The little town of Gordonsville, where Lee arrived on August 15, is set in a lovely country that seemed in 1862 to invite great adventure. Then as now that section of Virginia was known as Piedmont, the "foot of the mountains" that rose in the lofty, tree-clad Blue Ridge. Westward, beyond the range, lay the Shenandoah Valley, already made famous in war by Jackson's battles. East of the mountains, which run roughly north and south, were long, low ridges, covered with grass or growing crops and broken here and there by rounded eminences, exalted with the name of mountains. Heavy forests were few. Swamps were rarely encountered along the clear-cut streams. The briar did not flourish. There was little underbrush to cover skirmishers or to confuse an advancing column. Firmer roads ran closer to the surveyor's straight line than in eastern Virginia, and were not as confusingly numerous. The possibilities of bold military operations were limited only by the scarcity of cover, which made it difficult to hide large bodies of troops for such strategy as Lee employed.1
Thanks to Jackson's forethought, when Lee sat down in council with him and Longstreet on the 15th, he had a good map and adequate intelligence reports. The Rapidan River on the south and the Rappahannock on the north form a great "V" laid on its side with its apex to the east, where the two rivers unite, •about nine miles west of Fredericksburg. Across the open end of this "V," at an average distance of •twenty miles from the confluence of the streams, ran the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, which constituted Pope's line of supply. Into the angle between the two rivers, before Burnside had sent reinforcements, Pope had brought a force which Jackson estimated at 45,000 to 50,000. Pope's front was to the Rapidan. Behind him lay the Rappahannock. p280 Twenty thousand men, Lee estimated, had reached Pope from Burnside and from King, the latter being now first identified as in command at Fredericksburg before the coming of Burnside. These accessions, the Confederates computed, made Pope's full strength 65,000 to 70,000 men. No troops were coming down the railroad from Alexandria, escaped civilians said, but all the supplies of Pope's army were moving by that line and across a bridge that spanned the northern river at Rappahannock Station.
The "V" formed by the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers,
within the angle of which Lee hoped to trap Pope.º
Pope's ignorance of Lee' movements had caused him incautiously to present his adversary as fair an opportunity as ever a soldier was offered. If the infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia could be concentrated close to the Rapidan, the cavalry could be dispatched quickly to burn the bridge at Rappahannock Station, and then the veteran brigades from the Peninsula could be hurled across the Rapidan. Pope would thus be caught within the "V" between the two rivers and might be destroyed.
But this must be done quickly, for General French telegraphed on the morning of the 16th that 108 vessels had gone down the James in less than twenty-four hours and that only eight had come upstream. Moreover, Lee had received a copy of The Philadelphia Inquirer, in which its correspondent from Fort Monroe p281 affirmed that a movement of the whole or a part of McClellan's army was to be expected. Adding these scraps to the information he already possessed, Lee concluded that the whole instead of merely a part of McClellan's army was probably, though not certainly, moving to reinforce Pope and that it would arrive as rapidly as the men could be transported. Both the stakes and the participants in the race might be even greater than Lee had assumed. "It may be," he wrote the President on the 16th, "that this part of the country is to be the scene of operations."2
The situation had sufficiently developed on the 15th for Lee to ask that R. H. Anderson's division be sent forward immediately — a request that Davis honored with dispatch.3 On the 16th, Lee recommended that the rest of the troops left at Richmond, except the garrison and the reserve artillery, be ordered to join him, not only because he would need them but, also, as he diplomatically told the President, because their discipline would be improved if they were removed from the vicinity of the city.4 He could not wait for their arrival, however, if Mr. Davis consented to release them. He must strike while the opportunity was open, and before Pope became alarmed and put the Rappahannock between him and Army of Northern Virginia. Forced to the utmost effort in June to prevent a Federal concentration on Richmond, Lee must now be equally diligent to forestall a concentration away from Richmond.
The only questions to be decided were when and on which flank the attack should be made. Longstreet was all for a movement by the Confederate left, to give the army the vantage-ground of the long ridges and high hills. Lee reasoned that it was sounder strategy to assail Pope's left, so as to interpose between him and any fast-moving force from McClellan that might advance by way of Fredericksburg.5
And what was the earliest date at which the army could cross the Rapidan? Jackson, who had been in the country long enough to organize his transportation and to accumulate provisions, had moved on the 15th to Mount Pisgah Church, •five miles northeast of Orange Courthouse.6 He advocated crossing the Rapidan on p282 the 16th, to give battle on the 17th. Some of "Stonewall's" admirers have affirmed that Longstreet insisted on having more time to provision his men, though Jackson offered to loan him enough hard bread for the march.7 This may be true, for Longstreet had moved to Gordonsville so hurriedly that his commissary doubtless was disorganized.8 If the claim be true, it should in fairness be remembered that Longstreet's only previous experience with Jackson's logistics had been during the Seven Days. At the conference of June 23, Jackson had announced that he would be in position to turn Beaver Dam Creek on June 25. At Longstreet's instance, the opening of the attack had been delayed until the 26th, and even then Jackson was late.9 Longstreet might readily have been forgiven if, after that experience, he argued for more time. Had Longstreet in the later case been both wrong in his estimate of Jackson and wrong in demanding delay for victualling his men, this could not have been the only reason why Lee did not order an advance on August 16‑17. The cavalry operation against Rappahannock Bridge was an essential part of Lee's plan, and the cavalry was not then concentrated and could not be by the night of the 16th, certainly not with the horses in condition to undertake a long and exacting raid. Later developments proved this all too clearly.
The decision, then, was to approach the fords of the Rapidan on the 17th and to give battle to Pope on the 18th, between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock. Orders to this effect were issued on the 16th, within approximately thirty hours after Lee reached Gordonsville. If busy Major E. P. Alexander of the engineers knew of these orders and timed them, one is disposed to wonder if he remembered that ride with Colonel Ives, soon after Lee had assumed command, when he had somewhat skeptically asked Ives if Lee had the measure of audacity the necessities of the Southern cause demanded.
From Gordonsville, Lee had changed his headquarters on the evening of the 15th to the plantation of Barton Haxall, and on the 16th he went to the Taylor farm, near Orange Courthouse.10 p283 There, on the 17th, though his information from the Richmond front was not very detailed, Lee concluded that McClellan's withdrawal involved the whole of McClellan's army, and from that time he gave himself no further immediate concern for the capital. His only comment to Mrs. Lee was: "I suppose [McClellan] is coming here too so we shall have a busy time."11 Through the adjutant general, he ordered General G. W. Smith to follow R. H. Anderson with another division, so that he would have ample troops for immediate operations, though he did not accept the camp estimate that Pope already had 92,000 men.12
Stuart reached Orange Courthouse by train on the afternoon of the 17th, and came out to Lee's headquarters. He reported that he had moved Fitz Lee's brigade from Hanover Courthouse on the 16th to the vicinity of Beaver Dam, and had left him there with orders to march on the 17th toward Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan, where Stuart expected to cross the river. Nothing was said that indicated any doubt in Stuart's mind concerning the arrival of Fitz Lee at the designated point that day. Hampton's cavalry brigade had been left on the Richmond front and could not possibly join the army in time to participate in the first stages of the new campaign.13 Fitz Lee's command, therefore, was all that Stuart had, except one battery of horse artillery, for the arduous task Lee had assigned him in dealing with the numerically superior Federal cavalry, which were showing vast improvement.14 To strengthen Stuart and to assure unified command of the cavalry, Lee now placed under Stuart's control the cavalry previously attached to Jackson, known as Robertson's brigade.15 This created no friction, as Jackson had not been satisfied with the handling of his cavalry and had the highest opinion of Stuart.
Preparations went on apace all day of the 17th. The army was in excellent spirits, confident of its ability to defeat Pope.16 There was no sign, as yet, that the Federals were aware of the thunderbolt Lee was forging for them. Everything pointed to an early and an overwhelming victory ere Pope could draw to him a single p284 man of McClellan's hurrying thousands, or seek refuge behind the high-banked Rappahannock.
But when the morning of the 18th came, the army was not prepared. Anderson's division was arriving from Richmond and was not in position.17 There was no news from Stuart as to his whereabouts and none as to the arrival of Fitz Lee from Beaver Dam Station. The cavalry on the Confederate left was not disposed to suit Lee.18 The commissary did not have enough hard bread to serve for the move to the Rapidan for the march beyond it as well. Lee consequently had to defer the crossing of the river until the 19th.19
Even had all else been ready, Fitz Lee's cavalry would not have been at hand for its important work. For, as Lee learned later in the day, Stuart had been the victim of a curious misadventure that morning. Late in the afternoon of the 17th he had ridden •thirteen miles eastward from Orange to the little hamlet known as Verdiersville, where he expected Fitz Lee to halt for the night on his way to the rendezvous at Raccoon Ford. The quiet people of the slumbering countryside had answered with blank looks Stuart's questions regarding the location of the Confederate cavalry camp. They had seen no cavalry, they said. Much puzzled, Stuart had sent his assistant adjutant general, Major Norman Fitzhugh, down the road to find Fitz Lee and to hurry him on. Then Stuart and his aides had lain down on the porch of a private house to await the arrival of the belated troopers. As day was breaking on the 18th Stuart saw a body of horsemen •some 400 yards away and heard the clatter of advancing hoofs and the groaning of wheels. He asked Captain Mosby and Lieutenant Gibson to inquire if the column was Fitz Lee's. There was a moment's wait, loud voices, a shout of "Yankee cavalry," a few nervous shots — and in an instant more Stuart was up, mounted, over a fence and dashing for the nearby woods, while his aides were scattered and galloping off with a Federal patrol in avid pursuit. Fortunately, all the staff escaped except Major Fitzhugh, who had been captured while looking vainly p285 for Fitz Lee, and had been an unhappy spectator of his chief's hurried flight.20 The Federals rode triumphantly off with Stuart's hat and coat and left him wondering how they had stolen across the Rapidan. As he subsequently discovered, the explanation was simple: finding that Fitz Lee had not arrived on the evening of the 17th, Longstreet had ordered two of his infantry regiments to guard the road from Raccoon Ford, but these men had been ordered away by their brigadier, General Robert Toombs, who had denied Longstreet's authority to move his men without his consent. A Federal scouting party, finding the road open, had promptly moved southward and was returning when Stuart saw it. For permitting such a thing to happen, Toombs was promptly put under arrest, but that, of course, did not save Stuart's pride or restore his lost plumage.21
It probably was late in the morning of the 18th when the general in chief heard from Stuart of this mishap, and still later when he received a telegram from Fitz Lee reporting where he was. Either because his orders had been carelessly drawn, or else because he had misinterpreted them, Fitz Lee had not understood that he was to press on to Raccoon Ford by the evening of the 17th.22 If he had known that the opening of the attack depended on his arrival at that time, it is inconceivable that he would not have covered the •thirty-seven miles from Beaver Dam Station to the rendezvous.23 As it was, he had gone by way of Louisa Courthouse, where he had issued rations to his men and had replenished his ammunition. His telegram showed him still on the road24 with small prospect of reaching Raccoon Ford before the night of the 18th. Had he pushed ahead on the 17th, as Stuart had expected him to do, he would have had to cover •sixty-two miles in two days. Now that he was behind schedule and was following a longer road, it was certain that his mounts would require a day's rest. So, regretfully, the commanding general was forced to postpone the crossing of the Rapidan one day more, until the morning of the 20th.25
p286 Stuart charged Fitz Lee with dereliction of duty,26 and Longstreet, who had a post-bellum controversy with him, insisted years afterwards that Fitz Lee's failure to arrive at Raccoon Ford on the 17th lost the war to the South.27 But all early criticism of the young cavalryman curiously enough leaves out of account the fact that the commanding general had postponed the offensive before he heard that Fitz Lee was late. The fault was one of organization rather than of an individual, and the delay in launching the offensive probably would have occurred even if the cavalry had arrived. The army had not yet learned the difficult art of a quick and sure co-ordination of all the arms of the service.28
Lee must have realized this. To his disappointment over his inability to strike Pope in his exposed position at the time he had appointed, there was added on the 18th a fear that the enemy had discovered his presence despite his efforts to conceal the army.29 He learned that the Federals at daylight had raided a single station that Jackson had established on a fine eminence known as Clark's Mountain, overlooking the valley of the Rapidan and the country northward toward the Rappahannock, where Pope had his camps. There was no way of telling what the enemy had seen before he had been driven back, or what records he had found.30
Before nightfall the worst apprehensions seemed realized in reports from the lookouts that the Federals were breaking up their camps and retiring toward Culpeper Courthouse,31 but the magnitude and meaning of this move were not wholly apparent then. Nor was there very definite news early on the morning of the 19th. Lee went ahead with his preparations. He had summoned the reserve artillery from Richmond on the 18th,32 and he now revised his orders for the advance on the 20th.33 In p287 person he drafted new instructions for Stuart, whom he cautioned to rest his troops and to report how he was progressing in his concentration of the cavalry for the operations in rear of Culpeper Courthouse.34
The air, of course, was tense. The men knew that an advance was immediately in prospect. All private strategists of the camp messes were busily explaining what should be done to confound the foe. Before noon the signal station announced another movement by the enemy. Without waiting for particulars, Lee sent for Longstreet and rode with him to the crest of the mountain. "From its summit," wrote Longstreet, "we had a fair view of many points, and the camp-flags, as they opened their folds to the fitful breezes, seemed to mark places of rest. Changing our glasses to the right and left and rear, the white tops of army wagons were seen moving. Half an hour's close watch revealed that the move was for the Rappahannock River. Changing the field of view to the bivouacs, they seemed serenely quiet, under the cover of the noon-day August sun. As we were there to learn from personal observation, our vigilance was prolonged until the wagons rolled down the declivities of the Rappahannock. Then, turning again to view the bivouacs, a stir was seen at all points. Little clouds of dust arose which marked the tramp of soldiers, and these presently began to swell into dense columns along the rearward lines. 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.' "35
It was all true, just as they had seen it. Unknown to Lee, a copy of one of his orders to Stuart, showing something of the whereabouts of the army, had been found on Major Fitzhugh when he had been captured, and this document had been sent to Pope.36 p288 A spy, moreover, on the morning of August 18, had reported the Confederate preparations to General McDowell.37 General Reno had also discovered the Confederate dispositions.38 At 1:30 P.M. on the 18th Pope had started to withdraw from the trap in which he found himself.39 What Lee witnessed from Clark's Mountain was not the first but final phase of the retreat of the gentleman who had exhorted his soldiery to concern itself with the enemy's line of retreat and to leave its own to take care of itself.
But whither was Pope withdrawing? As far as Lee could make out, he was moving by the road to Fredericksburg, but that road led into the narrow part of the "V" formed by the Rappahannock and Rapidan, where his condition would be worse than before. It was obvious that the Federals must intend to cross the Rappahannock and go northward. As the course of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad was from southwest to northeast beyond Culpeper, Pope could cross well down the Rappahannock and still not be at a dangerous distance from his communications.
It was too late to begin pursuit on the afternoon of the 19th, and if the men started that night they would not be fresh for battle the next day. Lee consequently decided to give troops and horses a little rest and to cross the Rapidan at 4 A.M., with the rising of the moon.a Stuart's proposed raid against Rappahannock Station would, of course, be futile if the enemy had already crossed the river, so his orders were amended, and he was instructed to sweep well to the eastward, covering Longstreet's right flank. Then he was to negotiate the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford.40 Longstreet, in command of the right wing, was to cross the Rapidan at Raccoon Ford, where Lafayette once had met the waters of the Rapidan. Longstreet's objective was to be Culpeper Courthouse. Jackson, leading the left wing, was to pass over the river at Somerville Ford and was to move in the same direction. Anderson, following Jackson, was to form the general reserve.41 The rest, in Lee's mind, was with God and with circumstance.
1 Cf. Hotchkiss in 3 C. M. H., 317.
4 Lee's Dispatches, 51.
5 Longstreet, 159.
7 White, 177.
10 Walter H. Taylor to his sister, Aug. 17, 1862, Taylor MSS.
11 White, 178.
12 White, 178.
14 2 Henderson, 82‑83.
16 R. E. Lee, Jr., 77; W. H. Taylor to his sister, Aug. 17; Taylor MSS.
21 Longstreet, 161; Sorrel, 100 ff.; 2 B. and L., 526.
22 Fitz Lee, 182.
23 H. B. McClellan, 91.
27 Longstreet, 196.
28 It is proper to note that this statement of the events of Aug. 17‑18 is contrary to all the previous accounts, which have taken the traditional view that Fitz Lee's delay held up the offensive. It is enough to say in justification of the interpretation here put upon the events that none of those who placed the full burden of blame on Fitz Lee ever offered any explanation of Lee's dispatch to Stuart of Aug. 18, 1862, written, as the internal evidence shows, before he had learned what had happened to Fitz Lee. This dispatch (O. R., 12, part 3, p934), began with the significant sentence: "I hope to be prepared today to cross tomorrow."
35 Longstreet, 161‑62. Oddly enough, General Longstreet misdated the events of Aug. 18‑19 and placed them on Aug. 17‑18. A very fine description of the view from Clark's Mountain will be found in 2 Henderson, 111‑12, cf. ibid., 116 and Long, 187.
36 O. R., 12, part 2, p29. Pope said this order was dated at Gordonsville, Aug. 13. As Lee was not at Gordonsville on Aug. 13, either the place or the date was wrong. Most probably the date was Aug. 16, and the order that first issued for the advance.
a Very loosely speaking. According to the U. S. Naval Observatory the moon rose at Louisa (38N02, 78W00) at 0052h EST. Now Eastern Standard Time did not exist in 1862; mean local time for the town, 3.00° west of the 75° central meridian, would therefore be 20 minutes earlier: the moon rose over the town and its environs at about half past midnight, and at 0400h, she was already rather high in the heavens.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Robert E. Lee
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 26 Jan 15