May 26, 1862 (Monday)
Union General John C. Fremont, in the days before the war, had been known as the Great Pathfinder for the several treks he made across the continent. Through the 1840s, he traversed the Oregon Trail, and trodded all over the west. In doing so, he had become a hero and celebrity. On this date, however, he was stuck.
President Lincoln had personally ordered Fremont to move from Franklin to Harrisonburg, a distance of about forty miles, in order to “operate against the enemy in such a way as to relieve” General Nathaniel Banks, recently beaten at Winchester by Confederates under Stonewall Jackson.1 The road, leading into the Shenandoah Valley from the west, was a straight, well-used turnpike. At least it was, until Stonewall Jackson’s men go a hold it. Of the several alternate roads that Fremont could have used, all but one had been fixed by the Rebels. “Bridges and culverts had been destroyed, rocks rolled down, and in one instance trees felled across the way for the distance of nearly a mile,” explained Fremont in his report.
The remaining road went southward in a long detour before it reached Harrisonburg. Since the enemy was to the north, Fremont saw little reason to take a southerly route. He also so no reason to go to Harrisonburg at all. Fremont feared that if he moved south, Jackson could cut of his line of supplies coming from Petersburg, thirty miles north.
Deciding to follow “the spirit rather than the letter of the order,” Fremont ignored Lincoln’s Harrisonburg directive and focused upon what he believed to be the crux of the matter, Lincoln’s words to “operate against the enemy in such a way as to relieve Banks.”
Having already decided to ignore an order, he was thrilled when, on the 25th, he received a more recent order from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, telling him to direct his “attention to falling upon the enemy wherever I [Fremont] could find him with all speed.” What luck! Stanton made no mention at all of Harrisonburg.
He must have already been well on his way when Stanton’s telegram reached him, as his force of 13,000 arrived at Petersburg on the afternoon of this date. There, they found enough rations to hold them over for three days, and wagons to carry addition sustenance. All tents and personal baggage were cast aside so to lighten the load and quicken the march towards Winchester and Stonewall Jackson.2
Meanwhile, back in Washington, President Lincoln had no reason to believe that Fremont was anywhere but en route to Harrisonburg. Trusting in the Pathfinder to find a path, he turned to General Irvin McDowell, ordered to send 20,000 troops into the Shenandoah Valley to declaw the Rebels.
After deciding that McDowell was not personally needed for the expedition, Lincoln suggested that he at least move north from his Fredericksburg headquarters to Manassas Junction, effectively taking command of the expedition. Federal forces in the area included General Edward Ord’s Division in and around Alexandria and Manassas. Another division, under General James Shields was gathering itself together at Catlett’s Station, fifteen miles south of Manassas. All in all, McDowell had put into motion 21,000 troops, and didn’t feel safe dispatching any more away from Fredericksburg.
The previous week, there had been 12,000 or so Confederates in his front, but they had fallen back. Many in Washington, even Lincoln and Stanton, believed that they could possibly be headed into the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce Jackson. McDowell, who was present and had interviewed Rebel prisoners, knew better. They had joined the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond in their face off against General George McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula, which is exactly where McDowell wanted to be.3
The whereabouts of these wayward Rebels was of great concern in Washington, which is why McDowell was requested to take command at Manassas. For two days, General John Geary had been sounding alarm after alarm, shouting on high that Stonewall Jackson was storming through the passes over the Blue Ridge Mountains with man thousands of men. Geary commanded only one regiment and fearfully clung to White Plains along the rail line leading into the Shenandoah Valley.
His information, gleaned from escaped slaves and what had to be the worst scouts in the entire world, placed Jackson’s force at Ashby’s Gap, Manassas Gap, Warrenton, Piedmont and a plethora of other places outside of the Shenandoah Valley, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On this day, Geary was certain that Jackson was at Middleburg, not ten miles north of White Plains, with 20,000 troops. Twenty minutes later, he reported a heavy force south of him, as well and was determined to join with General Ord at Manassas.4
General Shields, who was in Washington while his troops were filing into Catlett’s Station, didn’t buy it. “There is no danger of Manassas now,” Shields assured Stanton, “even if there are 18,000, as Geary says; but my opinion is that the force is small, and that this is a panic.” However, if Jackson were to show his face, “we will give him a bloody reception. It will be worse than Winchester [meaning Kernstown], and will avenge Banks.”5
As the Federal troops gathered in Manassas and wandered north to Petersburg, Jackson’s Rebels stayed in Winchester, having been granted a day of rest and thanksgiving. There they would stay for another twenty-four hours.
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p219; Part 1, p643. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p12-13; 643. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p243. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p233, 234, 240, 241, 242. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p243. [↩]