General Robert E. Lee had boldly divided his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia by sending nearly half his men with Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in a clockwise motion around the right (western) flank of Major General John Pope’s Federal Army of Virginia to destroy the Federal supply base in Pope’s rear. Lee hoped this would force Pope to either retreat or move into the open where he could be destroyed before being reinforced by Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
By dawn on August 25, Jackson’s men were on the move, with only Jackson knowing their destination. The force consisted of about 23,000 men in three divisions under Major Generals Richard Ewell, A.P. Hill, and William Taliaferro. The troops crossed the Rappahannock River four miles upstream from Waterloo, the last guarded ford, and then headed north toward Salem (now Marshall) on the Manassas Gap Railroad. Meanwhile, Lee’s diversionary force under Major General James Longstreet crossed the Rappahannock on Pope’s left (eastern) flank after another ferocious artillery duel.
Federal signalmen on hilltops along the Rappahannock spotted Jackson’s movement and, after counting the regimental flags, estimated his force to number about 20,000 men. Pope, who already knew that Longstreet had crossed the river, now knew where Jackson was as well. Pope told General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that Jackson probably intended to return to the Shenandoah Valley, adding, “I am induced to believe that this (Jackson’s) column is only covering the flank of the main body.”
But this did not explain why Longstreet remained on his left flank, bombarding him with artillery in an apparent attempt to provoke a fight in that sector. Pope planned to send a reconnaissance in force the next morning to confirm that Jackson was leading Lee’s army northwest toward the Valley. Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry” camped at Salem that night after covering a remarkable 26 miles.
When Lee learned that the Federals may be falling back, he directed Longstreet to join forces with Jackson as soon as possible. The next day, Longstreet’s men began moving along the route that Jackson had taken, with Lee leaving behind a small force to continue to divert Pope’s attention with artillery.
Meanwhile, Pope dispatched Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry as planned, but Buford informed him, “If the enemy advances, I can do very little. My command is almost disorganized.” Disregarding this warning, Pope directed Buford to go to Waterloo Bridge, where Longstreet’s left flank was now anchored, and send troopers west to determine exactly where Jackson’s force was headed.
Jackson’s Confederates resumed their march on the morning of the 26th, moving east from Salem along the Manassas Gap Railroad. They passed through Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains, which Pope failed to guard since he believed that Jackson was retreating. The Confederates entered the plains and approached the site of the Battle of Bull Run of the previous year. Jackson was now 20 miles behind Pope’s army unopposed.
Pope received word that afternoon that Jackson had not gone back to the Valley but instead turned east and advanced through Thoroughfare Gap. Pope sent a division to take up positions between the gap and White Plains, which was useless because Jackson had already passed that point.
Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s Confederate cavalry caught up to Jackson’s troops at Gainesville, where Jackson directed Ewell’s division and some cavalry to turn south and attack Bristoe Station. Arriving there in late afternoon, the Confederates derailed two trains, tore up track, cut the telegraph lines, and captured several hundred Federals. The lone train that made it through the station steamed east to warn Pope of the Confederate presence.
Pope did not immediately react to these enemy movements, which made him seem helpless. Brigadier General George G. Meade, a Federal brigade commander and old friend of Pope’s, visited him at his Warrenton Junction headquarters and asked, “What are you doing out here? This is no place for this army. It should at once fall back so as to meet the rest of the Army of the Potomac coming up and by superior force overwhelm Lee.”
Pope claimed he had plans to handle the threat, but he did not share them with anybody. When he learned of the Confederate attack on Bristoe Station around 8:30 p.m., he believed it was just a small-scale raid and sent just one regiment to confront it. Those troops saw the mass of Confederates at Bristoe and hurried back to warn Pope. He responded by sending two corps toward Gainesville, but Jackson was already beyond that point.
With Jackson’s Confederates interposing themselves between Pope’s army and Washington, Pope had just two options: fall back east toward Fredericksburg or attack Jackson. Pope chose the latter. Meanwhile, the bulk of Jackson’s force advanced on the supply depot at Manassas Junction.
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