Pope and Lee Gather their Forces by the Rapidan; A Request to Arm Black Laborers

August 16, 1862 (Saturday)

General Pope

Union General John Pope could find no good ground. He had advanced his Army of Virginia, 50,000-strong, south from Cedar Mountain to the shores of the Rapidan River. The problem was, all of the hills were on the south side and Pope was on the north side, which provided only low, wet ground. He couldn’t even set up a camp here. Still, he believed all was well enough.

Jackson, thought Pope, was back at his old camps near Gordonsville. He also believed General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, to be back in Richmond with his army merely preparing to come north to reinforce Jackson. The truth was much, much different. Jackson’s Division was nearly on the Rapidan, twenty miles north of Gordonsville. Only a hill or two separated him from the river. General Lee wasn’t at Richmond, he was at Gordonsville with General James Longstreet’s Division.

Though Pope had no way of knowing this, he sensed that something wasn’t right. He realized that his left flank was the most vulnerable. If it were turned, it would cut off communication with Fredericksburg and Aquia Creek – where General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac were soon to arrive. He believed that the Rebel reinforcements soon on their way from Richmond could easily fall upon his left flank from Louisa Court House [called “Greenwood” on the map].

It was through this mistaken knowledge that Pope wound up doing the right thing. He wired General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, suggesting that McClellan’s troops, once arrived take up positions on the shores of the Rappahannock River.

Today's map. Still quite large and still quite approximate.

Halleck’s reply came quickly. He knew that McClellan’s troops had left their camps at Harrison’s Landing on the Virginia Peninsula, but didn’t believe they would be hasty to arrive. So, if the north bank of the Rappahannock was so great and the bank of the Rapidan was so poor, why waste time messing with the latter?

“I think it would be very unsafe for your army to cross the Rapidan,” wrote Halleck to Pope. “It would be far better if you were in the rear [north bank] of the Rappahannock.” This wasn’t an order, merely a suggestion. If Pope were pushed back, he was to fall back to the other side of the Rappahannock.1

This was exactly what Lee did not want. The plan, which had to be delayed for a few days, was to destroy Pope’s bridge across the Rappahannock with Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry, and then hit the Federals, unable to retreat, with a crushing blow. General Longstreet had protested against an immediate assault upon Pope, as his supply wagons were not yet up and his men famished. Lee took advantage of this extra time by ordering more reinforcements to join him.

Come along, General Anderson, come along.

Already en route was a division under General Richard Anderson. More would be available if only the Federal Army of the Potomac would leave the Virginia Peninsula, ensuring Richmond’s safety.

Things seemed to be moving in that direction. A report came into Lee’s headquarters that Confederate scouts had spied a huge Federal fleet with 108 transport ships leaving Harrison’s Landing. Another scout reported that a pontoon bridge had been thrown up across the Chickahominy River.2 This could only mean that McClellan was leaving the Peninsula. It could also only mean that he was coming to reinforce General Pope.

Time was now something Lee did not have on his side. While he could more easily pull reinforcements from the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg, he must defeat Pope quickly, before McClellan’s Army could enter the scene. Jackson’s Division had moved closer to the Rapidan, still shielded by Clark’s Mountain, while Longstreet’s men formed on Jackson’s right, on the road to Raccoon Ford. However, Lee still needed a couple of days to bring up more supplies, more troops and send General Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry out on a bit of reconnaissance.3

General Pope had a similar idea and sent his own cavalry across the Rapidan to see what the Rebels were up to.


General Saxton Asks Washington to Arm Black Troops

General Rufus Saxton had been sent by Washington to deal with the growing number of escaped slaves rushing into Union lines along the South Carolina coast. Though President Lincoln had forbade the arming of any from the African race, General David Hunter, commander of the department, had taken it upon himself to begin raising a couple regiments of black troops.

General Saxton

Before the order to disband the regiments had reaching him, General Saxton set off on a tour of Hunter’s department with Co. A of the 1st South Carolina (African Descent). These men were well-drilled and wanted to fight.

The tour of the coast took ten days. Right at the beginning, he had to leave Co. A at St. Simons as the local black population was being fired upon by the local white population.

It wasn’t until Saxton returned to Port Royal that he learned of Lincoln’s order disbanding all black regiments. Seeing the necessity in arming the former slaves, Saxton quickly put pen to paper, writing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.4

He “respectfully but urgently” requested the authority to raise “5,000 able-bodied men from among the contrabands in this department.” These recruits were to be paid $8 to $10 per month and given full rations. The laborers were also “to be uniformed, armed, and officered by men detailed from the Army.”

So then, these laborers were not meant to merely labor. Saxton went on to explain his reasoning. The slaves and former slaves (both of which Saxton referred to as “people” – a sad rarity 150 years ago) “suffer greatly from fear of attack by their rebel masters, in the event of which they expect no mercy at their hands.” Looking towards a broader picture, he reasoned that “the rebellion would be very greatly weakened by the escape of thousands of slaves with their families from active rebel masters if they had such additional security against recapture as these men, judiciously posted, would afford them.”

Saxton’s reason for wanting to arm the former slaves, it seems, was so that they could help the current slaves escape from bondage. With an armed black population, they could return to their former homes and reap the benefits of farming, rather than having the crops go to their masters, the Rebels.

“Thus organized, disciplined, and constantly employed,” wrote Saxton in conclusion, “the men would escape demoralization among themselves, and working with and for the soldiers whenever their health or efficiency demanded it, a happy reciprocal influence upon the soldiers and these earnest and ready helpers would almost necessarily be the result.”

Robert Smalls

Though he may have been painting too rosy a picture between the white soldiers and their armed, black “helpers,” Saxton was indeed earnest. It would take some time for a letter to travel from Port Royal, South Carolina to Washington, DC, but Secretary Stanton’s reply would change everything.5

The letter would be carried to Washington by a minister and Robert Smalls, the slave that captured a Confederate boat from Charleston Harbor, ran it to the Union fleet, obtaining the freedom of himself, his family and all aboard. He had become a sort of national hero and was given a place in the United States Navy, a branch of the service that had long been completely fine with having people of African descent within their ranks.6

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p575-576. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p680. []
  3. Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. []
  4. Black Troops, White Commanders and Freedmen During the Civil War by Howard Westwood, Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p374-376. []
  6. Black Troops, White Commanders and Freedmen During the Civil War by Howard Westwood, Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. []
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Pope and Lee Gather their Forces by the Rapidan; A Request to Arm Black Laborers by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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