March 3, 1862 (Monday)
Telegraph Road ran from St. Louis, Missouri to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Like its name implied, telegraph wires were strung along its length. Before that, it was part of the Ozark Trail and the Trail of Tears. It connected St. Louis with the west via the Butterfield Overland Mail Route. It was along this route that two armies were poised.
Union General Samuel Curtis had spread out his 10,500-strong Union Army of the Southwest along the Telegraph Road and another road to the west. Roughly twenty miles to the south, the Confederate Army of the West, commanded by General Earl Van Dorn, was positioned along Telegraph Road, nuzzled in the Boston Mountains, south of Fayetteville.
Van Dorn’s army of 16,000 was divided into two wings, one under General Ben McCulloch, the other under General Sterling Price. Until this date, they were acting as separate commands, as McCulloch and Price couldn’t get along. General Van Dorn, who arrived on the scene the previous evening, quickly took in the situation, meeting with McCulloch and Price on this date at nearby Strickler’s Station on Telegraph Road.
When he learned how spread out Curtis’ Federals were, he saw an opportunity. Separating the two wings of the Union Army was the town of Bentonville. There, he would march his army and throw it wholly upon each strung out wing, destroying the entire Army of the Southwest in detail.
The plan was simple, but elegant. He had caught the Yankees in a classic military mistake; they had divided their force in the face of an enemy. He resolved to march the next morning to teach General Curtis a valuable lesson.
Though the plan seemed fool-proof, there were some issues. To begin with, Van Dorn had been ill with a severe fever and could only travel by ambulance. Even though his mind was sharp, he failed to take into account certain details. Though he, no doubt, knew of the unfriendly past between Generals McCulloch and Price, he seemed not to understand that their respective soldiers shared their leaders’ dispositions. He wanted the army to travel dangerously light, not taking into account the harshness of late winter on the Ozark Plateau.
Light marching meant that the troops carried only their rifles, forty rounds of ammunition, three days’ rations and one blanket. Tents and camp equipment, extra clothes, even pans for cooking had to be left behind. Van Dorn knew that his men would be campaigning longer than three days, so allowed each Division to carry an extra day’s ration in a supply wagon. For the remainder of the days, they would have to subsist off of whatever was left behind by the retreating Yankees. The Confederate Army of the West had to be victorious or risk starvation.
There was also another hitch in Van Dorn’s plan. It required General Curtis’ Army of the Southwest to remain divided. As fortune would have it, Van Dorn was not very fortunate. Also on this date, Curtis decided that it was too difficult to manage such a divided force. He ordered his scattered brigades to abandon their forward positions and fall back to the bluffs overlooking Little Sugar Creek, a fine defensive position.1
News of the brash Union movement across the Potomac at Harpers Ferry had been filtering into Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters in Winchester. Information was skinny, but he had gathered that there were 4,500 Union infantry at Martinsburg, a mere twenty miles north, along the Valley Turnpike. He had also heard of a large cavalry force at Williamsport, fifteen miles farther.
Knowing that he couldn’t know everything, Jackson mused on his possible choices to his commander, General Joe Johnston, with the Confederate Army of the Potomac, at Centreville, near the Manassas battlefield. It being the tail end of winter, Jackson was concerned about the conditions of the roads. If pressed, he could make it to New Market and his depot at Mt. Jackson, fifty miles south of Winchester. From there, he would have his choice upon how to attack the invading Union army.
From there, he could also reinforce Johnston’s Army at Centreville, leaving the Shenandoah Valley in the hands of the Union. Jackson was learning just how difficult it would be for his small force of 5,000 to keep whatever force the Yankees were throwing at him inside the valley, on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It seemed that no matter where he moved, he could easily be bypassed, enabling the Federals to come in on Johnston’s left flank or even his rear.2
General Joe Johnston already had this in mind, along with nearly every other way the Federals could attack him. His army was in Centreville, not even twenty miles away from the Union Army of the Potomac, three times his number. A couple of weeks had passed since he and President Davis met about what to do. This was before the Union surge into Harpers Ferry, but still there was a sense of urgency. Davis realized that the Centreville position was precarious and agreed that, in order to defend Richmond, Johnston’s army would have to move closer to the city.
By the end of the meeting, Johnston and Davis believed they were in agreement about what to do next. Johnston thought that Davis gave him permission to abandon Centreville as soon as practicable. Meanwhile, Davis thought that Johnston had agreed to hold on as long as possible.3
On this date, Johnston wrote what must have been a somewhat surprising letter to Davis, telling him that his “orders for moving cannot be executed now on account of the condition of the roads and streams.” Nevertheless, when Davis received it, he checked to see if any trains could be spared for such a move.4
Both Jackson and Johnston were making plans to pull back. Johnston believed that the spring would bring a Union offensive against him and he was trying his best to prepare for the worst. In the Shenandoah Valley, the offensive had already begun. What Jackson believed to be 4,500 and some cavalry, was actually over 38,000 troops under Union General Nathaniel Banks, at Harpers Ferry, Charlestown and Martinsburg. Jackson’s force consisted of no more than 5,000 present and able for duty. These eight-to-one odds did not bode well for the Virginian.5