August 22, 1862 (Friday)
The most important part of Union General John Pope’s line along the Rappahannock was his left flank. If this were turned, it would sever his link up with General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, soon to be filing in from Fredericksburg. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his right flank, held by General Franz Sigel’s Corps, it was just that he didn’t think the Confederates under General Lee would move against it.
But on the 21st they did. In a weird side-long movement, both wings of the Rebel army sidestepped up the Rappahannock River, skirmishing as they went with Union troops defending the fords. Fortunately for Pope, Lee had some faulty information. He had received word that Beverly’s Ford [the closest crossing west of the railroad bridge - not marked on the map] was undefended. This was incredibly untrue as Stonewall Jackson shortly learned.
Pope ignored whatever was happening at Beverly’s Ford and focused upon the rearguard action on his left. This was a misstep as the Confederates on his left (under General James Longstreet) had no intension of putting up a fight or making a crossing. The ones on his right, however (under Stonewall Jackson), did. By nightfall, Pope finally caught on.
When dawn (of this date) broke, Confederate Cavalry under General Jeb Stuart were trotting north in an attempt to find an open ford. After some skirmishing and artillery dueling, Stuart found nothing. But the previous night, he proposed a raid into Pope’s supply line at Warrenton. By 10am, Lee, seeing that there wasn’t much else he could do, gave Stuart permission to make this daring plunge into the enemy’s rear.
Stuart immediately set out, crossing the river farther upstream. He didn’t reach Warrenton until late in the afternoon. The town had been abandoned by the Yankees, but this was merely a place to water his horses. His real objective was Catlett Station, where the railroad crossed Cedar Run. If that bridge could be destroyed, it would leave Pope in a precarious situation, cut off from supplies, and might even induce him to retreat.
Around 7:30pm, Stuart arrived near the railroad bridge. He found it lightly defended by just over 100 Pennsylvania Bucktails and heavily supplied. Through the dusk and dark, he captured all fifteen of the Union pickets. Then, through the rumbling of thunder, he split up his force to fall upon the unsuspecting camp. When all was ready, Stuart gave the call and the men, yelling and whooping, streamed through the Union tents.
The Federals could hardly put up a fight and were quickly dispatched. This left Stuart with all the time in the world to cut the telegraph lines and burn the bridge. But the thunder had turned to rain, which had turned to an absolute deluge. It soaked everything and the bridge could not be touched off, try as they might.
Late into the night, Stuart called off his raid. He had failed to burn the bridge, but had captured hundreds of prisoners and horses, thousands of dollars and, most importantly to Stuart, General John Pope’s papers and dress uniform. This, in Stuart’s mind, was payback for his plumed hat that was captured on the 18th.
A few days later, Stuart would write to Pope, asking for an exchange: “You have my hat and plume. I have your best coat. I have the honor to propose a cartel for the fair exchange of the prisoners….” Stuart would receive no reply.
For the rest of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the day was much less harrowing. As the Confederate troops moved up the Rappahannock, artillery fire could be heard all along the river. Here and there, some Union regiments crossed, attempting to hold up the Rebel movement, but were quickly beaten back.
Late in the day, Stonewall Jackson saw an opportunity. Seeing scant Union troops across the river at Sulphur Springs, Jackson ordered Jubal Early’s brigade to cross and hold the springs. This was all easy enough, but shortly after establishing themselves, the rains came. And with the rains came the flood. The Rappahannock rose by six feet.1
Jackson had wanted to cross more men, but it was now impossible. Pope learned of the crossing and of Stuart’s raid around 9pm and knew he had to act. He could do one of three things. He could retreat towards Fredericksburg, retreat towards Warrenton, or attack. After a quick consultation with General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Pope chose to attack.
He planned to fall upon the right flank and rear of Lee’s Army – a plan not unlike Lee’s own plan against Pope. If both could be pulled off, the armies would essentially swap positions. This would be perfect for Pope, as it would place Lee’s troops between the Union Army of Virginia and reinforcements coming from Washington and Fredericksburg.
At daylight, Pope was set to make his move.2
As Confederate General Braxton Bragg sat waiting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, his second-in-command, General Kirby Smith, had begun his campaign into Kentucky. The thing was, however, that it wasn’t supposed to be an independent campaign. Bragg and Smith had agreed for a quick thrust north from Knoxville to take Cumberland Gap. When the Gap was in Confederate hands, Smith would return to unite with Bragg and they would attack Union General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio in move on Nashville or perhaps Lexington, Kentucky.
Before Smith even left Knoxville, he abandoned that idea. Of course, he made no mention of that to Bragg, who would continue to wait. Defending Cumberland Gap were 10,000 Yankees under General George Morgan. Bragg, however, was a very hands-off commander, allowing Smith to dictate the timing of everything.
Smith’s troops began their campaign on the 14th. By the 18th, they had by-passed Cumberland Gap and captured Barbourville. But this was no place for 6,000 Rebels to wait. The area was violently pro-Union and bushwackers would fire at them any chance they got. This also wasn’t farmland, so foraging was incredibly difficult and yielded little. They had captured fifty Union supply wagons, but that didn’t last long.
Still, Kirby Smith was exactly where he wanted to be. Having no intension of rejoining Bragg, he wanted to push north. There was no way that he could move south, as George Morgan’s Yankees controlled Cumberland Gap. The only thing he could really do was push forward. The wait in Barbourville was a small sacrifice. But the wait was important. Smith’s command was divided, with 3,000 under General Harry Heth coming from Western Virginia.
Bragg finally found out that Smith had no mind to return south for a united command by a letter dated the 20th. He had requested Smith to wait in Barbourville until his army was ready to move out. Deciding that Barbourville was no place to wait, Smith wrote that he was moving on Lexington himself, once his entire force was compiled. Bragg wouldn’t receive the letter until the 24th – a day before Smith planned to step off.
On this day, Harry Heths’ Division arrived at Barbourville, bringing Kirby Smith’s strength to nearly 10,000.3
Meanwhile Union General Buell was trying to figure out just what Bragg was up to. Rumors that he deemed credible had Bragg on the move, heading towards Nashville via McMinnville and Sparta. Buell’s army, as spread out as it was, covered those places, but he had no real idea where Bragg really was.
But to get to Nashville, where Buell insisted Bragg was headed, he would have to pass through McMinnville. That is where Buell wanted to concentrate his army. For several days, Buell would scurry about, moving divisions like chess pieces against an opponent who wasn’t even playing, heeding the calls of false reports echoing through the valleys.4
- Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p30-31. [↩]
- Army of the Heartland by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Louisiana State University, 1967. [↩]
- Days of Glory; The Army of the Cumberland, 1861-1865 by Larry J. Daniel, Louisiana State University, 2004. [↩]