The Question is the Salvation of the Country

Major General John Pope gathered the remnants of his Federal Army of Virginia on the heights at Centreville on August 31. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, opted not to pursue immediately because his men needed rest after two weeks of hard marching and three days of heavy fighting. Although Pope now had a day’s jump on Lee and 20,000 reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac, he informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that morning:

“Our troops are… much used-up and worn-out (after fighting) as desperate a fight as I can force our men to stand up to… I should like to know whether you feel secure about Washington should this army be destroyed. I shall fight it as long as a man will stand up to the work. You must judge what is to be done, having in view the safety of the capital.”

Gen John Pope

Pope then called a council of war, something he had long resisted. After discussing their options, the corps commanders recommended falling back into the Washington defenses. But then Pope received a message from Halleck: “Don’t yield another inch if you can avoid it.” Major General Fitz John Porter, commanding the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac reinforcing Pope, spoke for the other generals when he said, “The decision was foolish if not criminal. Each felt that the Government was not truly informed of the condition of affairs–perhaps deceived.”

Capital residents began panicking as rumors spread that the Confederate army was about to put Washington under siege. Federal army morale was at an all-time low; the colonel of the 55th New York came off a transport at Alexandria and noted that depression filled the air, along with rumors of treason. This was a dramatic turn of events from three months ago, when the Federals were within six miles of the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Meanwhile, Lee summoned his two top commanders, Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and James Longstreet, early on the 31st to brief them on his new plan. Jackson’s Confederates would move out on another march, this time northward across Bull Run to turn Pope’s right flank. Longstreet’s men would demonstrate against Pope’s front while Jackson crossed Bull Run and moved around Centreville to cut Pope’s line of retreat to Washington. Jackson took Lee’s orders, said, “Good!” and hurried off.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit:

Later, as Lee studied a map beside his horse Traveller, a sudden gust of wind blew the map into the horse’s face, causing him to rear. Lee tried to grab Traveller’s bridle but lost his balance and fell, breaking one hand and spraining the other. Doctors put splints on both of Lee’s hands, rendering him unable to mount the horse.

Jackson’s Confederates headed out, led by Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry. Jackson hoped to seize the important village of Germantown, where Pope’s only two routes to Washington–the Warrenton and Little River turnpikes–converged. However, the Confederate advance proved ineffective because of fatigue. The men slowly crossed Bull Run at Sudley Ford and then moved down the Little River Turnpike, but rain fell that night and turned the road to mud, slowing the advance even further.

The Confederate wing under Longstreet followed Jackson, but his men had not yet crossed Bull Run by nightfall. Stuart’s cavalry harassed Pope’s flank but caused no real damage. Pope had anticipated Lee’s flanking maneuver and notified Halleck, “The plan of the enemy will undoubtedly be to turn my flank. If he does so, he will have his hands full.”

Skirmishing occurred at various points, but the Confederates had been unable to cut Pope off as Lee had hoped. Pope received word that Jackson’s Confederates were heading east toward Fairfax Court House, and he informed Halleck, “This movement turns Centreville and interposes between us and Washington, and will force me to attack his advance, which I shall do as soon as his movement is sufficiently developed. I hope you will make all preparations to make a vigorous defense of the intrenchments around Washington.”

Pope dispatched a portion of the Ninth Corps under Brigadier General Isaac I. Stevens to form a rear guard to stop Jackson and cover the Federal retreat out of Centreville. That night, Jackson’s Confederates stopped along the Little River Turnpike in Pleasant Valley, far from where Jackson had hoped to be. Having marched ahead of their supply train, the men bivouacked without food.

H.W. Halleck and G.B. McClellan

In Washington, Pope’s message about the possible destruction of his army put Halleck into despair. As hard as he tried get Pope’s army to work in concert with Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, it had ended in disaster. Halleck wrote his wife, “Few can conceive the terrible anxiety I have had within the last month.”

Halleck sent off one final desperate message to McClellan to get him to do something, anything, to alleviate the situation: “I beg you to assist me in this crisis with your ability and experience. I am utterly tired out.” McClellan, who had done very little to cooperate with or reinforce Pope, told his wife Ellen that Halleck had written him “begging me to help him out of his scrape & take command here.”

McClellan responded to Halleck: “I am ready to afford you any assistance in my power, but you will readily perceive how difficult an undefined position, such as I now hold, must be. At what hour in the morning can I see you alone, either at your own house or the office?” He added, “To speak frankly, & the occasion requires it, there appears to be a total absence of brains & I fear the total destruction of the Army… The question is the salvation of the country.”


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