In the dim light of a wasted moon, on the morning of August 20, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the undefended fords of the Rapidan. Its seven divisions and two unattached brigades of infantry numbered about 50,000 men. The cavalry division and the artillery brought the total effectives to some 54,500.1 Lee had already asked that the divisions of D. H. Hill and McLaws be sent from Richmond to the North Anna River, near Hanover Junction, to guard against a reported Federal movement in that direction.2 If these 17,000 troops were not detained there by the enemy, they might be counted as in three days' support of the main army on the Rapidan. There were no others nearer than Richmond.
The known strength of the Federal horse and the uncertainty as to the movements of the enemy's infantry made it desirable, at the outset, to modify the orders for the employment of the Confederate cavalry. Fitz Lee was directed to cover the front and right flank of Longstreet's wing. Stuart went with Robertson in advance of Jackson. The detached regiment of Robertson's brigade remained on Jackson's left flank. Fitz Lee met with no opposition until he was close to Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock. There he ran into the rear of the retiring Federals and had a brush. Stuart found the enemy cavalry in force between Stevensburg and Brandy Station and after some manoeuvring drove them close to the Rappahannock, where they had shelter under the fire of Federal batteries on the north side of the river. Two regiments of Fitz Lee's, summoned from Kelly's Ford, arrived promptly with Pelham's horse artillery to support Robertson, p290 but not in time to prevent the passage of the river by the Federal troopers, unpunished.
Following the cavalry, the infantry had an undisturbed march. Longstreet ended the day with his advanced guard close to Kelly's Ford and his rear •five miles to the south. Jackson covered the distance from Somerville Ford to Stevensburg, with his van not far from Brandy Station. Lee, moving with Jackson's column, established his headquarters and bivouacked for the night near Brandy.3
It was apparent to Lee that the whole of Pope's army was above the Rappahannock, with the fords heavily guarded. The ground p291 on Lee's right was lower than that occupied by the Federals on the other side of the river. To effectº a crossing without excessive losses, Lee had to move up the Rappahannock, by his left flank.4 Fortunately, this did not appear to be a difficult operation because, while few bridges spanned the stream, the fords were numerous, easy, and close together.
Accordingly, on the morning of the 21st, Robertson's brigade advanced up the right bank of the Rappahannock, crossed above Beverley Ford,5 and began to reconnoitre downstream on the left bank. Stuart proceeded to Beverley Ford, which was •less than two miles above Rappahannock Bridge, and waited until the infantry arrived and joined him. Jackson put his rear division in front and set out from Brandy for the same ford, while Longstreet completed his movement to Kelly's Ford and extended his left flank up the river to establish contact with Jackson's right.6
After Taliaferro's division of Jackson's command reached Beverley Ford it began a hot artillery action with Federal batteries on the opposite bank. Under cover of this fire, Stuart moved over the river and made some minor captures. Robertson, coming down the left bank from higher up the river, got in touch with his chief and reported the enemy nearby in strength. This meant, of course, that the passage of the infantry was apt to be costly. Lee carefully examined the ground, weighed the chances of success, decided not to attempt a crossing, and recalled Stuart to the south bank.7 Longstreet was ordered to advance up the south bank of the Rappahannock from Kelly's Ford to Beverley Ford — a march that was started in the late afternoon, attended by a sharp and picturesque rearguard action with a Federal force that ventured to the right bank of the river.8
The presence of the enemy near Beverley Ford did not mean that the turning movement up the Rappahannock was to be abandoned. On the contrary, Lee was more intent upon it than ever. From his imperfect information of the enemy's movements, he concluded that part of Pope's army was moving toward Fredericksburg and part toward Warrenton,9 and he considered it p292 desirable on every count to attack and dispose of the force nearest him.
But the extension of his left flank up the Rappahannock would hourly carry Lee a greater distance from Richmond and might even put Pope between him and that city ere the Federals were flanked. Was this safe? Could the capital be held if he ventured farther into northern Virginia? The question, he felt, was one that should properly be referred to the President, so he telegraphed the facts and asked Davis's opinion.10 The answer came back promptly. The President said that he had not contemplated any lengthy offensive operations north of the Rappahannock, and that he had no definite information of a retreat by McClellan beyond New Kent Courthouse. The two divisions en route to Hanover Junction must be held there to co-operate as needed, and the five brigades immediately in front of Richmond must be retained.11
This was not all that Lee could have desired. Still, the presence of two divisions at Hanover Junction would secure his communications.12 Moreover, the information of the War Department confirmed his belief that the whole of the Federal army was leaving the Peninsula.13 He would press up the Rappahannock, move his army over the first undisputed ford, and give battle. Stuart was to proceed ahead, cover the occupied fords, and permit Jackson to pass upstream with the infantry until he could effect a crossing. Longstreet was to follow.
This operation to turn the flank of an enemy who might be expected to advance by parallel lines on the other side of the river was reduced to its simplest and safest form by considering the forces of Stuart, Jackson, and Longstreet as separate but co-operating units. In moving by the left flank up the Rappahannock, no commander was to leave any ford unguarded till the column next in rear had occupied ground opposite it. The enemy must not be allowed to cross the stream and get between the columns. Tactically, such an operation is familiar, but the opportunities it offers and the difficulties it involves were rarely so well illustrated as in this instance.
Still another possibility was presented. The plan to break up p293 Pope's communications by destroying the bridge at Rappahannock Station had been abandoned when the Federal commander had retreated behind the river; but his railroad supply line was most temptingly exposed to a cavalry raid, for the Orange and Alexandria crossed several small streams on wooden spans that daring men might wreck, to the great discomfiture of General Pope. Stuart had proposed a raid to demolish the bridge at Catlett's Station, and Lee now had this under advisement. He delayed a decision probably because he wished to see whether the developing situation imposed other compelling duty on the cavalry the next day.
The news that came to headquarters on the morning of the 22d was not particularly encouraging. There was no word from the vicinity of the North Anna as to the arrival there of D. H. Hill or of McLaws, and no information concerning the whereabouts of the force that Lee was still of opinion Pope had detached from his left and had moved toward Fredericksburg. Nothing could be learned concerning the position of the van of McClellan's army, which must be hurrying at the utmost speed to join Pope. Worse still, the enemy seemed fully apprized of Lee's purpose to turn his right by outflanking him up the Rappahannock. When Stuart that day reached the next good crossing, Freeman's Ford, there were the Federals, strongly placed on the opposite bank, as if defying the Confederates to force a passage. Jackson duly arrived and relieved Stuart, but had to continue his march up the river, searching for an undefended crossing.
The operation was becoming tedious. Wherever Lee moved, there was Pope, apparently confident and fully the master of the situation. Lee decided that something must be done to shake and demoralize the enemy. No means at Lee's disposal so readily promised this as the quick dash that Stuart had asked that he be permitted to make, with torch and carbine, against the Federal rear at Catlett's Station. Orders to prepare for the raid were accordingly issued as soon as the situation at Freeman's Ford was disclosed. They reached Stuart while he was still engaged with the enemy opposite that crossing.14
To cover this ford, as he continued his march up the Rappahannock p294 on the 22d, Jackson left Trimble's brigade behind him. Trimble had not been in position more than two hours when he learned, about noon, that the Federals had done what Lee had been careful to guard against. They had thrown a force across the river and were attacking the divisional wagon train. Trimble, an excellent soldier, beat off the enemy from the wagons, but finding that Federal reinforcements had been brought up, he prudently decided to wait until the head of Longstreet's column arrived. When Hood's Texans and Law's stout brigade came on the ground, Trimble took the combined force and drove the Federals beyond the Rappahannock with some loss.15
Jackson, meantime, marched •seven miles upstream on the afternoon of the 22d until he was opposite Warrenton Sulphur Springs, a modest summer resort. The bridge across the river at this point had been burned, and there were signs that the Federals could not be far distant; but observation failed to show any bluecoats immediately at hand. Here, at last, was an opportunity to effect a passage unopposed, the opportunity the army had been seeking in its long march up the river. Jackson at once moved a regiment through the ford16 to hold the ground on the opposite side, and then he started Ewell's division across. Early's brigade and eight guns, using a dilapidated dam as a roadway, got safely over,17 but their passage was very slow. Before it had been completed, night fell and a heavy storm broke, such a storm as always means in the foothills of the Blue Ridge that streamlets will be torrents, creeks past fording, and every minor watershed an island. The passage of the Rappahannock had to be halted, and Mars had to await the pleasure of Jupiter Pluvius. On the left bank, General Early was soon cut off from the rest of Jackson's command.18 Longstreet, ad interim, had completed his withdrawal from Kelly's Ford and was concentrated around Rappahannock Station, with his left advanced to Freeman's Ford.
The rainy night of the 22d settled, then, in unrelieved blackness on a situation that was still unpromising. Stuart had started off on a raid against Catlett's Station with all except two regiments p295 of the cavalry.19 Jackson, at Warrenton Springs Ford, had eight small regiments and two batteries, under Early, cut off by the raging Rappahannock. Longstreet and Anderson, downstream, were facing superior artillery. All that was known of Pope was that he was conforming to the Confederate left-flank movement and was holding, or else was close, to all the fords the army had tried. During the night it was reported, also, that a force had recrossed to the south side of the river at Rappahannock Bridge.
Manifestly, if the enemy was strong in front of Early on the left bank of the river, the flank movement had to be extended farther up the Rappahannock, but this would depend on developments at Warrenton Spring Ford. On the evening of the 22d, nothing p296 definite could be planned for the next day beyond a strong artillery demonstration at Rappahannock Bridge for the double purpose of driving back the Federals at that point and of creating the impression, if possible, that the Confederates intended crossing there.
At dawn on the 23d of August, as Longstreet's artillery was brought up to demonstrate at Rappahannock Station, a heavy mist overhung the river.20 When this lifted, the batteries opened. A small force of Federals that was found to hold a little redoubt on the south side of the river was promptly forced to seek the north band, and the opposing Federal guns were silenced.21
While Longstreet was making this demonstration, Jackson was trying to rebuild the burned bridge at Warrenton Springs Ford and was instructing Early regarding the defense he was to make in his threatened position. If attacked heavily before the bridge was finished, Early was to retreat up the left bank of the Rappahannock and cross where he could.22 Luckily, the hours passed without an assault on Early, but before the anxious days ended, word was passed back to Lee that the Federals seemed to be massing opposite the ford. This seemed a reasonable probability, because Pope naturally would conclude that the high water lower down the river would keep the Confederates from turning his left and for that reason would hasten to strengthen his right. As a countermove, Lee directed that Longstreet waste no more time and powder at Rappahannock Bridge, but join Jackson forthwith.23
Much more important than these happenings of the 23d was the news from Stuart. After receiving his orders on the 22d, that officer had ridden to Catlett's Station in the blackness of what he described as the darkest night he had ever seen. A friendly Negro had guided him to Pope's headquarters, which happened to be nearby. The commander of the Army of Virginia had been p297 absent at the time, but his uniform coat had been in his tent, and several of his staff had been there, including Lee's nephew, Louis Marshall. A miscellaneous mass of Pope's military papers, including a dispatch book, had been carelessly placed where the Confederates could seize them. They had been gathered up and brought off, together with General Pope's quartermaster, who had subsequently done some indiscreet talking. The railroad bridge had been too wet to burn and too heavy to cut down in the darkness, but failure in that particular was quite forgotten when the nature of the captured correspondence was discovered.24
Lee's first information of all this merely covered what Stuart had accomplished and what the captured quartermaster had said. This loquacious officer affirmed that Cox's army in western Virginia had been ordered to move to Wheeling and then to join Pope. Without waiting for the arrival of Pope's papers, Lee advised the War Department of this news and urged that General Loring's little force, which had been watching Cox, should be sent to cut the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, against which he had already dispatched a small cavalry column from the Appalachian district.25
Late on the 23d or early in the morning of the 24th, Lee received a few of the more important of Pope's papers.26 From these he discovered that Pope had 45,000 men on August 20, exclusive of the reinforcements from Burnside and that he had not detached any of these eastward toward Fredericksburg, as Lee had thought on the 21st. Pope's expectation, he read, was to hold the line of the Rappahannock until McClellan could join him from the vicinity of Fredericksburg. This movement, Lee found, was p298 already under way, and Porter's corps, the advanced unit of McClellan's army, was to march from the vicinity of Fredericksburg to Pope's left flank.27
The reading of the dispatches containing this information showed that the race between Lee and McClellan to reach Pope was getting dangerously close. That knowledge was the turning-point of the campaign. All that followed, until the second battle of Manassas, was based upon what Lee learned at this time of his adversary's plans and numbers. His first reaction was one of wariness. He now knew, as he had already suspected, that Pope was numerically superior to him, besides having a great advantage in artillery.28 As soon as McClellan's divisions joined Pope, the odds against the Army of Northern Virginia would be hopeless, even if the conclusive evidence of McClellan's withdrawal from Richmond made Mr. Davis willing to strip the defenses of the capital and to send Lee all the units still around the city. If, luckily, a part of Pope's army could be caught, it would of course be attacked, but an offensive leading to a battle between the whole of the two armies would entail losses to the Confederates that could not then be replaced, even if a victory were gained. A general engagement was therefore to be avoided.
What, then, could Lee do? Obviously, he could ask Davis to forward the troops on the North Anna and those around Richmond, and thus reduce the disparity of forces. But beyond that, what? Should he retire, should he advance, or should he remain where he was? He had reached a part of Virginia from which the Federals previously had been drawing supplies. If he remained there he could subsist his men on supplies the Federals would otherwise devour, and to that extent he would be saving the rest of the South from a drain on its resources.29 It was desirable, then, to remain north of the Rappahannock and, if possible, to go still farther into the territory occupied by the enemy. But, once again, how? There was only one way, and that was to continue manoeuvring. Every mile that he could lead Pope away p299 from Fredericksburg was another mile to be covered by the units from McClellan before they could form a junction with Pope; every square mile that could be cleared of Federals before it was cleared of provisions meant to the Confederacy so many more bushels of grain and so many pounds of bacon that, by any other military policy, most certainly would feed the enemy.
If the proper course was to avoid a general engagement and to force Pope away from McClellan and out of the fat agricultural districts of northern Virginia, what form of manoeuvre would accomplish the largest result in the shortest time? As Lee looked at his map for the answer, he of course fixed his eye on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. He had hoped to cut that supply line at Rappahannock Bridge but had been thwarted by Pope's swift retreat; he had essayed it with Stuart's cavalry at Catlett's Station but had been balked by the rain that had wet the timbers of the bridge. He would try again at a greater distance, to insure a larger success and a longer retreat. In doing so, he might be able to put part of his army between Pope and Washington. Once before, when he had been anxious to keep McDowell from joining McClellan, he had sent Jackson to the Potomac after the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic, and had found the Federals quick to rush troops to defend their capital. It was worth while to try the same strategy now. If it failed, he would still be close to the mountains and, if need be, could enter the Shenandoah Valley, which led to the upper Potomac. And the Potomac was the lane to the back door of Washington.30
This, then, was the course dictated by a reading of the dispatches that General Pope's clerks had patiently copied into his dispatch book, with little thought that they were preparing an intelligence report for General Lee: A general engagement with a stronger adversary army was to be avoided, because the losses could not be replaced; instead, there must be manoeuvre to lengthen the distance between Pope and McClellan and to feed the Confederates in territory the enemy otherwise would strip. This manoeuvre must be undertaken with one eye to cutting Pope's railroad, and with the other eye on Washington.31
p300 And now to the details: During the early morning of August 24, Early returned to the right bank of the Rappahannock, without loss, over the bridge that Jackson had reconstructed at Warrenton Springs Ford.32 The Federals were beginning to appear in great strength on the opposite side, as if anticipating an attempt by the Confederates to cross there. A. P. Hill's artillery was massed to confront them but held its fire until the Union infantry appeared, about noon. Then it opened and broke up the deployment.33
Lee now wrote Davis of his discoveries from Pope's correspondence and tactfully ordered the remaining units of the Army of Northern Virginia to rejoin him. He added that if the President did not approve of this, he could countermand it.34 Then, while Hill's guns were roaring, Lee sent for Jackson to come to his headquarters, which had now been moved to the quiet little village of Jeffersonton.35
The conference that followed between the two was one of the most important Lee ever held. Briefly he told Jackson that he wished him to take his command, to march up the Rappahannock, to get in rear of Pope's army, and to cut his communications with Washington. There is no evidence that he mentioned Manassas Junction as the point at which the road was to be cut, and it is more than likely that he left the specific objective and the line of advance to Jackson.36 Jackson was much excited at the prospect, p301 and as he and Lee stood together, he drew with his boot on the ground a rough diagram of the manoeuvre. Lee, listening, nodded approval.37
Why did Lee choose Jackson for this movement, after Jackson's failure in front of Richmond? The explanation is simple. Jackson was now a very different person from the exhausted general of the Seven Days. He was conveniently on the left; he knew the country; he shone best on detached service; his men were inured to long, fast marches in just such country as that which they were to traverse. These considerations, or some of them, doubtless account for Lee's choice.
Jackson would carry with him in his three divisions, Taliaferro's, Ewell's, and A. P. Hill's, approximately 23,000 men. That would leave Lee only some 32,000, until the arrival of the reinforcements the President might forward from the North Anna and from the Richmond front. Such a division of force in the face of an enemy of known superior strength, apt to be reinforced at any time, was, of course, a violation of the strategic canon of concentration in the face of the enemy. Lee deliberately violated that canon in this instance. He did not do so because of contempt for Pope, as has been alleged,38 for the truth was that after the initial blunder of placing himself between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock, Pope had made no mistake. On the contrary, his dispositions had been prompt and soldier-like and had offered Lee no opening. The reason for Lee's division of force has already been given. It was that an attack on Pope's line of communications p302 seemed to be the only means of manoeuvring into a retreat an opponent whom he did not feel strong enough to fight. Had he any intention to give battle, it is unlikely that Lee would have adopted such a dangerous course. Even as it was, he did not intend that Longstreet should be separated from Jackson longer than was necessary to mask Jackson's advance.39 Years afterwards, when told that his move had been criticised as over-rash, he said: "Such criticism is obvious, but the disparity . . . between the contending forces rendered the risks unavoidable."40
The orders for the afternoon of August 24 and for the 25th were, then, as follows:
1. A. P. Hill to continue his demonstration at Warrenton Springs Ford until dark on the 24th.
3. Jackson to move at dawn on the 25th, with three divisions in light marching order, carrying only his ordnance train and ambulances, and a herd of cattle for subsistence; to cross the Rappahannock above Waterloo Bridge, in order to cut Pope's communications via the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and thereby to put himself between Pope's army and Washington.
4. Stuart to continue on reconnaissance to guard Waterloo Bridge until relieved, and to make ready to follow and to support Jackson upon receipt of orders.
Jackson's men received the familiar instructions to prepare three days' cooked rations — the usual preliminary to a hard march — and after Hill's artillery fire died away, they gossiped over their camp fires about their probable movements; but on neither side of the now-subdued Rappahannock, flowing calmly within peaceful banks, was there an intimation of the tremendous events that were to follow Jackson's departure with the dawn.
1 In 2 D. H. Hill, 220, the various estimates of Lee's strength are given. Rhodes's, the lowest, is 49,000; Henderson's, the highest, is 55,000.
5 Sometimes called Cunningham's Ford.
12 Taylor's General Lee, 97.
16 Styled Sulphur Springs Ford in some of the reports.
21 O. R., 12, part 2, pp567, 569, 573, 628. The Macbeth battery, which took the position vacated by the Federals, had the curious experience of finding itself on a bare hilltop, exposed to a concentric fire, in a redoubt so small that the pieces could not be shifted. Needless to say, the battery withdrew quickly (O. R., 12, part 2, pp569‑70).
22 O. R., 12, part 2, pp705 ff.; Early, 107 ff. G. H. Gordon in his History of the Campaign of the Army of Virginia (cited hereafter as G. H. Gordon), 66‑67, insisted that Early's position was by no means so critical as Early thought it was.
26 It seems impossible to determine from evidence now available precisely why Lee received Pope's correspondence in instalments, and after so long a delay, unless it was because the papers had been seized by different men in the ranks and had to be collected. He certainly had not received any of it when he wrote Davis on the 23d (O. R., 12, part 3, pp940‑41). He had Pope's letter to McClellan, dated July 4, at hand when he addressed Randolph and Loring later in the day (ibid., 940, 941‑42), but apparently he did not then have the entire file. His letter of Aug. 24, which seems to have been written during the forenoon, shows that he had examined by that time Pope's letter of Aug. 20, 1862, to Halleck, printed in O. R., 12, part 3, p603. As von Borcke stated (op. cit., 1, 133), that he went to Lee's headquarters with the bulk of Pope's papers, it is manifest that Lee did not have all of them until after Jackson had been sent off on his movement to Pope's rear. Lee's letter to Randolph, Aug. 25, indicates that he had so recently received the documents that he had only been able to examine them "in a very cursory manner" (O. R., 12, part 3, p943).
29 Cf. Lee to Davis, Aug. 23, 1862, O. R., 12, part 3, p941: "If we are able to change the theatre of the war from James River to the north of the Rappahannock we shall be able to consume provisions and forage now being used in supporting the enemy. This will be some advantage and prevent so great a draft upon other parts of the country." Cf. ibid., p942.
30 Marshall, 129‑30.
31 The writer is aware, of course, that this explanation of Lee's plan runs counter to the views set forth in all the previous biographies of Lee and in all the accounts of the (p300)campaign prior to that written by General Maurice. But the writer does not believe that the evidence made available in Lee's Dispatches and in Colonel Marshall's An Aide de Camp of Lee keeps the question in any sort of doubt, especially when considered in the light of Lee's statement to President Davis that he wished to subsist his troops in territory the Federals would otherwise occupy. Colonel Marshall (op. cit., 129‑30) gave the view here presented. He wrote prior to the discovery of Lee's dispatch of Aug. 30 to Davis, and probably he had no knowledge of the existence of that paper, but he precisely bore out Lee's statement therein, viz., "My desire has been to avoid a general engagement, being the weaker force, and by manoeuvring to relieve the portion of the country referred to" (Lee's Dispatches, 56).
33 O. R., 12, part 2, pp650, 673‑74. Lee was justified in his conclusion that the Federals moved to Warrenton Springs Ford in the belief that he intended to cross there. Pope, at 6:30 P.M., Aug. 24, advised Halleck that the enemy's movement would be on Warrenton, via Sulphur Springs (O. R., 12, part 2, p58).
35 Jefferson on some of the maps and in some of the reports.
36 Lee said in his report (O. R., 12, part 2, pp553‑54): "In pursuance of the plan of operations determined upon, Jackson was directed on the 25th to cross above Waterloo and move around the enemy's right, so as to strike the Orange and Alexandria railroad in his rear." Jackson said (ibid., 642‑43): "Pursuing the instructions of the commanding general, I left Jeffersonton on the morning of the 25th to throw my command between (p301)Washington City and the army of General Pope and to break up his railroad communications with the Federal capital." The only direct suggestion that Manassas was originally chosen as the objective is the statement of Jackson's engineer, Captain J. K. Boswell (ibid., 650), that Jackson sent for him at 3 P.M., on Aug. 24, and thereupon ordered him to select "the most direct and covered route to Manassas." Jackson, however, did not strike for Manassas, but for Bristoe Station, presumably to destroy the railroad bridge over Broad Run. He stated in his report (ibid., 642), that after he reached Bristoe on the evening of Aug. 26, he learned that the enemy had collected "at Manassas Junction, a station •about 7 miles distant, stores of great value" and he left the inference that it was only when he ascertained this fact that he determined to move to Manassas. It is possible that Jackson mentioned Manassas to Boswell because he knew, from his previous service in northern Virginia, that the only road over the mountains, north of those leading to Warrenton, ran in the direction of Manassas. There is likewise the possibility that his sense of the military value of secrecy led him to conceal his real objective even from his military engineer.
37 Doctor Hunter McGuire in 2 Henderson, 123‑24. This incident led Doctor McGuire to believe that Jackson originated the proposal. No other writer on the campaign has made any such claim for Jackson.
38 Cf. G. H. Gordon, 72.
40 William Allan: The Army of Northern Virginia in 1862, p200.
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