November 3, 1862 (Monday)
George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had finally finished crossing over their namesake river to Virginia. It was slow going, even for McClellan. The whole affair seemed more like wandering than marching. McClellan had decided not to enter the Shenandoah Valley, but to skirt the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He knew that at least Stonewall Jackson was on the other side of the passes, but seemed to have no real huge desire to battle him.
Instead, he decided to guard the passes, hoping to bottle up the Rebels in the Valley. By this date, the Union army held Snicker’s Gap and Ashby’s Gap with considerable force. Other gaps to the south, like Manassas Gap and Thoroughfare Gap, were guarded by smaller squads.
This was all well and good for dealing with Jackson. It seemed however, that McClellan was using his entire command, plus an additional corps, to cover only half of Lee’s army. He pitted, perhaps, 125,000 against 32,000 and still refused to fight.
All McClellan really had to do at this point was to move his army between Jackson and Longstreet. Lee, of course, anticipated such a move and planned to recall Jackson before it happened. But, though McClellan was lightly pushing his troops south and west, literally filling in the gaps of the Blue Ridge, a move so bold was never attempted.
Though the push was very light, it was indeed a push. On this date, Union troops under Fitz John Porter had crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and attempted to make some sort of crossing at Castleman’s Ferry on the Shenandoah River. A Georgia regiment with some artillery put a stop to it almost right away.
Any other skirmishing was slight and on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge. Mostly, it involved Confederate cavalry and scouts being nudged back into and through the passes. Not all Rebels were on the western side of the mountains, however, and for the next few days, it was suspected that they would make the going even slower.
The other half of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had completely given McClellan the slip. Lincoln had implored the General to move at a decent clip to cut Lee off from Richmond. If he had moved with any sort of swiftness, this wouldn’t have been too difficult a task. But McClellan was anything but swift. While he doddled in crossing the Potomac and inched his way through Loudoun County, the other half of Lee’s army, commanded by James Longstreet, had made time for Culpeper, getting in between the Army of the Potomac and the Rebel capital, effectively saving both.
That McClellan get between Lee and Richmond was imperative, not only in a strategic sense, but in order to keep his job. Lincoln was giving his General one more chance. He saw that there was a great opportunity to cut Lee off from his capital. If McClellan went for it, Lincoln would allow him to remain. If he did not, McClellan would have to go.
“I began to fear he was playing false,” said Lincoln to his secretary, John Hay, “that he did not want to hurt the enemy. I saw how he could intercept the enemy on the way to Richmond. I determined to make that the test.”
Longstreet was now at Culpeper, blocking McClellan. Once this news hit Washington, Lincoln would have no other choice by to react.1
- Sources: ((Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1, p982; Part 2, related entries for November 3 and 4; Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame; Lincoln and McClellan by John C. Waugh; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears. [↩]