August 10, 1862 (Sunday)
It might have been difficult for some to fathom that Union General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, believed himself the instigator of a plot which, if accomplished, would force the hand of Washington to bow to his desires. It was not, however, difficult for his wife to believe such things.
“If I succeed in my coup,” wrote the General to his beloved, “everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet.” The “coup” was simple. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck had ordered the Army of the Potomac off the Virginia Peninsula, twenty-five miles east of Richmond, where it has sat idle for well over a month following the series of victories it had suffered against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Though he had barely budged, McClellan wanted to not budge for a little bit longer.
After dispatching General Joe Hooker’s Division to retake Malvern Hill, he was forced to recall the troops. Being unable to support Hooker, McClellan hoped to draw General Lee out, coaxing him to attack the Union army at their camp on Harrison’s Landing. Lee had no dreams of doing such a ridiculous thing.
The phrasing, “my enemies will be at my feet,” was not so easily decipherable. Taken out of context, McClellan could have meant the Rebels, who were, no doubt, his enemies. But who he viewed as his true enemies were the politicians in Washington, as well as Generals Halleck and John Pope, who had denied him reinforcements and ordered him to abort his campaign, an act he referred to as a “fatal error.” McClellan continued, calling these officers “enemies of the country & of the human race.”
The more McClellan “heard of their wickedness, the more am I surprised that such a wretched set are permitted to live much less to occupy the positions they do.”
Though McClellan was engulfed in the fires of sarcasm, he was not entirely mistaken. “I have a strong idea that Pope will be thrashed during the coming week,” he continued, “& very badly whipped he will be & ought to be – such a villain as he is ought to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him.”
It was true that General Pope was beaten at Cedar Mountain, just the day before, by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. It wasn’t a bad whipping – Pope even claimed a victory – but McClellan wished defeat not only upon Pope and the Union Army of Virginia, but upon the very cause for which he himself was fighting.
It all came down to General McClellan. It was he who should save the country, who should restore the Union. Halleck’s absurd orders to vacate the Peninsula be damned! He even planned to set out the very next day for Richmond. “I will try to catch or thrash Longstreet,” he boasted to his wife, “& then if the chance offers follow in to Richmond while they [the Confederate forces] are lamming away at Pope.”
McClellan admitted that it was desperate. If he failed, “why well & good. I will fall back.” But if he won, “I shall have saved my country & will then gratefully retire to private life.”1
The Armies Rest at Cedar Mountain
Neither side could convincingly claim The Battle of Cedar Mountain a victory. Though General John Pope’s troops had stopped the northern advance of Stonewall Jackson, the Rebel General had thoroughly mauled one of Pope’s corps. Both armies were still very much alive and still staring at each other from across the field of battle.
Seeing that neither force had plans to leave, Pope assumed that Jackson meant to fight. However, he misjudged Jackson’s numbers. Following the battle, the Rebels were left with roughly 21,000, while Pope had roughly 34,000 in and around the Culpeper, with another 10,000 due to arrive from Fredericksburg in a day or so. Still, Pope believed he was severely outnumbered and dared not to attack.2
For Jackson, the battle was another narrowly-avoided disaster. As before, Jackson was over hasty, feeding troops into the fray before his entire army was within supporting distance. For that, he paid dearly and was only saved by the timely arrival of General A.P. Hill (who was, in Jackson’s defense, running late). Still, Jackson’s army had stopped a Union attack, and for that, Stonewall saw himself as the victor.3
All day, each side awaited the assault of the other. The Rebels, having control over the battlefield, spent the day burying the dead and collecting muskets, while the agonizing sheiks of the dying filled the fetid air. Cavalry General Jeb Stuart arrived with his force and reconnoitered the Union left flank, but there was no real fighting.4
When we last left Confederate Generals Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith, they were planning an invasion of Middle Tennessee, or perhaps Kentucky. Bragg and Smith, with a combined force of 55,000, were in Chattanooga and Knoxville, in Eastern Tennessee. The Union Army of the Ohio under General Don Carlos Buell was to the west, while a strong Federal division under General George Morgan sat to the north at Cumberland Gap.
The basic plan was for Smith to secure Cumberland Gap and then return to Chattanooga, joining Bragg in the defeat of General Buell’s Union Army. Smith had wanted to enter Kentucky for months now. But hitting Morgan’s Union force at Cumberland Gap would only result in a time-wasting siege. He had made this argument to Bragg the previous day, explaining that instead he by-pass Cumberland Gap, thus holding Morgan’s Yankees as bay, while he took Lexington.
Submitted as enticement was a summary of John Hunt Morgan’s report stating that 30,000 or more secessionists in Kentucky were just waiting for the golden opportunity to join up. Bragg, who had concocted the plan that Smith was proposing be thrown out the window, found the summary report “interesting and instructive.” As it turned out, Bragg was rethinking his campaign towards Nashville and Middle Tennessee. With Smith’s urging, he was now turning his gaze towards Kentucky.
Bragg wasn’t quite ready to let Smith beat cheeks across the border. First, he wanted to deal with Buell, who would play upon Smith’s left flank. To complete the task, and to keep reinforcements from Buell, Bragg wanted to call upon Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price, each commanding Confederate forces in Mississippi. “Van Dorn and Price will advance simultaneously with us from Mississippi on West Tennessee,” he assured Smith, “and I trust that we will all meet in Ohio.”5
- Letter from George McClellan to his wife, August 10, 1862, as printed in The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo Press, 1989. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p132. [↩]
- Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. [↩]
- Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss, Southern Methodist University, 1973. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2, p748-749. [↩]