Lee Takes Command of His First Large-Scale Offensive Campaign

August 15, 1862 (Friday)

General Lee

General Robert E. Lee had more to deal with than Union General John Pope. He arrived in Gordonsville, Virginia, from Richmond, to join Stonewall Jackson, a day after his second-in-command, General James Longstreet. While there was no boiling blood or nasty feud between the two subordinates, Longstreet felt Jackson overrated and was probably jealous of his comrade’s achievements in the Shenandoah Valley.

While history remembers Jackson well, neither Lee nor Longstreet really had any idea who this man was. Longstreet even went as far as saying that Jackson did well only against B-grade Federal commanders (an accusation that’s fairly hard to refute). Up against the best the Union had to offer, Longstreet believed Stonewall’s blue eyes might not shine nearly so bright. Even General Lee, it seems, was not enamored by the great Stonewall. General Jeb Stuart, cavalry commander, later related that at this point in the war, Lee held “rather a low estimate of Jackson’s ability.”

Into this potential divide came Lee, wanting to do nothing but whip Pope’s army before McClellan’s army could gather themselves. This might not be as difficult to do as first suspected. It was probably from Jackson, who knew the situation well, that Lee learned of General Pope’s blunder of a position.

General Longstreet

Pope had situated his entire army of 50,000 between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers. His only clear line of retreat was a single bridge over the Rappahannock. Should something bad happen to that bridge – such as Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, for example – Pope could be crushed, his back to the river.

This was so obvious that Lee assumed Pope would soon come to the same conclusion, if he hadn’t already. Jackson wanted to cross the Rapidan to fall upon Pope immediately. Longstreet, apparently objected as his men had not yet received rations. Jackson offered to share his rations with Longstreet, and even promised more from the Federal commissary stores at Brandy Station. Longstreet didn’t seem to like the idea of his men fighting for their lunch.

Lee then made a decision. Since Longstreet’s rations were not yet up and the cavalry had not yet completely arrived from Richmond, they would wait two days to march and then hit Pope on the day after (the 18th). Jackson was visibly and audibly upset by this.

In a fit of complete frustration, according to his topographer Jedidiah Hotchkiss, Jackson “laid down on the ground, under an adjoining tree, and groaned most audibly.” This brought a scowl of disapproval to Longstreet’s usual glowing demeanor.

Somehow or another, Jackson regained his composure and marched with his three divisions northeast, behind the shield of Clark’s Mountain, encamping for the night five miles northeast of Orange Court House.

Meanwhile, Lee would wait for his army, cavalry and supplies to gather near Gordonsville and hope that General McClellan and the Army of the Potomac would remain on the Virginia Peninsula a little while longer.1

This is a new, but equally huge (2mb), map to replace the other Virginia map I was using. Again, the troop positions and numbers are very approximate.

Lee might not have such a luxury. McClellan had begun moving his infantry the previous day. On this date, the bulk of his force boarded transport ships at Harrison’s Landing for their trip to Aquia Creek, near Fredericksburg – squarely on Lee’s right flank.2

Meanwhile, General John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia was waiting for Lee to do something. This waiting lowered the morale of the men, who believed themselves the victors of the Battle of Cedar Mountain, seeing as Jackson retreated from the field. Without a follow up from Pope, they thought, their victory was hollow and the men were sacrificed for no good reason.

Adding to this deterioration was the logical result of Pope’s own orders allowing his army to subsist off the land rather than a line of supplies. The soldiers took this as leave to pillage and ravage the homes of the local citizenry.

General Patrick, who cared little for Pope's idea of war.

Whether or not that was what Pope intended, the result was disastrous. For some Federal troops, it meant new horses, better food, needless supplies and various other plunderings. For others, who were appalled by such animalistic behavior, it meant the loss of faith in their fellow man. Morale in some units crashed to an unbelievable low. General Marsena Patrick, a brigadier under General Irvin McDowell, wrote that he was “so utterly disgusted that I feel like resigning and letting the whole thing go. There has never been such a state of things before, in any command.”

On the 14th, Pope restated the order, threatening to punish anyone caught stealing from the locals. While this pleased those who were appalled by such behavior, such as General Patrick, it demoralized the plundering regiments, while doing nothing to fill the stomaches of anyone.3

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  2. George B. McClellan by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo, 1999. []
  3. General John Pope by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois, 2000. []
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Lee Takes Command of His First Large-Scale Offensive Campaign by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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