Pope Makes Good His Escape, but For How Long?

August 20, 1862 (Tuesday)

General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was on the move, stepping off closer to late evening’s dusk than this day’s dawn. Union General John Pope’s Army had retired northward, away from the Confederates, just as Lee was about to launch an attack that stood to crush the Federals.

General Porter: "SOON!"

Lee’s original idea was to hit Pope’s left flank, severing his link up with General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, soon to be trickling in from the Virginia Peninsula via Fredericksburg. As time went on and more of McClellan’s army arrived, Lee realized that he would be placing his forces between two very strong Federal armies. This is when he began looking towards Pope’s right flank, anchored well on the north bank of the Rappahannock River.1

Pope’s entire army hugged those banks and Lee’s cavalry sparred with them throughout the day. Part of Lee’s first plan, decided before the Federals pulled back, was to cut off Pope’s line of retreat with his cavalry. Lee’s delay and Pope’s hasty beating of feet squashed all hope of such a plan. All that Lee could do now was nip at Yankee heels as the few Union soldiers who remained south of the Rappahannock splashed across to relative safety.

By mid-afternoon, the nipping turned to biting as Pope threw out a battery and a whole brigade of infantry to block the Rebel cavalry’s advance upon the railroad bridge spanning the river. With the ante upped, the Confederates begged off.

Though Lee tried to march swiftly, entertaining some vague dream of catching Pope, the heat of the day ground the advance to a halt. By nightfall, what was feared became realized. The Union Army of Virginia had escaped across the Rappahannock.2

For General Pope, Lee’s failure hardly seemed like a Union victory. “The line of the Rappahannock offers no advantage of defense,” wrote Pope to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck that evening, “but you may rely upon our making a very hard fight in case the enemy advances on us.” Pope believed that Lee was still in his camps, that the only Confederates in pursuit were parties of reconnaissance.

Though it was in Pope’s opinion a bad spot to give battle, he received word from Halleck that the first trickle of Army of the Potomac troops would soon be with him. On this day, General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps arrived at Aquia Creek, a landing near Fredericksburg. “It will be pushed up the Rappahannock as rapidly as possible,” assured Halleck. This would add roughly 11,000 to Pope’s army of 50,000.3

It would take two days for them to arrive.


The Dakota Sioux Attack Fort Ridgely

As in the previous days, the blood continued to flow along the banks of the Minnesota. Chief Little Crow, leader of the Dakota Sioux tribe, wanted to fight what he saw as the true enemy of his people: the United States Army. Many under him, however, turned their rage and revenge upon the white settlers.

Fort Ridgely, the US Army fort closest to Dakota land, was the target Little Crow wanted to strike. He was not strong enough to do so the previous day, but now, with 400 warriors at his side and more coming, he saw an opportunity.

His numbers would have been even higher if many of his tribe hadn’t gone off to fight the easy prey of settlers and farmers. Some joined their brothers in a siege of the village of New Ulm, which was still holding out.

Just after noon, Chief Little Crow and three others rode close to the fort, stopping before they fell under the range of its guns. The men in the fort saw that one of the natives was waving to them, as if signaling for a conference. Perhaps it was a flag of truce, they thought.

Lt. Timothy Sheehan

Through this sly diversion, Little Crow’s entire force was able to select perfect locations for an assault. They filed into cuts and ravines, staying hidden from view of the fort. Before long, they had it entirely surrounded with the 175 white men inside being none the wiser.

With everyone in their assigned places, Little Crow gave the signal. Three volleys were fired and the entire company of natives attacked the fort, screaming and crying as they came. Bullets and arrows filled the air, and they threw themselves against the works.

Almost at once, the Dakota breeched the northeast corner of the fort. With this foothold, they took control of some of the buildings and caused the Union livestock to stampede. The fort’s commander, Lt. Timothy Sheehan, ordered his men to fire upon the natives bursting into the fort. His artillery, two howitzers, took aim at the captured buildings and fired. This caused the Dakota to break off the attack and fall back to their original positions.

After this, only small bands of natives attacked the fort. They were always defeated by Ridgely’s artillery. Though not attacking, Little Crow’s men held the post under a constant fire for five hours. The soldiers would not give up. Even the flaming arrows failed to set any major fires.

Fort Ridgely

By dusk, Little Crow saw that it was fruitless. Any further attacks would only kill more of his men. He called a retreat and most of the Dakota made their ways back to their villages. Some, however, decided not to return home, but to add their weight to the numbers attacking settlers and farmers.

That night, through another pounding thunderstorm, Little Crow’s numbers were doubled by the arrival of 400 warriors of neighboring tribes. He was not yet through with Fort Ridgely.4

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  2. Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p602-603. []
  4. Again, I wish that I had more books to use for this, but unfortunately, I only have The Blue, the Gray, & the Red; Indian Campaigns of the Civil War by Thom Hatch, Stackpole Books, 2003. The book is well-researched, with lots of footnotes from primary sources, and seems fair enough. []
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Pope Makes Good His Escape, but For How Long? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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