as well.
McClellan set up a small headquarters and grumbled that he now commanded nobody “except my staff” and “some one hundred men in my camp.” He angrily predicted, “Pope will be thrashed during the coming week–& very badly whipped he will be & ought to be.” Such harsh sentiment toward a fellow officer was disturbing to many, particularly to those in Washington.
Lee was informed about the Federal reinforcements, and he also learned from Pope’s captured quartermaster that Cox’s Federals were coming in from western Virginia. It would not be long before Pope’s army became too strong for the Confederates to attack. Based on the gathered intelligence and Pope’s own dispatch book that had been stolen during Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry raid, Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that he intended to cut the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and put his troops between Pope and Washington. He called on the remaining Confederates guarding Richmond to come north and join his army.
Lee then met with Jackson and directed him to lead his 23,000 Confederates up the Rappahannock to destroy all communication and supply lines at Manassas Junction, in Pope’s rear. Jackson could cross the river at an unguarded ford and use the mountains to hide his movement. Lee ordered Stuart’s cavalry to join Jackson’s force. Lee’s other 32,000 men would demonstrate against Pope’s front, diverting his attention. This violated the military axiom against dividing one’s force in the face of a superior enemy, but Lee hoped that cutting Pope’s lines would compel him to fall back without a fight.
By the 24th, the Federals had massed on their right (western) flank, with Pope reinforcing Sigel. They now controlled the Rappahannock crossings as far upriver as Waterloo. Stuart studied the maps and chose a spot even farther up the river to cross. Jackson told Lee, “I shall move within an hour,” and his Confederates were in motion by 3 a.m. on the 25th.
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