May 17, 1862 (Saturday)
Since his time in the Mexican War, General Irvin McDowell had done little more than sit behind a desk. That is, until the eruption of hostilities between North and South, at which time he was a major on General Winfield Scott’s staff. In need of officers, he was quickly raised three ranks to Brigadier-General, and led the Union forces at Manassas to a glorious and embarrassing defeat. Though his name was tarnished, he was placed in charge of the Army of the Potomac’s First Corps and, in an army that swelled to nearly 150,000, he commanded 41,000, many more than he had during the Battle of Manassas.1
May of 1862 found the abrasive McDowell detached from the Army of the Potomac, much to the chagrin of its commander, General George McClellan, who had expected to have the 41,000 men of the First Corps with him for the campaign on the Virginia Peninsula. McClellan had grossly overestimated the Rebel forces arrayed before him at the gates of Richmond, doubling the enemy’s numbers to 160,000, and so called upon Lincoln time and again to send him reinforcements.
When detached from the Army of the Potomac, General McDowell was charged with protecting Washington. After Confederate General Joe Johnston moved the Army of Northern Virginia to the Peninsula to counter McClellan’s move, McDowell slid towards Fredericksburg, brushing aside only outposts and pickets on his march. Because his orders were for him to remain only on the defensive and not to cross the Rappahannock River, he stopped short of fully investing Fredericksburg, sending only a detachment to guard the town. To block his way farther south, the Rebels had a little over 10,000, but realized they couldn’t stop a crossing if one was attempted.2
On this date, everything changed. After some coaxing from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Lincoln relented and gave McClellan back his First Corps, ordering McDowell to join the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula.
The 41,000 men of the First Corps were not, however, just handed over to McClellan. McDowell was ordered to “move upon Richmond by the general route of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, cooperating with the forces under General McClellan….”
Still concerned about Washington’s safety, Lincoln ordered McDowell to always be “in such position as to cover the capital of the nation against a sudden dash of any large body of the rebel forces.”
While the main objective of McDowell’s Corps (protecting Washington) was essentially unchanged, Lincoln wanted to make sure that McClellan completely understood that McDowell’s Corps was not actually part of the Army of the Potomac.
After explaining the general idea, that McClellan extend his right to sooner meet with McDowell’s left, Lincoln broke the news: “At your earnest call for re-enforcements he is sent forward to co-operate in the reduction of Richmond, but charged, in attempting this, not to uncover the city of Washington; and you will give no order, either before or after your junction, which can put him out of position to cover this city.”
If he wasn’t clear enough, in closing, Lincoln stated that McDowell was to “retain the command of the Department of the Rappahannock and of the forces with which he moves forward.”
While it was true that McClellan wanted McDowell’s First Corps, he had requested them to come by water, rather than by land. Also, he expected to have full command of the 41,000, to do with as he pleased.3
This caused other complications as well. The Naval Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, while a Union defeat, made it clear that Federal troops could be landed along the James River, ten miles below Richmond. Though he probably had no real intension of basing his operations along the James, he was now locked into a York River-based plan, as he had to extend across the York (technically, he had to cross the Pamunky, a main tributary) to meet with McDowell.
There was another stipulation. McDowell was not to move until General Shields’ Division, coming from the Shenandoah Valley, reached him. Shields had been detached from General Banks, leaving the latter with only 9,000 men and Stonewall Jackson to contend with.
In order for all of this to work, Stonewall Jackson had to play nice and remain in the upper (southern) part of the Shenandoah Valley. This, however, was not in Jackson’s plan. Bolstered by General Robert E. Lee’s permission to attack north, down the Valley, to the Potomac River, Jackson had a mind to do just that. Lee wanted him to keep Banks in the Valley, but by threatening Washington, troops en route to the Peninsula, such as Shields, might be recalled. Of course, they had no way of knowing that McDowell’s force was about to receive a change of base, but the idea couldn’t have been too much of a surprise. Perhaps even McDowell would be called to the Shenandoah.
There was a slight hitch in this plan, however. Confederate General Richard Ewell, under the nominal command of Jackson, received a four-day-old order from their overall commander, General Joe Johnston. Jackson and Ewell were to unite and attack General Banks if he was still in the Valley, but if he had crossed the Blue Ridge and was on his way to join General McDowell at Fredericksburg, they were to come east.
The problem was that both things were true. Half of Banks’ Corps had crossed the Blue Ridge, while the other half remained in the Shenandoah Valley.
Ewell immediately forwarded Johnston’s dispatch to Jackson, encamped at Mount Solon, twenty miles southwest of Harrisonburg, the town where Jackson wanted his and Ewell’s forces to meet (Ewell and Jackson were roughly thirty miles apart at this point). Immediately after reading the out-dated message, Jackson sent a telegram to Johnston, explaining why his orders should be countermanded.
“I have been moving down the valley for the purpose of attacking Banks,” wrote Jackson, “but the withdrawal of General Ewell’s command will prevent my purpose being executed.” Jackson spelled out that he had planned to defeat Banks, as per General Lee’s orders, and then fall upon General Fremont’s Union troops near Franklin.
Though it was nearly insubordination to do so, Jackson told Ewell to “suspend the execution of the order for returning to the east until I receive an answer to my telegram.”4
Both Ewell and Jackson knew that Johnston’s orders conflicted with those of General Lee’s. But which should be followed? Johnston was their commander, but Lee was President Davis’ military advisor. Listening to Jackson, Ewell did not move. But he needed more information. Jackson had kept him in the dark for too long. Ewell was second in command and deserved to have at least some inkling of what Jackson’s plans were, especially since it seemed that disobeying a direct order was, at least, on the table.
Without orders to do so, Ewell left his camp at Swift Run Gap and rode the thirty miles to Jackson at Mt. Solon. He rode through the night, arriving at dawn the next morning.5
- Encyclopedia of the American Civil War by Davis S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, WW Norton & Co., 2000. [↩]
- Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Part 1, p262-263. McDowell’s Testimony. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p28-29. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p888; 895-897. [↩]
- Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. [↩]